County predicts shortfall; programs could be cut

SEATTLE - Funds for the Si View Pool and Community Center, the Preston Community Center and other local, county-funded programs and services could be jeopardized next year because of a $36 million budget shortfall predicted by Metropolitan King County Executive Ron Sims.

Sims announced the budget problems in a Feb. 12 letter to County Council Chairman Pete von Reichbauer that asked for council cooperation in finding a solution to the problem, which could result in program cuts and the elimination of approximately 500 county jobs. The executive branch of the county government usually begins work on the budget in the summer, but Sims wanted to start now because he said it would take time to address the budget shortfall.

Less than three months ago, the 2001 budget was plagued with problems and went back and forth between Sims - who vetoed the council's original version - and council members before it was finally approved. Several programs, including the Si View Pool, were on the chopping block and were ultimately saved, but just for this year.

"The government you see in 2001 is not the same government you will see in 2002," said Sims' spokeswoman, Elaine Kraft. "It will not look the same, and it will not be the same, and the services we will provide will be different.

The Si View Pool and Preston Community Center have not yet been specifically chosen to be cut in 2002. Kraft said everything the county funds could be subject to cutbacks or elimination, especially programs that are not essential. Essential services have been identified as transit and sewers, among others.

"Everything is on the table at this point; everything is being scrutinized," Kraft said. "We're taking a look at all the businesses we're in to determine which ones the county should continue to be in."

She added that Sims also predicted the 2003 and 2004 budgets to fall short by $20 million each year, as costs to provide services increase and tax revenues decrease.

The cost to run the county's criminal-justice programs has gone up approximately 27 percent since 1998 because of state-mandated changes, Kraft said, adding that the state passes more crime laws each year, but leaves the county with the tab. Essentially, she explained, the state has mandated that more people be arrested for offenses and detained longer, which costs more each year.

Another rise in costs is that of insurance premiums for the existing 13,000 county employees, which have increased dramatically.

The reason for decreasing tax revenues is twofold, Kraft said. First, the number of taxpayers that contribute money directly to the county is shrinking because of recent annexations and newly incorporated cities, which means tax money that once went to the county now goes to cities.

"When King County was started 100 years ago, it was an agrarian society, and the county functioned on revenues from property taxes and later, sales taxes," Kraft said. "Now cities are taking up what was county land, and only a teeny portion is unincorporated."

Secondly, the tax cap passed by voters last November - Initiative 722 - puts a limit on the percent of increase the county can place on property taxes.

"The public doesn't want to pay more taxes. But with reduced revenues and reduced taxes, it means there will be things that are not funded by the government anymore," Kraft said.

"Some changes are going to be made, and these are not easy decisions," she added. "But we have to run a balanced budget, and we have to provide certain services and we have to change things this year. We are hoping to come up with some creative and innovative solutions, and that's why we're beginning this process six months early."

But how the county's budget woes will affect each city has yet to be seen. Supporters of the Si View Pool and Community Center, which is used by several community groups and individuals, worry that the pool is always first on the list to be moth-balled when the county has cuts to make.

"It's getting a little old having to fight this battle," North Bend Councilman Ed Carlson said, explaining that he's against funding cuts for the pool and community center. "It's a regional resource - it's not just for the city. Where else are you going to learn how to swim in this part of the world than in a swimming pool? It's too cold in the rivers."

The pool's funding has come under scrutiny several times over the years and was almost cut last year, but was preserved when the County Council asked Sims to fund it for the year 2001.

County Councilman David Irons, R-District 12, said he will watch closely to make sure the pool remains in next year's budget.

"That is my favorite local pool, and I have no interest in looking at reducing funding for that pool," he said. "As far as I'm concerned, [the pool] is not even on the drawing board for consideration."

Also, Irons said the county's predicted budget shortfall might not be as worrisome as it sounds. He explained that shortfalls happen most years because when developing the budget, the county has a tendency to underestimate incoming revenues and overestimate expenditures

"We take a conservative position on both, which we should. It gives us room to tweak the budget as needed," Irons said.

But Sims' concerns about 2002 budget problems are legitimate, Irons explained, and said the executive has made a wise move by looking at the budget now, instead of this summer.

"In a worst-case scenario, Ron is absolutely right. We keep our finger on the pulse [of the budget] and watch it, but we don't overreact today," Irons said. "We need to be prepared to act, not overreact. But we really won't know until we get closer and look at the economy and the expenses."

Irons pointed out that the 2001 budget, despite some predictions, is working out fine.

"Right now we have a balanced budget, and the revenues are coming in as expected," he said.

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