Tackling King County budget realities through government reform/ Our Turn

By Metropolitan King County Councilmembers Julia Patterson, Kathy Lambert, Jane Hague and Joe McDermott

The King County Council has worked very hard over the last four years to keep the county’s financial health from deteriorating during the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. This year, we are facing a new reality. Even though revenues are starting to improve, they are not growing at rates that will sustain us. But a crisis can also be an opportunity.

The County Council continues to ensure that your tax dollars are used wisely within our balanced budget. We are working smarter, finding efficiencies and initiating reforms that have transformed King County government.

In the last four years, we have cut $233 million of our general-fund budget, which for 2011 is $618 million. These dramatic cuts affect a fund that is responsible for the operation of public safety and criminal justice agencies, the public health programs that protect us from pandemics and inspect the restaurants we visit, and a wide range of government services from assessments to elections. Those cuts have created an opportunity for the county to think beyond lost revenues, and concentrate on what could be done with the resources available.

What has been the result of that thinking?

• Most county employees giving up their cost-of-living increases — a savings of $23.5 million.

• Our continued success in the implementation of prevention programs and therapeutic alternatives to incarceration — such as our nationally recognized Drug and Mental Health Court programs. These programs provide alternatives to incarceration such as counseling, education and job training, and save the county money.

• Transforming the health of King County employees. The savings from the Healthy Incentive program supported by the Council will reduce the county’s health-care budget by $61 million in the next two years. These savings will be redirected to preserve government services that would have been cut, such as public safety and public health.

• Public/private partnerships, like the one we have with HealthPoint — a partnership that helps keep the doors of many of our public health clinics open.

• Using technology solutions to save costs. We have streamlined electronic court records in Superior Court, which reduces costs and makes records more easily accessible to the public and law enforcement online. And this year a pilot project in the Council’s Government Accountability and Oversight Committee implemented the use of electronic meeting materials. It’s a practice that can be replicated across other county agencies and can make a real difference.

• Reforming the way animal services are provided to the unincorporated communities of King County. The county’s new regional animal-services program, a collaborative effort between the county and 27 suburban cities, spreads the cost of animal control, sheltering and licensing. This model has a more sustainable income level, a record low euthanasia rate, a growing volunteer and foster program and it strengthens animal cruelty investigations.

• Process improvements in the King County Assessor’s Office. A new method for the delivery of annual property valuation notices will save $120,000 in annual postage costs and promote staff efficiencies.

We have reformed our government without dipping into the county’s “rainy day” reserve. And while credit scores for governments across the country are slipping, we have maintained the county’s AAA credit rating, allowing us to refinance money at lower interest rates.

In 2012, the Budget Leadership Team is committed to continuing our reforms. We will challenge all county agencies to find 3-percent savings by doing their work more efficiently, and we will continue to consolidate county facilities and programs to contain costs.

Despite our efforts, major challenges remain.

One example is the crisis in the preservation of our county roads. Due to continued annexations and a funding formula mandated by the state, our roads budget faces significant cuts in 2012. Restructuring of our roads funding system is necessary. Without it, over time, there will be diminished regular maintenance and storm response and potential road closures in our unincorporated areas.

We must also prepare for a state budget shortfall of $1.4 billion, which will likely mean further cuts to critical county services, especially public health.

After four years of cuts, there are no easy cuts left. That’s why your involvement in this process is vital.

Over the next seven weeks, the council will review all aspects of the budget. During that time we urge you to get involved: come to one of our three special night meetings on the budget, get updates on our budget web page (www.kingcounty.gov/council/budget), and watch the budget meetings on King County Television (KCTV). We want you to be our partner in this budget and in the continuing reform of King County Government.

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