Civil services face severe cuts as county faces budget shortfalls

Proposed cutbacks to King County’s budget to make up for a nearly $70 million shortfall in 2009 will likely cause a ripple effect throughout the county as court services, sheriff’s deputies and prosecuting attorneys will likely be cut.

Proposed cutbacks to King County’s budget to make up for a nearly $70 million shortfall in 2009 will likely cause a ripple effect throughout the county as court services, sheriff’s deputies and prosecuting attorneys will likely be cut.

During a press conference last week, King County Sheriff Sue Rahr, Bruce Hilyer, presiding judge of County Superior Court, Prosecutor Dan Satterberg and District Court Presiding Judge Barbara Linde talked about the cuts County Executive Ron Sims has asked them to make in their departments.

Each department is expected to cut 8.6 percent of their budgets, which will total about $33 million across seven criminal justice departments, due to a $68 million shortfall in the county’s overall 2009 budget.

“Never in my 29 years as a police officer have I seen a situation that so severely impacts our ability to deal with crime,” Rahr said.

Rahr may be forced to cut as many as 100 deputies and potentially scale back or eliminate investigation of most fraud, Internet, property and identity theft crimes where the loss is less than $10,000.

Satterberg described the county’s entire criminal justice system as one “that is in trouble.”

Sammamish officials contract with the Sheriff’s Office to provide deputies for its police department

There will also be large reductions in the Prosecutor’s Office, including as many as 30 deputy prosecutors losing their jobs, Satterberg said. Already a hiring freeze is in place, so new hires who were supposed to start this fall have been told they are in an indefinite holding pattern.

“The cuts will devastate the entire public safety system,” Satterberg said. “We’re already feeling the pinch of being short staff. It’s our obligation to say … we are in trouble.”

In response, Sims held a press conference shortly afterward, saying “You now know what a $33 million cut looks like.”

Sims blamed the combination of the downturn in the state and national economies with the state and federally mandated required services the county must provide for the budget shortfall.

“King County has a fundamental financial challenge,” Sims said. “We’re going to work on a myriad of options to resolve this. Before this is resolved, as King County Executive, I must first propose a balanced budget.”

Sims said he hopes to get help from legislators in Olympia and that he plans to take his case to the public to explain the budget shortfall.

“None of us want damage to the public safety or public health (systems) so we’re focusing on those issues,” Sims said.

Meanwhile, Superior Court and District Court may have to get rid of what Hilyer and Linde described as effective programs that dealt with offenders with mental health issues, services for addicts that helped them into recovery rather than jail, and other optional discretionary services designed to reduce recidivism.

Linde said these programs help because “intervention works.”

In addition, thousands of Superior and District Court cases will be re-distributed among the municipal courts of the 37 cities in King County, primarily cases dealing with petty crime as part of an effort to cut back the work load through prioritization.

All four said they brought the issue public because they feel it’s important to educate county residents so they in turn can voice their opinion to elected officials.

“That’s how the process works,” Hilyer said.

The blame wasn’t laid at the feet of Sims, rather, the competing demands on resources that are not growing at the same pace as the cash that flows into county coffers.

“It’s an obvious structural problem,” Satterberg said. “We need to look at what we ask counties to do and how they fund that.”

County Councilman Larry Phillips, who chairs the Annual Budget Committee, said that this budget shortfall could have been avoided had there been better planning earlier in the decade after a string of voter-approved statewide initiatives started a squeeze on the county’s ability collect taxes in recent years.

“This should never have happened,” Phillips said in a statement. “We have known since 2001 that King County was facing a formula for disaster with shrinking revenues and growing costs. Rather than following through with strategies to stabilize costs and shore up revenues, the Executive declared in 2005 that the era of big budget deficits was over. That pronouncement has jeopardized public safety funding in King County.”

With property tax revenues capped at no more than a 1 percent annual increase the county cut $137 million its budget between 2002 and 2005.

Phillips said he began working in Januray with the county’s elected public safety officials, who called the press conference on Thursday, to discuss the potential negative impacts the looming budget cuts could create given than criminal justice services make up 71 percent of the county’s general fund expenditures.

“The citizens of King County have shown a willingness to step up and protect the services important to them such as regional parks, human services, and emergency medical services,” Phillips said. “What could be more pressing and basic than ensuring our communities are safe by adequately funding our criminal justice and public health systems?”

For those living in contract cities or unincorporated areas of the county, like Covington, Maple Valley or Newcastle, Rahr said there will become two levels of service. A higher level for those living in cities with police departments and lower one for those who are not because of the cuts that will be made in the department.

“Our top priority is that when someone calls 911 they get a police officer and they get them quickly,” Rahr said. “I can’t guarantee that 2 or 3 years down the road.”