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Public safety tax proposals shot down by King County Council's 'unofficial Republicans'

(Originally posted May 26)

CORRECTION: The original story was incorrect in the percent of the county's general fund that goes to the Sheriff's Office. The correct number is approximately 12 percent. This story has been corrected.

The King County Council failed in two separate attempts this week to pass tax increases that would have gone before voters in August.

The proposals were aimed at preventing cuts to criminal justice services – including the Sheriff's Office, the county prosecutor's office and courts – as the county works to overcome a $60 million deficit.

Four members – all of them unofficial Republicans – opposed the measures, making it impossible to gain the six votes needed for passage of emergency legislation.

One of the measures, which failed Monday, would have raised sales taxes by .2 percent, bringing in an estimated $47 million.

The proposal would have cost the average resident an additional $40 per year, according to a report from the county.

The council majority thought it had enough votes to pass the measure, but Councilmembers Kathy Lambert and Reagan Dunn changed their minds unexpectedly.

A follow-up measure failed on Tuesday, this one a proposal for a new property-tax levy.

That same proposal would have offset the new tax by reducing the property taxes that pay for other programs, including flood protection, ferries, and park expansion, as well as the county's automated fingerprint identification system and its conservation futures program.

The owner of a $400,000 home would have paid $38 more per year in the end.

Executive Dow Constantine said in a statement Tuesday: "I am disappointed that a minority on the Council prevented voters from having the choice to protect public safety."

The minority members – all of whom were Republicans before the county voted to make their jobs non-partisan – have prepared a tax-neutral proposal that would provide new funds for criminal justice while reducing other taxes.

Councilmember Jane Hague describes the plan as something similar to the measure that failed on Tuesday.

So why did Republicans vote against the property-tax proposal?

Hague says there wasn't enough time for the council or the public to review it after Councilmember Bob Ferguson issued the plan that same morning. There are also minor differences in the amounts of money dedicated to each program.

The council must now meet a July 26 deadline to place any new measures on the general-election ballot in November.

The majority members, all former Democrats, plan to pass the same property-tax measure that failed on Tuesday. They will need only five votes to do so this time around.

But Sheriff Sue Rahr has said that November will be too late, because her department needs to issue layoff notices by September.

Organizations facing similar situations have handed out notices and later retracted them after landing unexpected funds. The Issaquah School District used that approach last year.

"We issued 158 reduction-in-force notices," said district spokeswoman Sara Niegowski. "All but one of those teachers were recalled after the budget was complete in late May."

Still, the county budget director told SeattlePI.com that many Sheriff's deputies would probably look for new jobs after receiving layoff notices.

Ferguson says the council minority should have voted for Tuesday's measure to avoid that scenario.

"They had plenty of time to offer up amendments that match their current proposal, but they didn't do that," he said.

As for the notion that there wasn't enough time to review the plan, Ferguson says it was "a pretty straightforward deal: increase these, decrease those."

The Sheriff's Office uses around 12 percent of the county's $630 million general fund, and expects to face 12-percent cuts without a council plan to stave off reductions.

The county has made $150 million in cuts over the past two years, but council Republicans say there is more trimming to be done.

"I think both the executive branch and legislative branch would like to see that addressed," said Hague, noting that Constantine promised during his campaign to review labor policies and benefits packages for county employees.

Hague has also called for an audit of the Sheriff's Office to find out how much the department is saving through annexations of former unincorporated neighborhoods.

Additionally, Hague says the county should consider contracting with city police departments to cover some of the remaining unincorporated areas.

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