Closing the budget gap

King County is facing the largest budget shortfall in its history. As the budget leadership team for the County Council, we believe there are several belt-tightening moves we can take now to help close that gap – the same tough choices that are being made by millions of households nationwide.

These changes won’t solve our larger budget issues. The projected $90 million shortfall is the result of falling revenues from sales taxes and the housing slowdown, rising costs, and the ongoing structural gap between revenues and expenses that plagues all counties in Washington. But these 12 belt-tightening measures, if implemented now, will yield tangible savings and efficiencies and help ease the pressures created by the downturn in the local economy:

• Eliminate the use of overtime shifts whenever possible and otherwise limit the use of overtime.

• Re-examine existing initiatives that have not delivered the expected results, such as the program to encourage cities to annex adjacent urban unincorporated neighborhoods for which the County must now provide roads and police protection.

• Suspend proposed new initiatives that may increase the cost of government, such as the recently announced “Bike and Walk” incentive program that pays county employees $20 a month to bike or walk to work.

• Implement a hiring freeze on all staff where there would be no threat to public safety or continued operation of essential county government functions.

• Restrict out-of-jurisdiction travel to essential county government operations or financial advocacy for our county government.

• Extend the replacement period for vehicles and tie vehicle replacement to the mileage and condition of the vehicle.

• Cut all vacant, non-essential full-time equivalent positions that are not essential to the operation of government, and re-evaluate the need for these positions at a later date.

• Cut all non-essential term-limited temporary positions in 2008, and don’t fund new ones in 2009 that are not related to essential functions.

• Control communications costs by reducing or eliminating unnecessary communications, cell phones and printing.

• Eliminate the county’s Copy Center, which hasn’t proven itself to be a viable line of county business.

• Freeze construction spending for capital projects not yet under contract. Don’t enter into construction contracts for capital projects paid for out of the general fund until completion of the 2009 budget, except for those deemed essential.

• Reduce operating costs. Immediately implement any changes that could result in a reduction of operating costs or energy consumption without interfering with the provision of essential services. This would include reducing energy consumption by turning off lights and computers when not in use and any other feasible power reductions.

We have formally urged the county executive Ron Sims to implement these measures immediately to save money now, and to incorporate them into the 2009 budget proposal he is scheduled to present to the council on Oct. 13.

In the long term, the Legislature must engage in a serious discussion of broadening the base of revenues that support state mandates and the public services provided by all 39 counties in Washington.

Public safety, health and quality of life must be our top priorities for funding. We invite you to share your priorities with us at one of six public hearings scheduled throughout the county starting later this month. The budget we adopt in late November will be balanced, it will put basic services first, and it will incorporate every savings and efficiency we can realize.

Larry Phillips, Jane Hague, Bob Ferguson and Kathy Lambert are Metropolitan King County Council members.

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