Perhaps you've heard: King County's in a budget crisis.
But while an 8.6 percent cut to county public-safety agencies hogged the headlines, two less heralded but equally critical agencies, human services and public health, were given a virtual death sentence. Under county executive Ron Sims's proposed cuts, county funding for health and human services would be reduced, over the next three years, to zero—eliminating tens of millions of dollars for services like domestic violence support, drug and alcohol treatment, and public clinics.
County officials justified the deep cuts by noting health and human services, unlike public safety, are considered "discretionary" under state law. Beth Goldberg, deputy director of the county's budget office, says, "As much as we value the role that health and human services has to play in this community, it is not within our mandates" to provide them.
The county's projected $68 million shortfall can be credited, in large part, to a state law limiting property-tax increases to 1 percent a year. At a news conference last week, Sims said coming up with a long-term fix to the shortfall (which county budget director Bob Cowan has called a "multiyear financial crisis") would be his "top priority" in the upcoming legislative session.
In the meantime, though, critical services are getting slashed and burned.
Seattle City Council member Tom Rasmussen, a member of the King County Board of Health, calls the proposed cuts "devastating... shocking, and unacceptable," noting that many health programs, like the enhanced HIV prevention program approved last year, take years to work. "[The county and the city] have just got to work together to maintain services," Rasmussen says.
Although county human services spokeswoman Sherry Hamilton says it's "too soon to say what might be coming up for cuts," human-services advocates aren't buying it. "You name it, it's on the chopping block," Sakara Remmu, executive director of the King County Alliance for Human Services, says.
Dorry Elias-Garcia, head of the Minority Executive Directors Coalition, says human-service providers are in shock about the magnitude of the cuts. "We don't have time to put on a press conference and issue a statement because we're just being bombarded," Elias-Garcia says.
Critics fault Sims and his budget department for failing to fix a structural gap that was both predictable and avoidable. "This should have been headed off years ago," county council member Larry Phillips said last week. "In terms of 2009," though, "there's not a lot we can do."
Phillips is considering challenging Sims, whose reelection kickoff is next week, for the county executive's seat. With Sims's popularity at what may be its lowest level ever, there's no time like the present for Phillips to make his announcement.