By the time you read this column, County Executive Dow Constantine will have transmitted his budget proposal to the County Council. His proposal is sort of a first draft of the budget. It gives the Council something to react to and edit. “Editing” in this context involves meetings, negotiations and testimony.
The tricky part for those of us in government is that the budget is a zero-
sum game. If the Council saves a $200,000 item for the Court, that means that some other part of the government loses $200,000. Or, perhaps, the Council will save that item, but cut $200,000 out of the Court’s budget without saying how we are to take what is known as a “contra.”
As I have been telegraphing to the bar for months, the General Fund budget is ugly. Despite the construction cranes we see everywhere and the skyrocketing housing prices, the revenue the County derives is limited to 1 percent of assessed value plus new construction. Unless and until the Legislature eliminates or raises this cap, which is always lower than the rise in the cost of living, we are going to live with ever-tightening General Fund budgets. Government functions that have their own dedicated funds, such as transit and libraries, have healthy budgets and are actually hiring new employees.
The executive’s budget proposal for the Court includes laying off three commissioners, as well as some other personnel. His proposal for the sheriff includes closing the Fourth Avenue entrance to the courthouse. We are concerned about the safety of our jurors and witnesses waiting on Third Avenue, not to mention delays as parties, lawyers, witnesses and jurors get tied up in security lines. A compromise might be possible, but even a compromise runs the risk of being balanced by a “contra” against the budget of the advocating entity.
The worst cuts in the budget proposal are timed to hit in 2018, in the hopes that we manage to get relief in the Legislature. These draconian cuts include eliminating the sheriff’s helicopter and marine units, and eliminating work education release. At first glance it is hard to understand why cutting work release would save money. It has to do with the fact that work release is located on the 10th floor of the courthouse; its old-fashioned design creates nooks and crannies where bad things can happen. The jail has to use more staff to supervise inmates in work release than it does in the main jail tower. Everyone knows closing work release is a terrible idea. But if we cannot generate more tax revenue, this cut is unavoidable.
It will be devastating to working people who are trying to hang on to their jobs while serving mandatory minimum sentences for DUI, for example. Wealthier defendants will be able to rent a bed in the Kirkland jail’s work release facility and keep their jobs. The defendant on the janitorial staff will lose his or her job. When breadwinners from working families lose their jobs, families become homeless. Parents can lose their children to foster care. They may never really recover.
The County is exploring alternatives, but we don’t have much money to create alternatives. The real takeaway is that we need the KCBA and its 5,000 lawyers to advocate in Olympia this winter to raise or eliminate the 1-percent cap on revenue and to allow King County (like all other counties) to use levy funds to pay for existing programs. These two changes can stop the hemorrhaging of the justice system and ensure that in enforcing the laws we do as little collateral damage as possible.