Sims Loses His Budget Gamble in Olympia

Just in time for swine flu, the county’s left without money for communicable-disease investigations.

As swine flu continues to send hypochondriacs into a panic every time someone sneezes, King County politicians and department heads are scrambling to find a way to save more than $3.5 million worth of public-health programs after King County Executive Ron Sims' failed attempt to dodge deep and politically treacherous cuts through what he called a "lifeboat."In the county's 2009 budget, Sims made drastic cuts across the county to balance out a $93 million deficit. But not everything got the ax. Hoping that Olympia would pass bills allowing the county to raise money through new taxes, he funded some programs, like children's health care at community clinics and a dental program in low-income schools, for six months. Another program in the lifeboat—a particularly ill-timed potential reduction—is communicable disease investigations, which track the spread of infections, like swine flu, through the county. Once the details were hammered out by the King County Council, the cuts prevented by the lifeboat totaled about $8 million.Sims then threatened to sink his lifeboat if Olympia didn't either lift the property-tax cap or give the county the power to levy additional utility taxes. The council approved this scheme unanimously, but the state legislature failed to follow suit—and now the boat is scheduled to sink on June 30.So maybe it's a good thing for Sims that he's not running again this year. After announcing the lifeboat plan with much fanfare last fall, Sims didn't even mention it in a press release praising the things King County actually managed to get in Olympia.County health department spokesperson James Apa says his department is working to prioritize the programs that were in the lifeboat, and then see if money can be shifted around to keep them going. "But we didn't get a new revenue source for some of our critical services that are in the lifeboat," says Apa, adding that it's unlikely the county will be able to keep most of the items in the boat afloat. That means the total number of clinic visits provided to low-income kids will go down by more than 1,000, and in-school dental programs will disappear. The communicable disease investigations won't cease completely, but the budget for the program is set to be cut significantly.During this year's state legislative session, Rep. Ross Hunter, a Medina Democrat who's running to replace Sims as county executive, introduced legislation containing everything on the county's wish list, including new taxes to fund the lifeboat. However, by the time the final version passed the Senate, it only allowed the county to raise taxes to cover deficits in the current general-fund budget, which the county predicts will be in the red for at least another two years—not to cover the lifeboat programs, which are already being funded out of reserve cash.But it also allowed for a little more flexibility in the ways the county can use the money. For instance, in 2005 voters approved a five-cent property-tax levy to create new mental-health programs. But now the county can use the money to preserve existing efforts like Mental Health Court, a non-lifeboat program that's only funded through the end of this year.State law didn't previously allow the county to move cash around in such a manner. It may not matter, however; Apa says the county doesn't have enough cash to shift things around to save everything in the lifeboat, but will be exploring ways to save higher-priority programs. So if you've been dependent on community clinics for your kid's health care, you might need to start looking for other options.

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