Ross Hunter King County Policy Plan by ReporterJosh


									King County 2.0: Hard Choices and a New Regionalism

King County 2.0: Hard Choices and a New Regionalism
The next King County Executive starts in December of 2009 and inherits a mess. The county has made annual cuts in service to respond to budget pressures, has created a dysfunctional relationship with the cities that make it incredibly difficult to act regionally, and has locked itself into agreements that perpetuate the problem. This document is about the strategy of how we move forward as a County to dig out of the mess, but most importantly how we move forward as a region. We have hard choices to make about what lines of business we are in, and we must make many changes if we want to act in a coordinated way as a region, instead of as a collection of loosely connected governments. There are three themes that run through this document that we should bear in mind at all times.

Fixing the budget in the long run is not about hiring freezes, short-term furloughs, or other temporary measures, though these are necessary in the short-run. Fixing the budget in the long run requires serious attention to underlying causes and having discipline about what we do as a region, not just as a stand-alone County government.

We must determine what King County’s core functions are, and be clear about those that are not. We ARE responsible for regional criminal justice – courts, jails, prosecutors, and public defense. We’re responsible for public health – tracking regional threats, inspecting restaurants, responding to sudden outbreaks. We are responsible for transit. The county is the local government for unincorporated areas, providing permitting, roads, local public safety including sheriff service, etc,

Given limited resources, we have to decide what we can’t or shouldn’t do, and make sure the most effective agent provides those services, many of which are crucial. For example, adding a new fleet of passenger-only ferries to our transit service is a distraction, and an expensive distraction, to our primary task of providing a richly connected bus system. The county currently runs 4 of the 29 low-income primary care healthcare facilities in the County. Is this our core mission, or could it be better provided by the non-profit sector? Should we provide animal shelters, or could the Humane Society do a better job? Acting as a region can provide better service to the taxpayers of the whole region, eliminating overlapping services and reducing costs for the region. Unfortunately the County has damaged relationships with other local governments so badly that it is difficult to even propose providing services regionally without creating new government structures separate from the county, further fragmenting what we do. This is irresponsible to taxpayers, and a disaster for a region that expects coordinated and easy to navigate services for residents. Balancing the county’s budget on the backs of city taxpayers isn’t a good long-term strategy for the region, and it needs to change. The canary in the coal mine here is the decision on jail capacity. Despite our successful efforts to be smart about treatment options and diversion to keep people out of jail, we will need additional capacity in the coming decades to manage our increasing population. The County has, through incoherent strategy, bad decisions, and attempts to shift cost to other governments made providing jail capacity as a regional service almost impossible. Balancing the county’s budget on the backs of city taxpayers isn’t a good long-term strategy for the region, and it needs to change. I propose a new regionalism, a new relationship between the 39 cities and King County. We should create joint management agreements for essential public services, ensuring that the service is provided efficiently for the taxpayer, that costs are shared equitably, and that the region works as a whole. This will require giving up some autocratic power and really embracing joint management. The proposal below for how we operate the jail system should serve as an example for how we consider courts, human services, and more importantly long-term land-use and transportation planning. Our big long-term strategic decisions as a region revolve around land use and transportation planning, ensuring that we have a plan to house the one million people coming here over the next few decades, not just a utopian vision. We must figure out how to implement transit-oriented development, increase density in places where it can be effectively served, and we must fund the infrastructure necessary to make this work. Without regional cooperation between King County, Seattle, and the suburban cities we will continue to proceed along the path of unsustainable sprawl, making the region less governable, less competitive as a place to do business, and less attractive as a place to live.

The Budget
King County faces structural budget problems that are partly historical and partly self-inflicted. The growth rate of costs is greater than the growth rate of revenue, forcing the County to make reductions every year. Like all governments, these reductions are calculated from the “expected” growth projections. The “expected” growth numbers are based in large part on decisions the county has made, including negotiating employee healthcare benefit cost increases that exceed revenue growth significantly, forcing reductions in services provided to taxpayers. The county has also shifted many programs out of the current (CX) fund by creating dedicated revenue sources for them, leaving the crucial criminal justice and public health functions to be funded with slowly growing revenue sources. This is a recipe for forcing reductions in core services, while moving pet programs into backwaters where little attention is paid to them. There are significant costs King County absorbs that could be reduced with strategic changes in the structure of how the County operates and what it chooses to be responsible for. When the next Executive takes office he or she will have to move very quickly ensure that the adopted 2010 budget can actually work. There will be very little time to propose alterations to the Council before it takes effect. The goal must be to make sure the new budget reflects the values of the citizens of King County and does not repeat the mistakes of previous budget efforts. As the next executive I will take immediate action to

Know What Things Cost
Today it is incredibly difficult to understand what anything actually costs in King County because the accounting system is a mash-up of systems that existed prior to the merger with Metro almost two decades ago. The county has tried to replace the system but the effort failed and was abandoned at a cost of $42 million. They started a new effort in 2008 that will cost $95 million and take 4 years to complete. The previous effort failed because “it was run by managers who had virtually no experience
implementing a program of that magnitude, some departments didn't support it and software was customized at a high price.” [1] In approving the new proposal in 2008 the Council reduced


contingency funding, a formula for repeating past cost overruns. They also have created “a
dizzying array of groups: a project leadership committee, an external advisory committee, a project review board, a capital-project oversight office, a management team, a committee to advise the team, and an operations and change-management committee.”[2]

The State Auditor attempted to conduct a performance audit of King County’s construction management and had to abandon the effort because the information was not available. Clearly, King County has no effective systems to oversee construction management activities in a coordinated way – crucial to making sure projects are on track and on budget, and for fixing disasters before they metastasize. Knowing what things cost is crucial to making rational decisions. We should:

Hard Choices
There are structural problems in the budget that must be resolved. Estimates are that the cost of providing services to the unincorporated areas inside the urban growth area exceeds the revenue from those areas by $25-30 million dollars a year, a substantial fraction of the CX fund deficit. The County has recognized this cost for years, but done nothing substantive about changing it. I took action this year in the legislature to address this. The package of financial incentives in SB 5321, plus the annexation tools in SB 5808 should result in almost all the major annexations being completed in the next 3-5 years. Kirkland acted based on the financial package to annex 35,000 people, Kent is moving forward with their annexations, and other cities are as well. Annexations will not save a dime if the County does not reduce the size of the staff serving these areas in the Sherriff’s department, Department of Developmental and Environmental Services (DDES), etc. This will require close attention as it will not happen on its own. Completion of the annexations will help clarify the structure of the County’s departments, which need to be restructured to be more focused on the split between local and regional services. In addition, we should work with the State Auditor to request a performance audit of the structure of the organization, comparing it against best practices from other regional governments. We should also act on the Auditor’s suggestion to re-create an internal audit function, one that reports at a very high level so it is insulated from political agendas. The major hard decision on the budget is to reduce the growth rate of labor costs. Labor costs are a function of compensation and quantity of employees. Both need attention in King County.

King County must focus on the hard work of negotiating labor contracts that are sustainable over time. In addition, the County must focus on overhead reductions, including in the Executive and Council offices.

Regional Services
King County must move past only considering its own budget when it makes decisions about regional services. The decision to close the Regional Justice Center in Kent at 5:30 pm and all weekend is one of these decisions – the county balances its budget on the backs of local city taxpayers. We must create a model where we jointly manage King County for the benefit of the taxpayers and citizens, not with shortsighted view towards one budget or another. This section has several examples of areas where we should consider a new way to do regional services. The cities find themselves in a position where they depend on the services the County provides. The County is undependable and overcharges the cities, and so the cities are tempted to provide the service themselves, often at greater total cost to everyone because we lose economies of scale. This model is repeated in many places: jails, court services, investment pools, etc. It enrages the cities and destroys our ability to work together in areas that are not so straightforward, like land use and transportation. I propose that we rethink how we govern regional services: joint management, with clear cost accounting and cooperation.

The Puget Sound Regional Council expects King County’s population to grow upwards of one million people in the next two decades. This is more than half-again as many people as we have today. Many of these new residents will be our children, many will move here from other places to take jobs in our growing economy. Unfortunately, a reasonably predictable percentage of them will commit crimes that require that they spend some time in jail. King County is responsible for housing all offenders who are awaiting trial on felony charges, or who have been convicted of a felony with a sentence of less than one year. King County also houses misdemeanants who commit their crimes in unincorporated areas. The Cities are responsible for their own misdemeanants, and the State of Washington houses felony offenders with sentences longer than one year. Current projections are that over the next 20 years we will need 1450 new beds total, between King County, the north and east cities, the SCORE (South End) cities, Seattle, and King County itself. We must build a plan that adds capacity over time in a smart way, and that is flexible enough that we can adjust as we get smarter and smarter about rational diversion strategies. County leadership has been asleep at the switch – taking a course of action that has led to the massive inefficiencies in the system we have today and the prospect of multiple new jail facilities being built in the near future. The Council and Executive have:

These actions led in the short term to a complex web of contracts to transport inmates to farflung jurisdictions like Yakima. In the longer term, it means that cities form cooperatives and plan to build multiple new jail facilities (SCORE, NEC, Seattle). Unfortunately, this has gone on too long for the process to be stopped at this point. With no reliable alternative for housing their offenders, the south cities are proceeding with the first of the proposed new subregional jails. Running fragmented jail systems is expensive for taxpayers and is likely to result in things slipping through the cracks. King County has played bait and switch with the cities – first offering a contract to house their offenders, then taking it away. First opening the RJC with the promise of reducing booking costs for the cities, then closing it at 5:30 in the afternoon to save money for the County on the backs of the cities. It’s like Lucy and Charlie Brown with the football. The cities are smarter than Charlie Brown and have taken steps to insulate themselves from the County’s chaotic planning and ridiculous overhead charges. The cities in the SCORE alliance are moving ahead with their own plans to build additional capacity in the South End. This jail will be more efficient to staff than the downtown facility due to its layout and staffing model and will cheaper to build because of the location. The system cost of having multiple sets of jails will be high. We should:

We should take a similar approach to district courts and municipal courts. These largely serve the same purpose, but the cities feel that the costs the County imposes for running the courts are excessive, and eventually pull out to run their own system. To build an effective regional system, we should, over time, share the management of the system, recognizing that many of the cities will want to run their own court for a variety of legitimate reasons. Sharing management software and systems is a start, and we should be able to improve the relationship over time rather than the current process of balkanization.

Shifting to a regional, corridor-focused approach to transportation and transit
Our transportation infrastructure is outdated and inefficient. People spend too much time stuck on the road and we’re spewing huge quantities of pollutants into our air on and on our roadways. There is no cheap, fast, easy fix and we must invest smartly in both roads and transit options if we want significant reductions in congestion and pollution. And both must be planned with a

regional focus so we can create corridors that enable people to travel easily between work and home.

Dealing with the Metro Transit Budget Shortfall
Metro is grappling with a revenue shortfall that could be as much as $100 million over the next few years. This is forcing the agency to cut service at a time when demand is increasing. We will have to cut service in the short run, at a time when demand for service is up by doubledigits. This will be very painful. Fortunately, Metro found about $100 million in capital money that exceeds the amount needed to purchase new equipment in the near future, and will be able to stave off cuts in 2009 and 2010, but once the one-time money runs out we’ll be in trouble. The Municipal League of King County recently reported that Metro’s expenses are 22-48% beyond the national average. If Metro had a cost basis equal to an average transit system in the U.S. we would be adding service, not subtracting it. Getting Metro’s finances in order will be my first area of focus.

Balancing efficiency and equity in our transit system
Transit in King County is provided by two agencies: Metro, which almost exclusively provides operational bus service, and Sound Transit which operates an array of transit services throughout Puget Sound and is also busily building and constructing new facilities. Rather than locking in on a quota for one city or another, we need to look at where people are coming from and where they’re going and plan routes accordingly. Metro is the agency King County is responsible for managing. The agency, unfortunately, faces enormous challenges with revenue and service distribution. Part of that effort requires us to take a fresh look how we distribute service, especially if we’re looking at reducing services and where. Today, new service distribution is dictated by a 40-4020 split between the South End, Eastside and Seattle respectively. Existing service is heavily concentrated in Seattle, the area of the most density and where the service can be operated most efficiently. Suburban residents are demanding “their fair share” of service, resulting in the distribution formula above, a somewhat blunt instrument. Is a new formula the answer? Maybe, maybe not. Given that the majority of existing service (60+%) serves Seattle, it’s hard to imagine a policy formula that would not result in downtown taking the majority of the short-term cuts in service. We must be careful in doing this – balancing the cost of service, equity in distribution of service, and demand/ridership in making the decision. This can’t be done with blunt instruments. While we can be much smarter about how we provide service in lower-density suburbs, if we eliminate the equity or “fair-share” aspects of our system, we lose voter support in the areas Metro relies on for 60 percent of its revenue.

We should re-think how we do this distribution. A new formula would focus on where people live and where they work, and try to allocate service in ways that is fair to taxpayers, but also use the ability to provide service efficiently as an element. The end solution will have to be acceptable to the entire County Council, and as such will be a balance of political and practical concerns. We can be smarter about route selection, save money, and provide better service in the long run. As the next Executive I will bring together the stakeholders and propose a new, smarter, more equitable formula. As the region grows we will need to add more service, not squabble over how cuts will be done. Some can be done with prioritization – we should focus our efforts and be really good at providing efficient, effective bus service, and get out of providing expensive foot ferries, a distraction at best. Efficiency isn’t just about bus service, but administration too. I will focus on reducing overhead costs in both Sound Transit and Metro, and will consider selective merging of the agencies to reduce overhead while retaining control of route distribution in King County. There is no reason to have two groups of staffers planning routes and schedules, two web sites, two personnel departments, etc. Less overhead, more coordination, more service.

One region, one chance to build corridors that get us moving
If we’re serious about building an effective regional transportation system, our county must play an active leadership role in the planning, upgrading and constructing of major freeway projects. Finishing the new 520 bridge sooner than later is critical. It’s important to be thoughtful in how we plan and construct highway projects, but we cannot afford to let mitigation issues on the west side of the bridge delay the project indefinitely nor can we, as a region, allow those mitigation efforts to derail our ability to pay for other critical projects. For example, as we get closer to tearing down the Alaskan Way Viaduct, we need to create more capacity on I-5, particularly more transit capacity.
Projects to improve traffic flow along our major corridors matter more to [voters] than earmarked projects in a specific neighborhood or legislative district.

We need to begin anticipating the tolling impacts on 520 and how we manage and mitigate the resulting increases in traffic on I-405 and I-90. While every elected official at every level of office wants to make their constituents happy, we as a region must be clear on what we are or aren’t going to pay for. When the Legislature approved the Nickel Gas Tax and 9.5-cent gas tax packages, we learned that projects to improve traffic flow along our major corridors matter more to voters than earmarked projects in a specific neighborhood or legislative district. This will be true for transit as well.

Millions of dollars spent on one project means millions less on another. We must find a way to move people north and south, east and west and the only way to get there is by taking a birds-eye view of our entire transportation system, not just roads and transit separately. Our economy and quality of life depends on us making wisest use of limited transportation dollars. We are one county, one region, and we should act like it.

Smart Management for a Green King County
I’ve lived in King County most of my adult life. This is where I’ve raised my family and I am proud to call it home. We are the hub of Western Washington’s economy with great jobs, a diverse collection of cities and communities, and some of the most beautiful scenery in the country. Our quality of life is tied closely to the health of our air, land and water which in turn is tied to smart management of those same resources. Unfortunately, our quality of life is threatened by regional congestion that is choking the life out of our economy and our environment, and runaway growth is literally killing the Puget Sound. The key challenge for our next County Executive is effectively managing the growth in our region so our children and grand-children can spend their time enjoying everything our region offers, not trying to salvage it.

Growth is inevitable, smart management is required
King County is made up of 39 cities and nearly as many pockets of unincorporated areas. Nearly 1.9 million people currently live in King County and the Puget Sound Regional Council predicts that by 2040 we’ll be home to 1.4 million more people and 1.1 million more jobs. Many of our environmental challenges boil down to how we manage this rapid growth. Where will all these people live? Where will they work? How can we minimize the distance in between? Unfortunately, the current reality is that we are not minimizing this distance, we’re making it worse. The PSRC projects job growth of 57% by 2040, with housing growth of 43%, driving housing costs in the central park of King County out of the reach of working families, and forcing commutes from far away. To fix this imbalance will require decisive action.
King County must play the role of organizer throughout this process, not star as the leading actor.

To fulfill our vision of a compact, transit-oriented region, we face several hard choices, and will need the entire region to share in the plan for making our vision a reality. A million new people means we need as many as 500,000 new housing units. We’ll need at least 50 new developments the size of the Bel-Red corridor plan being developed by Bellevue. Such developments must be inside our urban growth boundaries which means they must be in our cities. King County must play the role of organizer throughout this process, not star as the

leading actor. Regional coordination and planning is crucial, but the cities must each play their parts successfully for this to work. Planning these developments is only the first step, however. Paying for necessary infrastructure such as new streets, parks, sidewalks, traffic lights, sewer pipes and utility trenches is crucial – and expensive. Our cities cannot take increased density unless they are able to pay for the infrastructure needed to support it. Currently there is no revenue plan to generate this money, and just building the housing won’t work. What are some of the ways the county can provide the regional coordination and support for cities that we need?

We can make the biggest impact on our environmental health by ensuring our regional land use and transportation plans are responsible and line up with our goals to reduce greenhouse gas production. Coming together on land use and transportation will require both creative thinking and head-knocking, plus an ability to work with the Legislature. I will convene a working group to create an implementation plan, not a new vision document. We must have detailed action plans for the cities, for the County, for the water and sewer districts, and for the Legislature, and we must build the trust that we’ll each deliver on our part of keeping King County the best place to live and work in the world.

Tough Love to Restore the Health of Puget Sound
The county faces a number of environmental issues, but the health of Puget Sound and its tributaries is at the top of the list. Like most problems, the scope is larger than just the county, but we must take the lead in resolving it. The two key issues to tackle at the county level are stormwater runoff and leakage from broken septic systems.
The stormwater problem is like death by a thousand cuts… The key to solving this problem is regional coordination of both time and money.

The stormwater problem is like death by a thousand cuts. Every impervious surface collects oil and other pollutants which run off and rush downhill at the slightest drizzle. And there’s a lot of drizzle in the Northwest. The key to solving this problem is regional coordination, both of time and money. That’s why I propose appointing a stormwater czar to coordinate work across all the departments in the county, and to measure the impact of our efforts so we can concentrate on the most effective, high-value items first. The septic problem is more straightforward, though just as painful. It will take money to assist homeowners in repairing systems, and in some cases, tough love. Homeowners must repair broken systems, and there is no more time to procrastinate. We’ll help them do it, but we’ll insist they do it.

Funding these efforts will require a collaborative strategy and investments from all the counties involved, not just King County. Some funding ideas have already been proposed such as that by the Puget Sound Alliance who think we should dedicate one-tenth of a cent of our sales tax to clean-up efforts. This may or may not be the right approach, but it’s one starting point for discussions. I’m concerned about creating a new government to run this – I think we have enough governments as it is. King County should be able to do the work, and should be able to coordinate with other counties to set priorities correctly. As a state legislator, I supported House Bill 1614 to charge oil producers a reasonable fee to protect our waters against oil spills and clean up the results of the runoff. The barrels of oil delivered to our refineries are one of the sources of what ultimately makes up 50 percent of the runoff pollutants we must deal with.

A regional, corridor-focused approach to transportation and transit
Fifty percent of our climate emissions come from automobiles. Our transportation infrastructure is outdated and inefficient, and if we’re serious about limiting our greenhouse gas production we must invest in more alternative modes of getting where we want to go. So easy to say, so much harder to do. Simply building new transit opportunities isn’t enough. Transit investments must support our growth management plans for the system to work. Our region has changed dramatically over the past couple decades with employment bases becoming more distributed throughout the region (a good thing) and our transit options need to accommodate and reflect those changes. By creating cohesive transit corridors, or north-south spines, along both the east and west sides of the county we can better connect Auburn, Kent, Renton, Bellevue, Kirkland and Redmond. An east-west connector along I-90 is also essential and will provide an additional link to Seattle. Ultimately, improved transit systems will require more money. As a state legislator, I worked tirelessly this past session to find tools that local governments could use to fill transit needs, including an option in Senate Bill 5433 that would allow local governments to seek voter approval for a $20 vehicle fee and flexibility in the use of existing ferry district property tax allocations for transit. If we can encourage more people to ride transit frequently, they see it as an amenity they are willing to pay for in higher taxes. Yes, these transit improvements will cost millions, but they will ultimately be cheaper and easier to accomplish than paving our way out of peak capacity. And they are the key to reducing greenhouse gas emissions in our region. Specifically, as the next Executive I would:

Improving the way King County does Business with Businesses
Operating a business in King County could, and should, be more profitable and less cumbersome. The key is a new regional approach to taxing and permitting in King County. A vastly simplified process for businesses that operate in more than one city will cut time and administrative costs from a business’s bottom line. In the business world, time is money. Consider the hours many business owners spend navigating the taxing and permitting systems in King County’s 39 cities.

Complying with all of these regulations is complex for a business, particularly a small or startup business. The accounting costs alone for a business to apply for a license, get the correct tax forms, and file all the returns can be thousands of dollars.

King County is a region, let’s act like one: One tax return, one tax bill, one-stopshop for permits
I propose that King County provides a simple, one-stop-shop web service for businesses to apply for licenses, calculate and pay business taxes. One tax return, one tax bill.

Sales taxes are also complex, but the complexity is managed by the state so a business only has to know the location of its sales and the rate at that location. Property tax complexity is managed by the County Assessor with multiple taxing jurisdiction rates combined into one single bill. We should do the same with B&O taxes at the county level. King County is a region, and we should learn to act like one. The regional government should do the complicated work, not the business owner. I propose that King County provides a simple web service for businesses to apply for licenses and calculate and pay business taxes. One tax return, one tax bill. There are legitimate reasons to explain why cities have different ways of taxing business. But a simplified, regional approach will make the county more competitive for small business formation and retention. Making this work will require the county to work with the cities to:

We can use this same approach to simplify the permitting process for builders and contractors. Instead of making a business owner waste time traveling throughout the county to revisit city permitting offices, King County can provide a regional office where businesses can manage their permits at one location. Many cities in King County are already doing this (see and there’s no reason we can’t provide such a service countywide. While this doesn’t completely remove the need to visit city offices for things such as submitting and reviewing plans, it will minimize such visits so businesses can focus on getting their projects built instead of sitting on the road making their way from Maple Valley to Federal Way. The solution to improving the business climate isn’t always to cut taxes. Making the system fairer and easier to comply with could have much more impact. More service, less overhead. Simplifying and regionalizing how King County does business with its businesses is one way the county can potentially save businesses thousands and thousands of dollars.

Ross Hunter for King County Executive

Page 3

[1] [2]

To top