King County Council fears public health cuts as Legislature meets

November 22, 2011

By Warren Kagarise

King County leaders managed to preserve dollars for public health and other human services in the $5.2 billion budget for 2012.

Now, as state legislators prepare to gather for a special session Nov. 28, King County Council members said cuts from Olympia could force the county to cut services. Lawmakers need to slash spending to close a $2 billion budget gap.

“When they make those decisions, it rolls downhill to us,” Councilwoman Kathy Lambert, a budget team member and the Issaquah representative, said a day after the council adopted the 2012 budget.

Councilwoman Julia Patterson, a South King County representative and the budget team leader, said a difficult economy could magnify service cuts.

“During this recession, when so many people are in danger of losing their housing and so many people are having a tough time just feeding themselves and making ends meet, that those cuts can tip people over the edge,” she said.

The potential for cuts to Public Health – Seattle & King County or reductions at Western State Hospital — the state mental health facility in Steilacoom — concern County Council members.

“We’ve had to reduce so much in the public health area because it’s not a mandated service, and yet without that service, you end up getting people that are mentally ill not taken care of or you have people going to restaurants that may or may not be healthy, and people get sick,” Lambert said. “Public health dollars are really important prevention dollars.”

Cutbacks at Western State Hospital could result in more mentally ill people at the King County Jail — already the No. 2 mental health institution in the state.

“That is not fair to the citizens of this county. That is not fair to the people in the jail who are mentally ill,” Lambert said. “That is a state responsibility, to take those people and put them in an appropriate setting where they can get help, where they are not getting prison records and going to court.”

Patterson said public health cuts could impact drug and alcohol treatment, maternal support for expecting mothers and homelessness-prevention programs.

“When the mentally ill aren’t cared for and they don’t have adequate medication, they oftentimes end up in our jail,” Patterson said. “When the addicted don’t have the opportunity to get clean and go through treatment, when they want treatment but there’s none available, then it just perpetuates a very expensive problem.”

County Council members plan to deploy in Olympia to lobby legislators to shield programs from the budget ax.

“We have to help them help us to solve the problems as best as we can given the financial realities that have been created by this recession,” Patterson said.

The majority of council members served in the Legislature before joining the County Council — Lambert and Patterson, plus councilmen Joe McDermott, Larry Phillips and Pete von Reichbauer.

“The King County Council has relationships all across the entire political spectrum in Olympia, in the Senate and in the House,” Patterson said.

The relationships council members fostered in Olympia could pay dividends for local services.

“Many times when levels of government get into trouble, what they do is they end up blaming each other, so it could be very easy to sit here and say, ‘Don’t you do that to us, state government,’” Patterson said. “But that doesn’t work, because they don’t have a choice. It’s a simple addition and subtraction problem.”

Warren Kagarise: 392-6434, ext. 234, or wkagarise@isspress.com. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.

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