This morning in King County Council chambers, county executive Dow Constantine proposed what he described as the county's first-ever strategic plan, which would require the county to go to voters for any increase in annual spending beyond the rate of inflation, including in good economic times, when extra revenues would go into a rainy-day fund. Because the county's cost of doing business increases between 5 and 6 percent a year, Constantine said, merely maintaining county services will require voters to approve tax increases.
"If the government can drive down its costs" to the inflation rate, Constantine said, "then the public has an honest choice: The public and their elected representatives can choose to buy the current level of products and services, or more, by rising revenues. Or the public can ask us to further reduce the level of service. The choice is that clear."
Contacted by phone after his speech, Constantine said the county couldn't go on doing what it has always done—cutting services in lean times, and restoring them when the economy is good. "You have to make choices about which programs get restored, because you don't want to end up restoring everything and having that be unsustainable," Constantine said. "You don't want to end up spending everything; it's better to have a reserve and smooth out the downturns." Asked what sort of taxes he'd prefer to raise to increase services, Constantine said, "We have several tenths [of a percentage point] more of sales tax authority... and not much else. The sales tax is regressive and [already] high, so those are hard choices." The county has gone to the legislature for the past several years seeking new revenue sources, but hasn't been successful so far.
I also asked Constantine what had become of his campaign proposal to increase the amount King County workers contribute to their own health care. He said the plan currently in place was adopted under his predecessor, Ron Sims, and has already increased employee contributions from 12.3 to 18 percent, on average. "We won't be negotiating that for a while," Constantine said. And he said his proposal to create a new,
Additionally, among other goals, Constantine said he would: Designate a single point of accountability for each department; ensure that calls are returned within 24 hours, and issues addressed within 72; simplify the county's process for procuring contracts; streamline the process for investigating shootings by sheriff's department officers; create a cabinet of all the county agencies and offices funded from the county's general fund to come up with cuts; and create a cabinet-level director of labor relations to oversee labor negotiations.
Regarding the latter proposal, Constantine said, "Our workers have been horribly frustrated with the drawn-out nature of our contract negotiations, and the fact that the people sitting at the table have not had the authority to agree to do much of anything." Having a high-level appointee work with Constantine and the county council at the outset of negotiations, will allow the county to "do better by our workers" and save money, Constantine said.
After Constantine's speech, the county council issued a statement praising his proposals.
Today was the first day on the job for newly appointed King County budget and management director Dwight Dively, who left the city after a controversial reassignment by Mayor Mike McGinn. Dively will oversee the implementation of Constantine's financial goals, which will have to be approved by the county council. "It’s fun having him around, because he always has six ideas about what could go right or wrong," Constantine said—a trait that earned him his nickname at the city, "Dr. Doom."
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