Under the Knife
January 16, 2002

Maria Tomchick


Politicians are gearing up for the new legislative season, and they'll be deliberating on a lot of critical issues. Most of the attention has been on the state's transportation plan or President Bush's economic stimulus bill. But nobody's really paying attention to the two legislative bodies that effect us most directly: the city council and the county council. Here's a look at what they'll be handling this year.

On the city level, the Seattle City Council will be adjusting to a new mayor, who has already tried to exert his control over the council. Nickels is on record saying that he thinks the council has usurped too much power from the mayor's office. Of course, the council balanced its budget this year by cutting funds to the mayor's office to make up for Schell's propensity to hire the most expensive staff he could find. On the other hand, Nickels recently sent out a controversial memo to the various city departments about the procedure for doling out information to council members (much to the council members' chagrin). With hothead Peter Steinbrueck as council president this year, we could have a real firestorm ahead.

The issues:

The budget: the city's reliance on business & occupation taxes and sales taxes makes it vulnerable during a recession. The city council's current budget preserves most social services while cutting funds for city administration and the police department. If the recession continues or deepens, however, the budget will need further cuts.

Transportation: former Mayor Schell filled potholes, supported light rail, and gave Flexcar a helping hand, but did little else on this issue. Nickels has spoken in support of both light rail and a monorail system. He wants to lobby the state legislature in Olympia for funds to build the monorail, in addition to putting a funding package before voters. Other major transportation issues include: expanding water-taxi service, re-synchronizing traffic lights, and replacing the Alaskan Way Viaduct, which will cost an arm and a leg ... and another arm ... and several toes on the remaining foot...

Police: The Schell-Kerlikowski team, aided by city council member Jim Compton (who heads the council's public safety committee), has taken only the tiniest steps to improve police accountability and has let the police union dictate the terms. Racial profiling is still a non-issue for the council, but a big issue for constituents. In the meantime, the Mardi Gras riots, the Nov. 30 fiasco, and the recent rash of police shootings are revealing a department with a serious problem. Nickels' response: to keep a police radio at home and ask to be awakened if "violence erupts."

Other major issues: funding for the construction of the new city hall building, repealing the hated civility ordinances, equitably doling out funds for affordable housing, forcing developers and non-profits to stick to their quotas for building low-income housing units, clamping down on slumlords, providing the promised funds for a downtown day center for the homeless, revamping the city's permitting process for demonstrations and large social events, electing city council members by district instead of at-large (Nickels supports this, but council members don't), removing culverts from salmon creeks, and daylighting Thornton Creek where it runs under the Northgate Mall's south parking lot.

It's a big list. Hopefully, Nickels' early attempts to exert his dominance won't mean that the council will spend most of its time fighting him instead of getting real work done.

The city port authority (a governing body all its own, without much public oversight or accountability) will have its own set of issues: security at SeaTac, the stalled construction of a third runway at SeaTac, protests over expanding Seattle's docking facilities for cruise ships and pleasure boats at the expense of commercial fishermen, and protests over giveaways of money and assets to major corporations (see ETS! Vol. 6, No. 10, 1/2/02).

At the county level, the King County Council has changed from a predominantly Republican-controlled body to a slim 7-6 majority of Democrats. Cynthia Sullivan (D-Seattle) is the new chairperson. Larry Phillips (D-Seattle), who wrote last year's budget, has replaced Republican Rob McKenna as the chairperson of the budget committee, and Democrat Dwight Pelz has taken over Maggie Fimia's job as chair of the transportation committee. This, by the way, is a real coup for County Executive Ron Sims, who has been maneuvering behind the scenes to push light rail critics McKenna and Fimia out of major positions on regional and council transportation committees. But it bodes ill for oversight of Sound Transit's finances.

The issues:

Budget: the county is in a worse funding crisis than the city, with a $40 million shortfall this year and another $40 million that will need to be cut in 2003. The cuts will be deep and wide; Sullivan has proposed closing all King County parks, laying off county employees, and eliminating some social services. But this would account for only half of this year's shortfall. Sullivan is also looking at cuts in the justice system (i.e., cops and courts, but also programs that help at-risk youth).

Transportation: three items will be trouble spots this year--Tim Eyman's assualt on light rail and Metro bus funding, the money to expand I-405, and the tug-of-war over how to efficiently use the downtown bus tunnel (light rail or buses?). And this year the council will review Metro Transit's six-year plan. In addition, the state legislature may pass a bill allowing the Puget Sound region to form its own transportation authority to levy taxes to fund big, regional projects; the county will probably take the lead on setting this up.

Other major issues: building a desperately-needed sewage treatment plant, cutting funds for cops and jails, early release of inmates held for non-violent drug offenses, and reining in developers who have violated the Growth Management Act (don't expect this to happen any time soon, with Republican Jane Hague as the new chair of the growth management committee). This year Sims and the council will have to negotiate new union contracts with county employees; in the wake of budget cuts, layoffs, and salary cuts, this could lead to a strike by county employees.

Now, for folks who think the county doesn't do much for them and they wouldn't miss a few cuts here and there, here's a list of some of the services that receive funding from the county: Community Colleges, The Tenants' Union, The Crisis Clinic of King County, King County Housing & Community Development Program, HomeSight, a number of youth shelters (including Aloha House, Denny Place, The Shelter in south Seattle, Youth Haven in Bellevue, and Teen Hope in Shoreline), Early Head Start, dozens of youth career and development programs, the King County Work Training Program, the Dislocated Worker Program, a number of Veterans' programs, various child care subsidy programs, the County Health Department (everything from school immunizations to dozens of HIV/AIDS programs, from food safety and restaurant inspection programs to inspection of water quality), dozens of alcohol and substance abuse programs, homeless services, 1st time homebuyer programs, 24-hour hotlines (for domestic violence, sexual assault, alcohol & drug abuse, and food safety), housing repair programs for low and fixed income people and the landlords that serve them, and programs that support the disabled and elderly.

For more information or to contact the mayor, county executive, or various city and county council members, visit the Seattle City Government website at http://www.ci.seattle.wa.us or the King County government homepage at http://www.metrokc.gov. The City Council's general message line is 206-684-8888, the mayor's office is 206-684-4000, and the county executive's office is 206-296-4040.