Ron Sims Comes Out Swinging on Budget Complaints

The Executive points to his report card: AAA.

After weeks of taking heat from King County Council members and other county officials over the rapidly expanding budget deficit and proposed cuts, Ron Sims and his staff are fighting back. Last Friday, members of Sims' team descended on the Weekly office and declared that much of those criticisms are unwarranted and represent cheap political shots by people such as council member Larry Phillips, who is openly mulling a run against Sims for the position of King County Executive next year. As we noted in a story last week, council members and their staffers have lodged a litany of complaints over how Sims handles budget numbers, accusing his staff of "jealously guard[ing]" information or providing it in a form that's difficult to understand. At the top of the list of grievances is council members' skepticism over the accuracy of the budget forecasts coming from the Executive's office, skepticism made worse by a predicted general-fund deficit that Sims recently revised upward from $25 million last fall to more than $70 million now. Phillips takes the tension over the budget office's transparency one step further, accusing the Executive of fiscal mismanagement leading to the ballooning shortfall. This last shot is perhaps the most infuriating of all to Sims and his staff, who note that governments around the country—from the Feds down to Palookaville—have seen projected deficits rise sharply, as sales taxes and other revenues have dried up and costs increased. As evidence of his fiscal prudence, Sims is quick to point to the AAA bond rating that the county achieved on his watch—the first time the county has earned that top grade, he says. The rating allows the county to get lower interest rates when voters give a go-ahead to borrow money. After years of conservatively managing the county's budget, Sims says, he decided to seek a review from credit rating agencies in 2005, even though no bonds were on the ballot. Phillips, in an interview, questioned how much credit Sims should get for all those A's, saying the rating was achieved after more than two decades of fiscal responsibility on the part of several administrations and councils. That unleashed an emotional retort from Sims. "No one, no one, can say that those [credit ratings] evolved, that I can't take credit for them," he said. "I've had a lot taken from me in life; the one thing that I don't think anyone, anyone, can take away from me is that AAA credit rating. I earned it as executive." Taking a more direct shot at Phillips, he added: "In our business, if you have an ounce of veracity, you would concede that to my administration." As for the Executive keeping council members in the dark on the specific details of the county's financial situation, Sims' staff insists they're following the letter of the law. They say that the county charter only requires Sims to make the numbers available in October, when he submits his budget. "The charter created this tension, not us," says Sims' chief of staff, Kurt Triplett. He says Sims is going beyond the obligations of his office by giving the council members a heads-up about the pending deficit. The Executive-controlled budget office has even offered to make additional presentations to the council, he says, but hasn't been taken up on it. Phillips and fellow council member Julia Patterson say they are unaware of any such overtures in recent weeks, or at least since a June 23 labor summit when the budget office presented a revised deficit estimate based on rising employee costs. Triplett also says council members are unfairly implying that they're at the mercy of the Executive when it comes to the revenue estimates used to create the county's final budget. Under the charter, the council has the ability to change projections when they vote on the final budget, he says. They just never have. That's exactly why a new independent revenue forecaster is needed, says council member Bob Ferguson. (The council voted earlier this month to create such an office; it needs approval from the voters this fall.) Without hard data earlier in the process, the council is ill-equipped to actually make such changes, says Ferguson. "The council is not really in a position to dispute those numbers." Council members aren't the only ones bellyaching about the county budget. On June 5, King County Sheriff Sue Rahr, along with other prominent members of the county's justice system, called a news conference to issue a dire warning about upcoming cuts. In a document titled "Public Safety in Peril," they detailed a dark world where 100 deputies are pulled from the streets, property crimes under $10,000 go uninvestigated, felonies become misdemeanors, and the mental health court is shuttered. All of this was in response to Sims telling them that the impending deficit required them to slice their budgets by 8.6 percent (see "A Louder Rahr" in SW, July 9). But Sims' staff suggests that this worst-case scenario involves a lot of posturing. "What's happened since that first news conference is people believe those cuts have been made or the Executive is proposing those cuts and that's not true," says Sims spokesperson Carolyn Duncan. The Executive's office received those departments' budget proposals July 7, and Duncan says many of the proposed cuts trumpeted by the public safety and justice heads weren't there. However, more may still have to go on the chopping block. For example, Rahr's proposed cuts avoided things like firing 100 deputies, but only by proposing instead to reduce her department's contribution to centralized county overhead costs, such as payroll. To the Executive's office, that's a nonstarter. So when Sims creates his own proposals to send to the council in October, money will still have to be found in other parts of the county cops' budget. With political tensions this high, you might think everyone was facing re-election in November. But in fact the only part of this dispute that county voters will get to weigh in on this year is that plan to create a new economic-forecasting team for the county, one independent of both Sims and the council. The measure, if it passes, may help create less discord between the two sides over budget forecasting. But it only heralds a much bigger political battle brewing for 2009.

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