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King County Exec: Reforms will put county in position to rebound financially
By Steve Hunter
King County Executive Dow Constantine says reforms to make government more efficient and improved infrastructure will put the county in position to rebound as the economy recovers.
Constantine unfurled his plan Monday during his State of the County address at a special Committee of the Whole meeting of the Metropolitan King County Council on the third-floor rotunda at the Norm Maleng Regional Justice Center in Kent.
"We are encouraging all of our employees to 'Be the Difference,' by giving them the tools to improve the quality and lower the cost of what they deliver," Constantine said. "We will pilot a new approach to budgeting and management that defines the products and services we deliver, calculates the cost and measures the quantity and quality of what's produced."
Constantine credited the partnership of county employees and unions for helping to get through deep budget cuts last year but to still find ways to provide services.
"The men and women who serve on our front lines stepped up last year to protect services to the public," he said. "From corrections officers to court personnel, bus operators to solid-waste engineers, public health nurses to custodians, your spirit of sacrifice sent a powerful signal about your commitment to public service. All of us here today thank you."
Several unions agreed to forego cost-of-living increases for 2011 to help the county save money.
Constantine said future transportation projects will help create jobs and provide much-needed repairs. The projects he mentioned include a new South Park Bridge in South Seattle, a deep-bore tunnel for the Highway 99 corridor through Seattle and the replacement of the Highway 520 bridge across Lake Washington.
"Many of us drove here today on roads and highways built by our parents and grandparents' generations," he said. "In the coming year, our generation can refocus on the responsibility of creating jobs now while investing in the future of our children."
Constantine also announced that county election operations will move back to Renton from Seattle as a step to show confidence that the ongoing repairs at Howard Hanson Dam will keep the Green River Valley cities of Kent, Auburn, Renton and Tukwila safe from flooding.
"Today, we are casting a vote of confidence in this community," Constantine said, to an audience that filled the rotunda. "Elections Director Sherril Huff and I agree, it is safe and it is time for King County to move Elections back to its state-of-the-art facility in Renton. We are announcing that Election headquarters will return to the Green River Valley in June."
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers continues to work to repair the dam after a January 2009 storm damaged an abutment next to the dam that limited the capacity of the dam's reservoir. The corps expects to complete repairs by the end of 2012.
"A year ago, we were evacuating county facilities in the Green River Valley," Constantine said. "Today, we've gathered here in the valley city of Kent secure in the knowledge that the Army Corps is moving ahead with well-designed and fully funded long-term repairs to the Howard Hanson Dam."
Constantine said at a press conference after his 33-minute speech that he hopes the move of Election operations back to the Earlington Building in Renton on Grady Way from a temporary site since 2009 at Boeing Field will encourage businesses to move into the Green River Valley.
"Kent and the other valley cities have struggled mightily with the situation at Howard Hanson Dam," Constantine said. "I am very pleased that we are turning the corner on that. It is my goal that businesses know that as the dam is being repaired and that they will reinvest in this critical major manufacturing industrial valley."
The audience for the speech included Kent Mayor Suzette Cooke, Renton Mayor Denis Law and Auburn Mayor Pete Lewis. Former Washington Gov. John Spellman, King County's first executive (back in 1969) also attended the address. Constantine lauded Spellman for his efforts in those early years, to applause from the audience.
Constantine emphasized the cooperation of many levels of government to help obtain $44 million from the federal government to repair the Howard Hanson Dam.
"All of these accomplishments came through the power of partnerships," Constantine said. "Funding the dam took months of work by the four Valley cities, by Col. Anthony Wright, by Gov. (Chris) Gregoire and most directly by (U.S.) Sen. Patty Murray and our congressional delegation."
Without the repairs, cities faced major obstacles to keep current businesses as well as attracting new companies.
"As a place to do business, this valley's reputation was threatened," he said.
But the Green River flood threat isn't over. The county and local cities also are chasing down funds to help repair levees along the river.
"There's more work to do to protect these communities," he said. "But partnerships like this one that secured the dam embody the essence of our reform agenda for county government. No kicking the can down the road. No pointing of fingers. No waiting for someone else to lead."
The county executive also plans to work with the cities to find a new animal shelter to replace the aging facility in Kent.
"Here in Kent, the county operates an aging animal shelter that provides critical capacity for homeless animals," Constantine said. "This year we will work with cities and private partners on creative ways to ensure sheltering services can be provided into the future reliably, affordably and humanely."
Twenty-seven cities are part of a new, two-year county animal control regional model started last July. The county used to operate animal care and control independently.
"A year ago I and the Council agreed our only choice was to close the animal shelter and get out of that line of work," Constantine said. "Now 27 cities have joined us in a regional model for animal services providing better care and control."
As another way to help the county cut costs, Constantine plans to propose to the County Council the sale of the Aukeen District Courthouse along Central Avenue in Kent to the city of Kent.
"Right here in Kent, the county owns the Aukeen District Courthouse and shares space there with the city," he said. "But the city needs to expand its Municipal Court. Rather than having Kent spend $7 million for expansion, I am sending our Council a proposal to sell the Aukeen building to Kent and consolidate our District Court proceedings here at the Maleng Regional Justice Center."
The county will ask for $6 million from Kent for the facility.
"It's one of many examples where we are attempting to better cooperate with our cities to get efficiencies for all the residents in the county whether it's through jail planning, animal services or the justice system," Constantine said during an interview after his speech.