So if you had an extra $10 million, how would you spend it?
In a county faced with making $44 million in cuts next year -- more than the county's entire general-fund budget for health and human services -- it's almost a trick question. But five of the candidates vying to become the next King County Executive had a ready answer at a July 16 election forum held at Bellevue's Meydenbauer Center.
Larry Phillips, a current member of the King County Council, said he'd put the money toward public safety, particularly the sheriff's office. Opponents Fred Jarrett and Ross Hunter, both state legislators, were also specific: Jarrett would put the $10 million toward employee training; Hunter would spend it on the county's public health programs and outside human services agencies.
Former KIRO-TV news anchor Susan Hutchison -- a GOP supporter who is far ahead of her Democratic contenders, according to a recent KING-5 News poll -- said she would also invest the money in social-service agencies, while her closest trailing rival, County Councilmember Dow Constantine, said he would use the cash to bridge the recession.
"What I won't do is grow government," Hutchison said. "We've been doing that for a long time."
It was one of many knocks on how King County has been run over the past three terms of County Executive Ron Sims, who left in May to join President Obama's administration as the deputy secretary of Housing and Urban Development. Without naming Sims, the candidates disparaged county management and the budget crisis, positioning themselves as fixers who plan to squeeze more money out of the budget through cuts and efficiency.
All five candidates said they would not ask voters to raise the county's property or sales tax this November -- proposals put on the table by County Councilmember Julia Patterson and interim County Executive Kurt Triplett.
"This is not the time for a tax increase," said Phillips, a former state representative who has been on the County Council since 1991, including chairing its budget committee four times. "We're just going to have to prioritize, find these efficiencies [and] move discretionary items out of the general fund" -- a tax-revenue pool that has declined significantly in the recession.
The $41 million in health and human services that the county pays for from the general fund are all discretionary, raising concern that the county could cut all or a major part of its safety net in 2010 as it looks to maintain state-mandated services like sheriff's deputies, court operations, public defense and elections.
To cut the cost of the county's "bloated government," Hutchison said she would institute an immediate hiring freeze and cut more staff in the executive and council offices to make up for the reductions that the sheriff's office, prosecutors and courts took in the $93 million in cuts made this year.
Hutchison also wants to cut about $100 million in state revenue by raising the income threshold at which companies have to pay the Business and Occupation Tax -- something she said she would fight for at the state level to ease the tax burden on small businesses that create jobs. And she and Jarrett, a state senator from Mercer Island who switched from Republican to Democrat in 2007, said the county shouldn't be wasting money on expanding passenger-only ferries.
"It doesn't make sense to me to have Metro [bus] service to the suburbs being cut at the same time that we're expanding services in the city of Seattle on water," Jarrett said. "It just doesn't pass the straight-face test."
Constantine, a former state representative and senator who has been on the County Council since 2002, said he could save $1.1 million immediately by making the county's top managers and executives contribute two percent to the cost of their health insurance, which is currently free to them. He, Jarrett and Hunter, a former Microsoft manager from Bellevue and current chair of the House's Finance Committee, also advocated saving money through innovation, with Hunter saying he would share regional management with the cities on projects such as a proposed new jail.
That, Hunter and Constantine said, is one place the county could definitely save money.
"I think we need to look at how we can avoid some regional costs like the building of new jails," Constantine said after the forum. "If we divert a tiny amount of that [money] into alternatives to incarceration and programs that help folks who are struggling with mental illness and substance addiction, we can continue to yield savings in the criminal justice system and avoid the staggering cost of building and staffing new jails."