Most Seattle residents assume that the city council covers all of Seattle’s services, and that the King County Council doesn’t have any impact on their lives. We should be so lucky, on both counts. King County, with 1.6 million people, is the largest governmental body in the state (excluding the state itself); it has a multi-billion dollar budget and produced our new governor, but is rarely covered in local media. A government with jurisdiction over 1.6 million people does something. But what? Let’s find out.
County government covers services that affect all cities within King County, and serves as the primary local government for unincorporated areas. County-wide services include: the Metro bus system, emergency medical services, SeaTac Airport, Kingdome management (sic), search and rescue services, solid waste and landfill management, and open space acquisition. The county also provides grants and funding for arts projects (i.e., Kirkland Performance Center, Bellevue Philharmonic, Pacific Science Center, etc.), and funds community service programs (Fremont Public Association, Central Area Motivation Program, Northwest Labor & Employment Office, etc.). But these last items-~arts, community services, and recreational services’-are only tiny pieces of the whole pie. To find out what the county government really does, we need to look at the county budget.
To do that, we need real numbers; however, the budget ordinance is a mess. Nothing is written in an organized fashion, and nothing is explained in any detail. There are no breakdowns of expenses per category, and no balance sheet or summary of the overall figures. It doesn’t even begin to resemble a real budget. It’s something the county executive and the county council threw together to satisfy public disclosure laws.
For instance, the county council’s website (http://www.metrokc.gov/mkcc) boasts: “The $2.6 billion plan is the result of an unprecedented month-long public review of the budget. The Council’s Budget and Fiscal Management Committee held three nighttime public hearings and gave the public an opportunity to comment on changes to the Executive’s budget three days prior to adoption.” Wow. Three whole days. Those three days were Friday, Nov. 21 through Sunday, Nov. 23. Some chance for input. For those lucky enough to notice in time, the message is clear: “Don’t bother us, we’re busy spending your money.”
In the mystery pie that is the King County budget, “Equipment Repair and Replacement” might cover anything from new computer equipment for county administration to repair and replacement of equipment at SeaTac Airport, and we wouldn’t know the difference. Why didn’t the council explain what $29.6 million in CX Fund Transfers (huh?) are? What differentiates the Criminal Justice Fund expenditures from the regular “public safety” expenditures? And what the hell is the Grants Fund? $23 million in grants for what?
Given the vagueness, all of the following numbers are only rough estimates, and may be much lower than the actual figures for each category.
The largest expense is for transportation (no surprise): about $478 million, including road maintenance, bridge repair, and transit funds.
The second largest chunk of the budget is devoted to law enforcement and the maintenance of the police state. Some amounts:
Adult Detention: $78.3 million; County Sheriff: $71.8 million; Prosecuting Attorney: $32.5 million; Public Defense: $21.3 million; Superior Court: $20.7 million; District Court: $17.7 million; Automated Fingerprint Identification System: $10.8 million; Judicial Administration: $10.1 million; Licensing & Regulatory Services: $5.7 million; “Inmate Welfare”: $1.1 million; total, $270 million.
By contrast, there’s low-income housing (only $34.3 million), and community and youth services ($41.9 million, probably including amounts for youth detention that should be in the law enforcement category). Health and emergency medical services total about $274.1 million, but “health” also includes $80 million for mental health services, much of which also involves detention.
Like other governments, King County appropriates a lot of money for administration. Much of this is hidden in the other categories, so it’s not possible to reach a total figure, but here are some interesting details:
County Council Administration: $7,677,270; County Council Expense Fund: $2,374,787; County Executive: $219,103; Deputy County Executive: $2,264,343; Office of Budget & Strategic Planning: $6,178,823; Council Auditor: $1,316,413; Human Resources Management: $5,851,856; Records & Elections: $7,203,621. That’s right–the Deputy County Executive figure is listed as ten times that of the County Executive. No clues as to why.
And then there’s debt servicing. The “Rich Folks’ Gratuity Fund” includes money paid to retire old debts, pay back bonds, and pay interest on bonds (see ETS!, Vol. 2, #12). 1998 total: $212.7 million.
For anyone who takes the time to puzzle through the budget ordinance, there’s a treat at the end: the Capital Improvement Program, a list of major repairs, open space acquisitions, facility upgrades, and construction projects for the next few years. These are projects the council expects to fund through bonds, because there’s no budget money. Again, public transportation tops the list at $714.8 million (no details given); wastewater treatment ($531.4 million) and road improvement ($52.1 million) follow. The total debt is $1.5 billion-~nearly 60% of the total budget for 1998, a very high debt load.
From reading (or trying to read) the budget ordinance, we have a sketchy, tentative answer to the question: what does King County government do? The answer: King County Council is in the business of financing large construction projects, making interest payments to the wealthy, putting people in the slammer, handling (or mishandling) garbage and wastewater, rescuing idiots from steep mountainsides, and hauling taxpayers off to the hospital when they go into cardiac arrest after receiving their latest property tax assessment–oh, and also providing jobs for politicians and administrators. Looking at where the money goes, it’s easy to peg one of the primary political tasks of the County Council: “managing” growth. Or waving at it, and pocketing the campaign contributions, as it drives by.
After all that’s been taken care of, a few crumbs trickle down to us in the form of parks and library services, arts funding, and drug rehab counseling. Those crumbs, however, seem to be dwindling–although it’s not possible to know for sure. Only the council knows–and it’s not telling. Nor is mainstream media asking, nor is most of the public even vaguely aware of the pile of tax dollars at stake. Those mystery line items sure must be interesting.