Originally published Friday, October 14, 2011 at 3:50 PM

King County making badly needed changes

King County is making badly needed organic changes to its spending habits. More reforms related to employee contracts and labor practices are needed.

quotes Healthy Incentives did not "save any money." The county simply spent less... Read more
quotes Until he addresses his pet project the West Seattle Ferry and either privatizes or... Read more
IN a year of monumentally bad news for state and local governments everywhere, King County budgeteers have a strange half-smile on their faces. Something went right at the county — not by luck, but by hard work and propitious timing.

The county has been trying to get a grasp on health-care costs. What government isn't? A couple of programs begun years ago started paying off, enough so Executive Dow Constantine did not have to cut general services this year, although his budget does trim the county road fund.

One program, Healthy Incentives, pushes, cajoles and charges more for health care to employees living unhealthy lifestyles. This and other health-care efforts produced savings of $61 million for two years.

Those real dollars preserve programs in the general-fund budget (and other county funds), saving services that deal with domestic violence and sexual assault. For the first time in five years, the county does not have to do across-the-board cuts in the general fund.

Constantine gets it: "The time of plenty is not coming back." Not only that, because of annexations, the number of residents for whom the county is the local government-service provider has shrunk.

The county still has to take bold steps to become sustainable long term, including notable changes in employee contracts.

For example, the sheriff's deputies are now inexplicably in the fourth year of a 5-percent annual increase. When the contract comes up for renewal, deputies should be zeroed out for increases. Someone with a sharp eye also should scrub the bus drivers contract, which historically was too generous. Some key changes were made for the current three-year contract.

The county has been collecting about 3 percent more revenue each year than the previous year, but costs increase by 6 percent.

Constantine is committed to reinventing and right-sizing county government with a series of cost-cutting and prudent budget efforts. For one thing, he put additional money in reserve to shore up the county's AAA credit rating. He set aside what he described as a one-time $1 million allocation for human services to buffer other jurisdictions' cuts. That's humane but won't work long term.

The county is making badly needed organic changes. More reforms related to employee contracts and labor practices and all-around new approaches are needed.


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