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Mid-term report: King County Executive Dow Constantine discusses new culture, lingering challenges in return Valley visit
Seeking a stable footing and regional cooperation, King County is reforming, says Executive Dow Constantine.
Laying out the county's challenges and success in his first two years at the helm, Constantine met with business and community leaders at the Valley Record Office, Wednesday, May 23, during a stop in Snoqualmie for a local government's meeting.
Reprising his 2010 visit to the Valley Record with a mid-term report, he took questions from local leaders on issues from financial stability to flooding, tourism and homelessness.
As Constantine took office, the county had been in the midst of a decade of fiscal crisis. State initiatives, annexations and the recession had hammered the county's budgets.
Constantine had pledged to find efficiencies and build a culture of performance. In his remarks at the Valley Record, he laid out how that had been undertaken.
"We are managing the things that are within our control," Constantine said.
Nine out of 10 employees—everyone except the police union—partnered with the county to waive part of their pay and save services and jobs.,
"They chipped in by really starting to take ownership of their workplaces, and by identifying what could be done differently, less expensively, more quickly, and focusing on outcomes for the customer."
Last year, the county unveiled a new service tier system for its roadways, which continues today.
Major arterials will be taken care of, but for many smaller, local roads, "there are not enough funds to maintain them properly," Constantine said. The county's road fund has nearly been halved, and a sixth of the roads workforce has been laid off.
"The net result is that we simply don't have the money to take care of the road system," the executive said. "Unincorporated residents are still stuck with debt for roads that are now part of cities. Half their money is going to pay for stuff that is no longer in the unincorporated area. That is all the result of the way transportation funding is structured, coming down from the state."
The tiers are a triage system, he said.
"Some roads, when they reach a certain point, if nothing changes, will have to be turned into gravel, which is a sad statement for the 21st century," Constantine said.
The county continues to seek relief from the legislature, in hopes of stabilizing a revenue stream in line with needs.
"These roads are regional," the executive said. "The few remaining incidents should not be asked to pay for a road system used by everybody in the region."
Valley businessman Sherwood Korssjoen asked Constantine to consider road improvements on the county's two-mile stretch of a scenic connector to a major wilderness area along the Middle Fork.
"This is going to open up this area," Korssjoen said. "It's a little piece that will finish a road that will look just like the road to Yellowstone."
"It's good to know about," the executive replied. "We have to show Olympia, King County, our citizens what it would mean to have adequate resources.
"It's a perfect fit for where the Valley cities are," he added. "More and more, Valley cities are home to people commuting to Seattle…. The character will not be lost. The new wealth gives us opportunities."
Questioned on what the county is doing to prevent flooding, Constantine talked about his role in implementing the direction of the Flood District, which is overseen by the county council.
A bill that would have merged the county with the district died in the state senate, "at the cost of about a million dollars to you this year," the executive said.
"We're going to merge the flood district and the ferry district into the county, so we can get rid of all the unnecessary duplication," Constantine said. "It's interesting that the county council is willing to cede that authority to save the money. That's how bought-in they are to the idea that we can work in partnership and be more efficient."
In the last four years, the county has helped at least 100 landowners, elevating 40 homes; the county pays for 87 percent of elevations. A pilot program is now in the works to elevate barns, and the county is exploring cost sharing for farmhouses.
The county is taking a priority approach to reducing flood risk, that involves repairs levees in places, and putting the river back to a natural, meandering state in others.
"We created this county-wide flood district so we could quit treating this system of three rivers with Band-aids," he said. "How do we get long-term protection which allows us to restore some of the ecological function of these rivers, that have been so heavily engineered over the years."
Relaying the story of a Fall City woman who fell between the cracks of human services, Mount Si Food Bank Director Heidi Dukich asked Constantine how the county can help keep people in crisis off the streets.
"It's weekly that we hear stories like this," Dukich said. "There's no housing here."
The county considers a cohort of homelessness, from veterans to families, but a big concern, the executive said, is helping the elderly homeless.
"They have very little ability to get a job, get their lives straightened out," he said. "It's unjust that you can live your whole live being a contributing member of society, and suddenly find yourself out on the streets."
The county is leaving emergency shelter in the hands of the private sector, while partnering with the state and House Speaker Frank Chopp on putting enough low-income housing in all communities. The county, Constantine said, has limited income but the ability to bond for such projects.
"The model our region is following is we want churches, charities, etcetera, to deal with this so we can focus on building the permanent housing that we know is the key to long-term success," the executive said.
• You can follow the King County Executive at http://www.kingcounty.gov/exec/constantine.aspx.