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King County Councilmember Reagan Dunn has a guest column in yesterday's Seattle Times, in which he proposes the formation of a new "Priority Commission" to address the county's ongoing budget woes... because, I guess, nothing screams "budget priority" like spending scarce taxpayer dollars on funding yet another commission. But before I get to fisking Dunn's proposal, I thought it first might be useful to question the wisdom of accepting budget advice from a guy who clearly doesn't know how to read a budget.

The video clip above is from an October 6, 2010 briefing on King County's proposed 2011 budget, conducted before the council's Law and Justice Panel, a committee Dunn chairs, but whose meetings he apparently can't bother to get to until after they start. And what is particularly amusing/disturbing about this clip is that it shows budget-priority-champion Dunn totally confused by the standard accounting convention of using parentheses to designate negative numbers.


DUNN: On the numbers, I'm seeing on some of the staff reports, when we go percent changed, it's in the positive, and I... then I also see here it's one point five... it's negative one point five, right?

STAFFER: That's correct, so that's the net impact for the total...

DUNN: Negative one point five, okay, I just want to make sure... I think we should put, just so we're clear, moving forward, we should be consistent amongst staff reports to put if it's positive we'll leave it in the positive, if it's negative, can we say negative before it? I'm sorry, 'cause I'm just scanning here....

STAFFER: Again, using parentheses is one of the ways of showing negative...

DUNN: Is that how you're doing it? Okay, if it's in parentheses, then it's negative, is that correct?


Now, to be fair to Dunn, if you've never seen a staff report before (or a profit/loss statement, a balance sheet or even, you know, a budget), you might not be familiar with the standard accounting nomenclature of using parentheses to designate negative numbers. But to be fair to taxpayers, Dunn has been on the county council since February of 2005. Over five and a half years later, you'd think he might have come across a budget before, and wondered "What do all these parentheses mean, and why aren't there ever any negative numbers?"

Perhaps that explains Dunn's sudden apoplexy at cuts to the criminal justice budget: up until this exchange a couple months ago, he had no idea the county's budget was in the red in the parentheses. Hmm. Who knew our budget's biggest deficit was in the attention of one of the guys putatively tasked with writing it?

I've heard folks describe Dunn as lazy, but honestly Reagan, more than half a decade into your tenure, you should probably already know how to read a budget.