Citizens can engage on county budget through Countywide Community Forums
King County, like other governments at all levels, is faced with the serious question of whether to change government fundamentally, writes guest columnist Matt Rosenberg. The Countywide Community Forums, which voters approved, gives citizens the chance to weigh in.
Special to The Times
THE U.S. federal government's 2010 budget is $3.55 trillion, and $1 trillion of that is borrowed. Federal public debt is approaching $9 trillion and 60 percent of annual GDP, the highest proportion since the years immediately following WW II.
The Congressional Budget Office warns of a growing risk of a wrenching fiscal crisis in coming years, absent bold intervention by elected representatives, yet the report barely makes a ripple. Meanwhile city, county and state governments are facing daunting challenges because costs keep rising faster than revenues.
A common element in addressing these challenges is political leadership guided by an informed electorate. Lower-profile governments such as counties may get the least attention, but have the most direct connection with many residents. Take the case of King County, 2,134-square-miles large, and home to more than 1.9 million people. King County provides courts, jail, law enforcement, public transit, sewage treatment, solid-waste recycling and disposal, important environmental programs, human services, public heath, records and elections, property appraisals and tax collection. But King County finds itself in a grave fiscal fix.
Enter Countywide Community Forums, a program enabled by the county's adoption in 2007 of The Easy Citizen Involvement Initiative, or I-24. It's funded by the Spady family of Dick's Drive-Ins, and partnered with King County through the auditor's office, to enable self-organized citizen forums on pressing county issues.
These small-group discussions include a survey tabulated into a guiding final report for county government and the public. The current topic of our Round Six, which ends Oct. 17, is how King County should address its ongoing budget dilemma.
The county's discretionary accounts, collectively known as the general fund, face a $60 million deficit in 2011. The general fund comprises 12.4 percent of the 2010 budget but about three-quarters of it goes for public safety and criminal justice; the largest remaining portions to general government purposes and public health. Even if voters approve the two-tenths of a percent sales-tax increase on the Nov. 2 ballot in King County, the 2011 deficit will be only partially reduced. The landscape will not have changed.
There are several reasons. One is rising employee salaries and benefits. Costs of county services have been growing 4 to 5 percent annually. Another factor is limited revenues. The property tax — only 17.5 percent of which goes to the county — can only rise 1 percent plus fees from new construction. This equals 2 percent annually, or possibly 3 percent in a strong economy. Proceeds of sales taxes collected in King County are shared generously with the state and cities. It's a cash calf, at best, not a cash cow.
Participants in Countywide Community Forums will watch an informative video featuring budget director Dwight Dively, County Executive Dow Constantine, County Council members Julia Patterson and Reagan Dunn, and The Stranger's King County reporter Dominic Holden. They'll learn about the choices facing the county and constituents, each one with serious ramifications, and then respond to a written survey about those choices. The menu of options includes:
• More of the county's collective-bargaining units agree to forgo their annual cost-of-living increases;
• Labor costs are reduced in other ways, such as by cutting employer-provided health-care benefits, or through wage cuts, a hiring freeze or increased furloughs;
• The Legislature allows King County to impose other taxes already available to cities such as business-and-occupation tax or county tax on utility usage, or both;
• Staffing cuts are implemented in the sheriff's office, county courts, or prosecutor's office, or some combination of those.
One of the most important questions on the Countywide Community Forums Round Six survey is whether citizens believe "we need to rethink our budget and make deep, permanent, long-term cuts because the level of services is unsustainable," or whether, in contrast, they feel "we must find short-term temporary reductions to the budget until the economy recovers, so we don't lose the investments we have already made in programs and people."
A Founding Father of the United States and our fourth president, James Madison, observed that a "popular government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy; or, perhaps, both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives."
That is precisely the case, and precisely why residents and employees all across King County should take the time to drill just a bit deeper than usual, and then share their gathered wisdom with county government. There's never been a better time to do it.Matt Rosenberg is director of Countywide Community Forums. Arrange a discussion forum or take the survey online, at http://communityforums.org