It’s budget season again, and on Sept. 24, King County Executive Dow Constantine unveiled his $11.6 billion budget proposal for the next two years — a plan that calls for minor increased investments in juvenile justice reform, law enforcement, homelessness, and behavioral health.
Like previous budget proposals from Executive Constantine, the spending plan was framed by the chronic fiscal issues facing King County. Since 2001, state law has restricted growth in property tax rates levied by local governments to 1 percent annually, regardless of increases in property values, population growth, and the resulting demand for services.
Counties, unlike cities and the state, are prevented from levying business or utility taxes. In a video statement released by the Executive’s office, Constantine slammed the existing tax system as “outdated and ossified,” and called on the state Legislature to pass a capital gains tax among other reforms to the tax system.
King County, which gets 60 percent of its general fund revenue from local property taxes, has year-over-year struggled to make ends meet and has faced “chronic imbalances between revenue and expenditure growth for 20 years,” according to Constantine’s budget summary. Another 24 percent of general fund revenue comes from sales taxes, with the remainder stemming from fines, charges for services, and other taxes. Sales tax revenues have been declining due to the increase in online retail, destabilizing the county’s other primary tax revenue stream.
Going into the 2019-2020 budgeting process, the county’s general fund faced a $29 million gap between projected tax revenues and the cost of continuing existing programs, such as funding Metro bus service and the courts.
But Constantine’s budget has closed the deficit due to efficiencies in county department spending and minor cuts, as well as healthier-than-expected revenue streams from property and sales taxes, interest earnings, and charges for county services. According to Aaron Rubardt, a senior budget analyst for Constantine, small cuts were made to staffing levels in the county Department of Public Defense and regional Public Health clinics. The budget also manages to maintain a “rainy day fund” of $25 million.
In contrast, Constantine’s 2017-2018 budget proposal called for $22 million in cuts — primarily to the offices of county prosecutor and sheriff. “Fortunately, there weren’t as many service reductions required [compared to past years],” Rubardt told Seattle Weekly.
This boost in revenue has allowed the Executive and his staff to balance the budget and add $23 million in additional services, including $842,000 to revive the Sheriff’s Office gang unit, $700,000 to fund two additional positions at the Office of Law Enforcement Oversight (the sheriff’s official watchdog), $1.1 million split between the Prosecutor’s Office and the Department of Public Defense to vacate prior convictions for marijuana possession, and $2.7 million to reduce juvenile detention.
King County Councilmember Dave Upthegrove, chair of the council’s Budget and Fiscal Management Committee — which will be analyzing Constantine’s proposal starting Oct. 26 — told Seattle Weekly that the budget is a “great place to start” because it has no substantial cuts or notable small-scale investments despite the county’s fiscal limitations.
“It’s sort of status quo in the sense of most of these investments are not big new programs. It appears to be some very targeted investments around some, quite frankly, progressive priorities,” he said. “We won’t have to make deep cuts, but we also won’t have new money for any big policy initiatives.”
The $2.7 million for juvenile justice reform stems from Constantine’s efforts to achieve his stated goal of eliminating youth incarceration entirely, and includes $1 million for “community organizations supporting youth diverted from secure detention” to provide mentoring, case management, and educational services. County officials have cited the Choose 180 program as the type of organization that would receive these funds. Another $250,000 is earmarked to support the families of detained youth.
To address homelessness and behavioral health issues, Constantine has included funding for a modular housing pilot project for 72 persons with 24/7 onsite case management services — prefabricated housing units for this project have already been ordered — as well as increased access to medication-assisted treatment for opioid addiction at the county jail in downtown Seattle. The budget also includes $2.5 million for home-based mental health care, and $3.1 million to expand the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program, an innovative program that sends low-level drug offenders to social workers instead of jail.
The King County Sheriff’s Office would also walk away with significant boosts in funding and other support under Constantine’s plan. In addition to potentially getting a majority of the county’s general fund (21.6 percent) and the additional $850,000 to restart the agency’s Gang Unit, the county’s Department of Human Resources would also get $755,000 to assist the Sheriff’s Office in recruiting.
Additionally, Constantine wants to boost funding for Metro transit. In his 2019-2020 proposal, Constantine calls for an additional $260 million for the transit agency’s current operating budget of $1.6 billion. This, along with a boosted capital budget for the agency, would go toward meeting the agency’s goal of adding 177,000 hours of service over the next two years and boosting Metro’s capital program for infrastructure repairs. During the 2008 recession, this portion of the agency’s budget was cut significantly. The total operating and capital budget for Metro in Constantine’s proposal is $2.5 billion.
For unincorporated King County, Constantine wants to spend $316 million on the county’s new Department of Local Services — 87 percent of which would go toward maintaining roads, bridges, and traffic signals in unincorporated areas. However, even that is insufficient to adequately maintain all of the county’s road-related infrastructure: according to Constantine’s budget summary, “several studies have confirmed” that the department’s Road Services Division has only one-third of the revenue it needs to maintain the system.
And roads aren’t the only issue. Broadly, the county still faces long-term fiscal troubles despite Constantine’s balanced budget for the next biennium. According to his proposal, in 2021, several key program areas are expected to have “significant financial troubles.” These include an overarching $24 million budget deficit in the county general fund, a Public Health Fund that will be unable to continue offering existing services without additional revenue, and the E-911 program. The E-911 system, which answers emergency calls for police, fire, and medical services, is funded by a telephone line tax—a revenue source that is not keeping pace with demand. New revenue will be needed “within four years or the quality of service will be reduced,” Constantine’s budget summary reads.
The 2019-2020 budget will get its first hearing at 9:30 a.m. Oct. 3 in the King County Council’s Budget and Fiscal Management Committee.