Erica C. Barnett: Tell me a little bit about what distinguishes you from the other four county executive candidates.
Ross Hunter: The big difference between all the candidates and me is that I have substantial private-sector management experience. I had a career at Microsoft where I was a general manager, and I had, at various times, 100, 200—and sometimes five—people working for me. That's a different management experience than other [jobs]. You get a sense of working with multiple layers. The King County Executive job... a lot of it is about vision and building consensus, but a lot of it is about managing the nuts and bolts of the county so that you're spending money effectively. Without having the ability to execute, you lose a lot. That's a concern I've had for a while with the current council and executive—the focus hasn't been there. Is that enough to make me stand out from three other guys and Susan Hutchison? I don't know.
Why do you think private-sector experience is desirable in a county executive?
Let's look at the job. What you want in the King County Executive is someone who can recognize the complexity of the county and understand all the different moving parts. It's a very big county, bigger than 14 states. And that's made even more complicated by the fact that there are 39 cities within the county that each have their own council, their own mayor, their own unique form of government. The cities all have different needs... If we're going to have a million people move [to King County], when they arrive, we want to make sure that we still have a place where we all want to live. We're going to have to make some hard decisions. Right now, the county and the cities don't cooperate very well. The cities think the county wants to rip them off, and the county thinks the cities don't pay their own way.
Can you give a few examples?
The county is not taking new misdemeanors from the cities. The cities look at that and say, we need new jail capacity. The cities now want to band together to form their own little legal entity that looks like a county, walks like a county, and quacks like a county to build a jail. Well, it has to be cheaper for us to have one group build the jail and have some economy of scale. Until we trust each other... everyone does risk management and looks out for themselves.
How would you deal with the county's ongoing budget crisis?
What I learned last [legislative] session was pretty interesting. I worked hard to try and explain to people what problems the counties were facing and why they needed more revenue. There are two stories about revenue for the county. One is that they have a structural revenue problem. They get 60 percent of their revenue from property tax, and that only grows 1 percent a year, and inflation is just bigger than that. Over time, they have to keep doing less and less as a county. And if the county is doing things that you think are really important to quality of life, like public health or putting miscreants in jail, then that's bad news.
And yet your legislation to give King County new revenue sources, like a utility tax in the unincorporated areas, didn't go anywhere.
Well, the other side is that people think King County has a spending problem. I sat in a meeting with [House Speaker] Frank Chopp and one of the [King County] council members, and we were trying to give them more revenue sources, particularly the utility tax. And the Speaker excoriated the council on their spending, particularly on their labor costs. There's no way we can be giving salary increases [in the legislature] this year, but the county is choosing to do exactly that... I was taken aback by that. It's not something I've seen Frank do that much.
So do you think King County has a spending problem, or is that just the perception?
It's bad PR. Perception is reality in politics. Until King County changes the perception that they have a spending problem, they're going to have a revenue problem—so the two are linked. This one meeting made me see that problem.
How do you go about solving the revenue side of the problem?
About a third of the county's budget problem comes from areas inside the county in the urban-growth boundary that are not in cities but that ought to be. The cities are really best situated to deliver local services. It's a lot more convenient for a cop car to respond to Finn Hill from Kirkland than from North Bend. [Senate Bill] 5321 extends a tax credit to the cities to try to get them to annex these areas... We shouldn't allow a city to just annex a car dealer and not the surrounding residential areas. We should force them to take the residential area. That's a strategic problem for next year. But we did solve a couple of problems that block these annexations.
There are five nontribal card rooms that are in annexation areas. The state requires cities to either allow or not allow card rooms, but you have to either allow zero or allow as many as show up. If Kirkland ever decides to annex [Kingsgate, an adjacent unincorporated area], that card room is really not interested in being put out of business. What we did—and I'm not a big gambling fan—was we said, if you annex an area that has a card room in it, it's allowed to continue to exist. There are five that may get to stay around if a city annexes them. The one in Kingsgate generates a million dollars a year in tax revenue. That reduces King County's problem... If we can do structural problem-solving like that, then we can move forward, then the King County Council may be able to make a case, both to the legislature and to the people, that there are services that should be preserved.
What's it like running against Fred Jarrett, whom you're friends with and with whom you share so many political views?
Fred is my best friend in the legislature, so it's really hard. I like Fred a lot. There's probably 90 percent overlap in terms of what we believe in. I'm probably a little more impatient than he is. I think in one article he said he's more of a consensus builder. That's probably true. In many things, patience is a virtue. I think we have a surfeit of that here, and impatience is a virtue in terms of trying to pull these policy choices together. I'm a Quaker. Quaker meetings make decisions by consensus, so almost everybody in the room has to agree. Sometimes you just have to decide. You can't get everybody to agree.
We're going to have some stylistic differences between us. I don't have a lot negative to say about the guy. I love working with him. I've learned a lot from him. He's a very good friend. Maybe one of us will catch fire and one of us won't.
What else distinguishes you from the other candidates in the race—King County Council members Larry Phillips and Dow Constantine, and former KIRO anchor Susan Hutchison?
What distinguishes me from Susan is I'm not a Republican. As far as Larry and Dow... If you think the county is doing the right thing today, if you're happy with the council and how they spend their money, [Constantine and Phillips are] likely to do the same thing. Together, they've been on the council for over a quarter century. If they were going to make a change, I think they would have done it by now... Other people certainly feel that many of the county's policies have been very Seattle-centric. I'm going to be an executive for the whole county. How do you deal with transportation when you have a bunch of people in Kent who need to get to work in Redmond? The growth is outside Seattle... in places like Renton, Kent, and Auburn, where we're getting more cosmopolitan areas and we need to rearrange our development patterns.
What's your opinion of 40-40-20 (the controversial formula that gives 80 percent of new bus service to the suburbs and just 20 percent to Seattle)?
Well, 40-40-20 is the compromise the council has come up with. When you look at the distribution of the current service, it's pretty heavily weighted toward Seattle... I think you might be able to come up with a smarter way of doing fairness rather than just saying this area, that area, and the other area each get a certain level of service. Maybe that means talking about what corridors are important to people... Whatever you do won't make people happy who live out in rural King County who say, "I'm paying all this sales tax and I'm not getting any service." And it won't make people happy who live in dense Seattle who think they're not getting enough service. In the [Seattle Municipal] League review, they complained about the fact that it's expensive to provide service to the Eastside because the density isn't there. But... Link light rail will change the development pattern on the Eastside, so you'll get some of the density you have in Seattle today. You're going to have to run some transit for a while before that happens.