"WHAT DO WE WANT to look like when we grow up?" Who better to ask than that quintessential suburban soccer mom from SeaTac, Julia Patterson. When you apply that question to King County government, she brings a fresh perspective. She's the only one of the seven Democrats on the 13-member King County Council who doesn't represent a single Seattle constituent. She arrived in office 12 months ago after surviving a bruising election fight. She found the county's general-fund cupboard really, really bare: deficits of $41 million this year, $52 million next year, and $24 million in each of the subsequent two years. There's no single reason for these deficits, but contributing factors include Tim Eyman's tax-cut fever, the recession, unfunded mandates from state government, rapidly rising criminal-justice costs, and the loss of revenue from many annexations of county land by cities. It's obvious that the county's antiquated tax structure—it can only levy sales and property taxes, unlike cities, which can also tax businesses and utility users—cannot generate enough dough to do everything the county has to do, much less everything that constituents want it to do. Either the county needs to focus on providing the legally required services—mostly prosecutors, courts, and jails—and stop doing "optional" stuff like having pools, parks, and human services, or it needs to get permission from the state Legislature to levy new taxes.
This fiscal crisis doesn't make Patterson's phone light up, however.
Here's what does: the proposal by a couple of Republican council members, Sammamish's Dave Irons and Kent's Kent Pullen, to reduce the county council from 13 members to nine. They estimate the savings would be between $2 million and $3 million a year.
MOST OF THE COUNCIL'S Democratic majority hate the idea, pointing out that their districts would balloon from their current 130,000 to roughly 200,000 people. And their voters don't seem to care one way or the other. King County Council President Cynthia Sullivan, who represents a large swath of North Seattle, said her office didn't receive a single call, e-mail, or letter on the subject.
Patterson's constituents are different from government-loving Seattleites. The simplicity of the idea of everybody, even elected officials, sharing this budget pain appealed to them. Her constituents' motivation is clear: distrust of elected officials. "My constituents support me and like me," she notes, but "they distrust their government. That saddens me."
Patterson wonders if the local citizenry's disenchantment with government has to do with its local profusion. There are 180 governments in King County (we have just created another one to build and operate a monorail), according to King County Council member Rob McKenna, R-Bellevue. Patterson lists some of them: "sewer districts, fire districts, hospital districts, school districts, cemetery districts, ports, cities, Sound Transit. . . . " She trails off as if exhausted. "It's confusing to average voters. It's confusing to me!" She adds, "With that many little governing entities, there has to be overlap and redundancy."
Patterson, being a good mom and knowing the importance of hearing people out, pondered her problem: The voters don't listen when I talk about our complicated financial problems or vast array of governments, but they get all excited when somebody mentions eliminating extra council members and running the household with less help. Her solution? Let's put the whole thing on the table: an independent commission that looks at governance, taxing authority, and lines of business.
AFTER MONTHS OF negotiations, this week she lined up bipartisan support, and the King County Council passed her commission 11 to 1
Four warlords of King County government—King County Executive Ron Sims, Sullivan, King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng, and presiding Superior Court Judge Richard Eadie—will have to reach consensus on a nine-member commission drawn from business, labor, and academia. The commission will have over two years to come up with recommendations about the whole big mess. Cut food banks and domestic- violence prevention? Eliminate judges? New business taxes? Everything is open for examination, says Patterson.
"What is the future for King County? Why is the county relevant? What is it that regional government should do?" she muses.
Isn't the voters' reaction liable to be pretty cynical? I mean, what does government always do when confronted with a problem: study it until it goes away.
Patterson says it won't be like that. "The commission is dangerous," she warns. "Everyone has something to gain or to lose."