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County faces cuts to criminal justice

King County residents will see a drop of nearly 10 percent in criminal defense departments (courts, police, etc.), unless they approve a .2 percent sales tax increase this election season.

The proposal is the centerpiece of County Executive Dow Constantine’s budget, which seeks to make up a shortfall of more than $60 million through department efficiency improvements and payroll savings.

Constantine outlined his program to an editorial board of Reporter Newspapers editors on Tuesday.

The tax increase, which equals out to approximately $48 annually per household, would save more than 70 jobs in the King County Sheriff’s Office, 30 positions in Superior Court and another 10 in District Court. Failing the passage of the measure, the county would lose these positions indefinitely.

“It’s all we can do to just maintain the new lower level of service,” Constantine told the editorial board. “If folks want to restore any part of what we have had previously, we’re going to need new revenues.”

Criminal justice programs represent 77 percent of general fund budgetary expenses, making them prime candidates for reductions. Overall, criminal justice programs face a 9.5 percent cut, while administrative offices may face 12 percent reductions. The budget includes shedding 462 full-time equivalent (FTE) positions, which calls for approximately 190 layoffs.

Without the revenue from increased sales tax, a number of county organizations in criminal justice would undergo massive layoffs.

The King County Sheriff’s Office would cut 71 positions, including 28 deputies. Fifty-one detectives and sergeants would have to go back on the street for patrols, severely limiting the agency’s ability to investigate cases.

“Someone will come to your house when you call 911, but that may be the end of it,” Constantine said.

Services to help victims are on the chopping block as well. The cuts to public safety remove the final elements of human services in the general fund, which go to help domestic violence and sexual assault victims, among other things. Constantine said some of those services would be restored if the taxes were passed.

This year’s budget comes in around $613 million, down from $630 million last year. Constantine, in the midst of his first budget process, said he wanted to create something that set the county up for long-term financial success in spite of the recession. In the process, he looked toward changes to increase efficiency rather than immediate cuts to simply survive until the economy comes back to life.

“This is not a time where we can grab one-time monies and finance operations on debt and hope things are rosy two years from now,” Constantine said. “We’re planning as if it’s always going to be hard times.”

With $40 million in proposed cuts, the county is still left with a $20 million gap. Constantine said the county will use yearly efficiency changes to make up the gap, which represents approximately three percent of the budget. Some of the ways that the county has provided for that increased efficiency this year include: changing jury service to on-call, allowing jurors to stay at home unless called to serve ($322,000 in mileage reimbursement); elimination of a step in the balloting process where ballots cannot pass through machines ($30,000); and re-bidding of food contracts for the Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention ($160,000). These are the kinds of savings that will lead to a solid financial future for the county, Constantine said.

“You can’t just come into the top of it and find out how to make things more efficient,” he said. “You can certainly figure out how to cut things out of the budget, but figuring out how to make things work better is a much greater challenge.”

Constantine has taken on that challenge when it comes to negotiations with county employees. Numerous unions have agreed to forego cost-of-living adjustment increases this year, which will save the county now and in the future.

An ongoing dialogue between county leaders over employee wages and benefits as well as how things can improve in every department will prove crucial, Constantine said. Politicians don’t know how to run police stations or wastewater treatment plants effectively, so they require the input of those with expertise to stamp out the waste in government that the general public fears and loathes.

“The problem is people at the top of the organization have no idea what is productive work and what is waste because they don’t understand the work,” said Deputy County Executive Fred Jarrett. “The people who can do the analysis of things going on are the ones that can find the $30,000 here and there. What we want to do every time we see a problem, we want to tell them how to solve it. But we don’t know how to solve it.”

City budget

See City calls for position cuts, fee increases for information on the City of Mercer Island’s proposed budget for the next year.

One proposal features a 9 percent smaller general fund than the previous year.

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