by Mike Andrew -
SGN Staff Writer
King County Executive Dow Constantine unveiled his proposed 2011 county budget on September 27.
The new budget presents a bleak picture of across-the-board reductions in county staff and services.
'I have balanced this budget, as the law requires,' Constantine told the County Council.
'Though this budget is balanced, it is an imperfect budget. It is an unpleasant budget. It makes reductions in critical services that I do not want to make, but which must be made in order for the budget to be in balance.
'I gave agencies a starting point of 12 percent reductions across the board. We asked that three percent be created through efficiencies. Three percent in efficiencies is equivalent to about $20 million dollars in costs.
'The budget I propose today re-bases our expenses at a new, lower level, with both efficiencies and significant service reductions.'
Constantine blamed a weak economy, which significantly reduced the county's two revenue sources - property taxes and a portion of the sales tax.
General-fund revenues are expected to fall $60 million short of the cost of continuing services at current levels.
2011 will be the third straight year that general fund revenues have declined. Consequently Constantine proposed to spend 2.3% less than 2010 and 5.6% less than 2009.
Constantine proposed to lay off 200 county employees and eliminate about 300 other positions from the county's 13,000 full-time employee workforce.
Three-quarters of the reduction would come in jobs that support criminal-justice programs.
Social service funding gone
Social services will also be hard hit, however.
'We had $20 million budgeted for social services a couple of years ago,' County Council Budget Committee chair Julia Patterson told SGN. 'You know what the number is for this budget? The number is zero.'
'Unfortunately, these [budget] shortfalls occur when people need us the most,' Patterson added.
County Council member Larry Phillips, who has been budget chair twice in the past, also lamented the elimination of county funding for social services.
'This is the first time the executive has proposed zeroing out social service funding,' he told SGN. 'For the past couple of years, we went to our reserves to balance the budget, but those resources are exhausted.'
Nothing is left in the county's reserve fund, Phillips said, beyond what is absolutely necessary to handle emergencies and maintain credit ratings.
Services used by the most vulnerable members of the LGBT community will be impacted, but not as severely as they could be - largely because they are funded by diverse revenue streams.
According to Frank Chaffee, manager of the Seattle/King County Public Health HIV Program, HIV/STD services 'will be cut, but they won't be zeroed out.'
'[Our] budget is complicated,' Chaffee told SGN, 'because we get funding from a lot of sources. Typically HIV funding is different from STD funding.'
For example, Chaffee said, 'HIV testing is funded almost exclusively by state and federal money. Chlamydia comes from another pot of money.'
'Care services are virtually all federal money,' Chaffee explained. 'Direct services for people living with HIV. Since the early 1990s, it's been federal money.'
'In Public Health, we're talking about epidemiology and prevention, Testing. Risk assessment. Not direct care,' Chaffee continued. 'We're also very reliant on outside grant revenue, and state or federal money.'
According to Chaffee, about 10% of all HIV/STD funding comes from King County.
'On the HIV side, it's about 7% [from the county],' Chaffee explained. 'On the STD side it's more like 20%.'
'The HIV side also includes federal grants from Ryan White [the Ryan White Comprehensive AIDS Resources Emergency Act] and some of that is contracted out to community agencies,' he continued.
Diverse revenue streams mean that local HIV/STD programs are less vulnerable to county budget problems than other social service programs that rely more heavily on county money.
Some HIV programs in danger
Some local HIV programs might be in danger, however. Both Patterson and Phillips cited the HIV testing program for minors in the county's juvenile detention facilities.
County funding for the program will be cut off if the proposed budget is approved by the County Council.
'I don't know what are the full implications,' Patterson said. 'We don't have anything from staff yet. But I'm worried that it translates into teens and young adults getting sick - and then spreading disease.'
According to Chaffee, the testing program is supported by 'a mix of funding, but some funding will be lost in the proposed cuts.'
Phillips was also concerned that the county's HIV disease control officer will be eliminated in the new budget.
'The position is vacant because of a retirement,' Phillips said, 'but the proposal is to consolidate that and several other positions into a single disease control position.'
According to Patterson, 'the services will still be provided,' but she acknowledged that the same number of person-hours would no longer be available exclusively for HIV control work.
Phillips also told SGN that an HIV perinatal care program would be terminated.
'It's a $350,000 federal grant that's been awarded to another agency, and we can't replace the funding,' he said.
'There are no good answers,' Patterson told SGN. 'The tax we rely on is the property tax, and that's limited by initiative to a 1% increase per year. Well, inflation is at 2%. So the county is progressively defunded.'
'We've asked staff to develop recommendations as to what we could do,' Patterson continued. 'We want to keep HIV in check, but there's no money out there. Public health is seriously compromised in this budget.'
'An ever-downward spiral, that's what we're in,' Phillips echoed, citing the cap on property tax increases that keep the growth of the county's budget below the inflation rate.
'The executive took an accurate and correct position,' he continued. 'You can only assume the revenues that you have. It's important to be candid with the voters.'
The County Council has scheduled public hearings on the budget - with the schedule available on the county's website. Council members will have an opportunity to amend the executive's proposal, with final budget approval coming in November.
While state and federal funds are not at risk for the moment, all the players spoke with dread about upcoming state and federal budget decisions.
'We're waiting to hear from the state sometime in October, probably late October,' Chaffee said. 'From the Department of Health in Olympia. Then we'll see what their cuts do.'
Patterson was not optimistic about securing new funds from outside sources.
'There's a sense of anticipation how the state budget cuts will affect us,' she said.
'There's a lot that's broken right now. D.C. is not functional. You can't have a conversation about how to solve basic problems. It's worse than I feared it was.'
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