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Originally published Monday, September 26, 2011 at 11:47 AM

King County budget: a relative bright spot

King County Executive Dow Constantine proposed a 2012 budget Monday that would preserve almost all services and add to reserves, but would reduce road crews and maintenance.

Seattle Times staff reporter

quotes Didn't mention KC is adding managers and giving promotions to others while laying off s... Read more
quotes "King County budget: a relative bright spot" Relative to what??? Read more
quotes I don't know what to say a budget that doesn't cut services and increases reserves? How... Read more

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King County Executive Dow Constantine proposed a 2012 budget Monday that would preserve almost all services and add to reserves, but would reduce road crews and maintenance.

Thanks to efficiencies and program changes, Constantine said he was able to achieve his goal of largely maintaining services while limiting budget increases.

The single biggest savings came from reducing employee health-care costs from earlier projections by an estimated $61 million this year and next.

"Surrounded by seas of red ink, we have made King County an island of relative stability," Constantine said Monday in his budget speech.

Problems loom, though, in the longer term with funding for roads in more rural, unincorporated parts of the county. It is the one area where Constantine said he is proposing to cut services by prioritizing maintenance for the most traveled roads.

That means the least-used roads would see deterioration in snow removal and upkeep; some paved roads might even be downgraded to gravel.

Constantine said the road troubles stem from an archaic funding structure.

The county's road funds are largely supported by a levy authorized 25 years ago, he said. That levy relies on taxes paid by property owners in unincorporated areas.

But annexations — along with flattening gas-tax revenues and lower property valuations — have decreased the funds, leaving 250,000 residents to pay for 1,600 miles of roads used by some 2 million drivers.

As a result, the Road Services Division will see a projected cut, over this year and next, of 111 positions, or almost 19 percent of staff. This year, 81 employees were laid off; 25 of the 30 positions targeted next year are now filled.

Constantine said the county is looking to see which of those employees could be placed in other unfilled jobs.

"It's no longer adequate or fair," Constantine said of the financing system for county roads.

He hopes a statewide task force on transportation will come up with a solution.

The county is also banking on the task force to help Metro, its transit agency, maintain bus service. It's uncertain how Metro would cover its costs when a new increase in car-tab fees expires in two years.

The county's general fund, the discretionary part of the overall budget that covers basic services including law enforcement, public defense, corrections, elections and the Assessor's Office, would be $648 million next year under Constantine's proposal. This year, it is a little over $619 million.

Historically, the budget has grown about 6 percent a year.

Constantine's goal is to roughly cut that increase by half, according to his budget chief, Dwight Dively, limiting increases to inflation plus increased demand brought about by annual population growth.

The general fund budget Constantine proposed Monday is 4.6 percent more than the current budget, not the 3 percent he's targeted.

He said that's because it contains some one-time costs that will help achieve a lower growth rate in the future. They include replacing some antiquated computer technology and hiring four staff members to carry out Constantine's plans for change.

Because further cuts in the state budget are likely, Constantine proposed spending an additional $1 million on human services, a one-time infusion to help the neediest.

He also proposed adding $2.7 million to the rainy day funds, a strategic move intended to ensure the county's AAA-bond rating.

In all, the county's number of employees is projected to drop from 13,287 at the start of this year to 12,971 next year.

The roads division accounts for the biggest share of the job cuts.

The vast majority of county employees have agreed to no cost-of-living wage increases this year, and increases in the next three years would be slightly less than inflation.

Other savings came about through consolidating offices and sheriff's precincts, and selling 54 vehicles.

To attain his goal of limiting future budget increases, Constantine said the county must keep doing two things: finding efficiencies to provide the same level of services, and continue working with employees and their unions to reduce health-care costs.

Bob Young: 206-464-2174 or byoung@seattletimes.com

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