Warden Simms Screws Social Services
December 4, 2002

Maria Tomchick

The 2003 county budget, passed by the King County Council early last week, attempted to address the worst aspects of Simms' draft budget. It was only partially successful.

The 2003 budget had to plug a $52 million hole. The shortfall was due to three important factors. The county gets its funding from two sources: property taxes and sales taxes. Sales tax revenue has dropped because of the economic downturn, increased unemployment in King County, and a sharp fall in consumer spending. Property tax collections have gone down, too, because the county has lost and is continuing to lose jurisdiction over land that's being incorporated into new cities. In addition, a recent Tim Eyman initiative limited property tax increases to 1% per year (far below the level of inflation).

So cuts had to be made. King County government general fund expenses break down into five broad categories: administrative expenses (Simms' office and the Council's expenses), the popular parks and recreation system, social and health services, arts programs, and the county justice system, which includes the County Sheriff's department, the county jail, and the county court system.

Ron Simms sent a draft budget to the County Council a while ago that put the burden of cuts on the parks and recreation department and on social and health services. His proposal was to cut social and health services by 50% in 2003 and then eliminate them entirely from the budget in 2004. Yes, that's right, he wanted to get rid of all social services. Simms is, ostensibly, a Democrat; yet, his loyalties lie with preserving the justice system at all costs. Partially, he's responding to the State of Washington, which mandates that counties take care of criminal justice expenses; parks and social services are seen as "discretionary."

But Simms has a choice. The jail population in King County has fallen, crime rates have fallen, and the King County Sheriff's office has an ever-decreasing amount of territory to patrol. In this light, Simms' "tough on crime" budget is clearly calculated to win him points with conservative rural and suburban voters when he eventually decides to run for governor against Gary Locke, as pundit have predicted.

There's a constituency, however, that Simms is ignoring with his efforts to destroy the county's social services. Because it's cheaper to live in unincorporated King County than in Seattle, Renton, or the Eastside, a large number of impoverished working people have been pushed out into rural areas, where they need to rely on the county's social services--particularly community health clinics, food banks, job placement services, and child care subsidies. Many of these folks are single parents newly pushed off welfare and who are working minimum wage jobs. They scramble to pay rent, heat, phone, and food bills, much less buy school supplies, pay the dentist, buy gas for the car, or scrape up pennies to pay for child care. To Ron Simms, these people are invisible.

The County Council--six Republicans and seven Democrats (some quite conservative)--were horrified by the 50% cut. They restored money for community health clinics and other necessary services and trimmed some money from the county jail, but otherwise left Simms' budget largely intact. Social and health services will be cut by nearly $3 million next year--a 26% decrease at a time when demand for these services is increasing.

Parks and recreation will suffer a 36% cut ($9.2 million). The county is currently negotiating with the cities of Tukwila, Renton, Maple Valley, and Enumclaw to take over some of the parks and pools within their boundaries, and may be able to work out deals with other cities. A total of 35 parks and 10 pools are scheduled to be shut down if they're not spun-off to local cities for maintenance.

The King County Arts Commission will suffer the ignoble fate of being kicked out of the county budget altogether and turned into a semi-public/semi-private agency that will be dependent on a hotel/motel tax. If tourism continues to lag with the shrinking economy, we can forget about any real arts funding.

Meanwhile, cops and courts will remain funded at current levels and the jail will lose only $5.8 million, a meager 5% cut. Social service advocates had claimed that the county justice system could easily absorb a $16 million cut with no ill effects. Sheriff Dave Reichert and Prosecutor Norm Maleng, however, fought tooth-and-nail against that effort, which would have cut funds to their offices.

But that $16 million could have been better spent on social services. It could have prevented the loss of child care subsidies that will force working parents to choose between their jobs and a safe place to take their kids during the day. Or it could have saved the county's housing voucher program. Surely, the county will lose in the long run if poor people go back onto welfare, end up on the street with their kids, or end up placing their kids with aging relatives or unsafe strangers.

And that $16 million could have saved the Cedar Hills Addiction Facility, which keeps folks with drug and alcohol dependency problems off the street and out of the more expensive court and jail system. It could have saved the youth employment program, which helps kids earn money towards college--a way to help pull themselves out of a life of minimum wage jobs, food stamps, housing vouchers, and reliance on the system.

Gone is the rhetoric of reforming the criminal justice system to shift the burden from punishment to crime prevention, from jail time to drug treatment. The future, presided over by Warden Simms and his council of prison guards, is too dismal to contemplate.