Budget Hell

Jail or health care? That really is the question.

Will King County let people out of jail in order to balance its budget? Or will the county eliminate human services? It may actually have to do both.

King County's budget shortfalls are boggling: $41 million this year (already cut), $52 million next year, $30 million in 2004, and $30 million in 2005. The county's fiscal problems arise from what King County Council budget chair Larry Phillips, D-Magnolia, calls "a perfect storm"—a combination of a shrinking tax base, Tim Eyman tax-cutting initiatives, unfunded mandates from the state Legislature, rising health care costs for employees, and more.

The largest part of the county's general fund budget, $335 million—or 68 percent—is for criminal justice. Financial necessity has forced political figures as different as Republican King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng and liberal King County Council member Larry Gossett, D-Central District, to collaborate on an effort to reduce the daily population in the King County Jail from 3,000 to 2,600.

On July 11, Gossett held a hearing on plans for dramatic changes at the jail—perhaps the most radical criminal justice reform ever undertaken by the county—and it only drew public testimony from 12 people.

Gossett hopes to reduce the jail population in many ways—more home detention, changes in booking procedures, a day reporting center, and work crews. Gossett insists all this can be done in a way that does not jeopardize public safety. He says the plan "targets low-level, nonviolent offenders." Council staff members say jail time could be reduced or eliminated for those who break civil laws, individuals under investigation for a crime against property, poor defendants who are unable to make bail, and people who have violated technical aspects of their probation. The savings estimated from the plan range from $4 million (executive staff) to $20 million (council analysts).

The King County Alliance for Human Services says it faces extinction without that money. On July 9, the Alliance packed a room at the Seattle Labor Temple with hundreds of cheering supporters to kick off its campaign against elimination. King County Executive Ron Sims says county government has to cut funding for human services by 50 percent in 2003 and eliminate it entirely in 2004. The Alliance, made up of 70 human services providers, points out their funding only makes up 7 percent—or $37 million—of the county's general fund budget. Sims' proposal "will affect thousands of people—senior citizens, disabled citizens, sick children, unemployed workers," says the Alliance's Tony Lee. "Cutting human services is a dangerous short-term solution with expensive long-term consequences." Lee says food banks, domestic violence prevention, homeless shelters, nursing care for seniors, and community health care clinics will all be hurt by these cuts.

The Alliance has decided to fight this budget battle as if it were waging a political campaign. This approach did not come easily to a group of people whose "major focus is helping people," says Alliance organizer Julia Sterkovsky. After months of meetings, Sterkovsky says, human services providers realized "we need to organize more effectively." Lee echoes that sentiment: "It's time for new solutions."

To that end, the Alliance has set an ambitious goal of raising $70,000—it already has over 100 donors—hired a communications consultant, launched a public education campaign about the important role human services play in our community, started outreach to opinion makers, begun a letter writing campaign to local newspapers, and continued lobbying the King County Council.

But can all the grassroots pressure in the world overcome the county's budget realities?

The Alliance realizes it cannot simply demand that the county save human services without suggesting a source of revenue. So it's supporting the reduction of the jail population. "There is a direct correlation between cutting human services and an increase in criminal justice," argues the Alliance's Lee. "If nothing is done, the county will essentially become a jailer."

But the Alliance is not the only group seeking to preserve funding for its cause. Sheriff Dave Reichert has been rattling his saber more loudly than usual lately. He has the public's ear because of the fear of terrorism and because of the shooting death of Deputy Richard Herzog on June 25 and the wounding of three deputies in another shootout at a meth lab five days later. Reichert is, in fact, arguing to increase criminal justice funding.

Still, human services have bipartisan support on the 13-member (seven Democrats, six Republicans) King County Council. While none of the council members reached last week said human services can escape cuts entirely, neither did any embrace the proposal to eliminate them.

It falls to these politicians to balance public safety, human needs, and financial reality. Let's hope they are up to the task.


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