Constantine: King County to make ‘harmful cuts to essential services’

Mar 7, 2023, 2:58 PM | Updated: Apr 13, 2023, 10:01 am

Dow Constantine...

King County Executive Dow Constantine (File photo)

(File photo)

King County Executive Dow Constantine said Tuesday that without immediate help from state lawmakers, there will be “harmful cuts to essential services as early as this fall,” in a “State of the County” address that also focused on homelessness, public safety, behavioral health initiatives, and transit improvements.

The reason for it is no mystery, according to Constantine. He pointed to the state’s 1% cap on property tax increases, first introduced as an initiative by the state legislature in 2001. The law limits counties to no more than 1% annual growth in the overall amount of property tax they collect (plus the value of new construction).

With inflation growing much faster than 1%, and with property tax being the county’s largest source of income for its budget, expenses are far outpacing revenue, Constantine said. A current proposal in the Legislature (HB 1670) — which would raise the 1% cap to 3% — advanced out of committee in the House on a party-line vote, but faces a crucial deadline tonight. 

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If the department cuts within King County go through, they could be “everything from local Sheriff’s deputies and Public Health clinics to programs that keep people out of the criminal legal system to environmental and farmland protection, and help for survivors of domestic violence,” Constantine said during his address.

A spokesperson for Constantine’s office has not yet returned a request for clarification on which of those services would be most impacted — and in which communities across King County. 

Additionally, Constantine highlighted efforts to address homelessness levels in the county, particularly the “Health through Housing” initiative that started in 2021 to help purchase and acquire hotels for use as temporary residences.

“Since [2021], we’ve purchased 10 more properties, and now nearly 600 formerly unhoused people have a place to call home,” Constantine said. 

However, the homelessness crisis continues to swell. Data from a recent report by the King County Regional Homeless Authority, using a model developed by the state Department of Commerce, estimated there are far more unhoused people in King County than any previous study has concluded — around 56,000, or roughly one out of every 50 people. It’s far greater than the 2021 estimate using the same method, and significantly larger than the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s estimation of 25,000 unhoused individuals across the entire state of Washington.  

2022 was also the deadliest year on record for people experiencing homelessness in King County, according to the county’s Medical Examiner’s Office, which only investigates people who died of sudden, unexpected, or unnatural causes.  

King County Public Health officials said increased drug usage played a significant role in last year’s record-breaking 310 homeless deaths. According to the county’s Medical Examiner’s Office, 77% were determined to be “accidental.”

Officials with King County Public Health said most of the “accidental” deaths stem from an increase in fentanyl-related overdoses.  

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“[Fentanyl] has flooded American streets, including ours, with tragedy after tragedy,” Constantine said.

He highlighted the efforts by the county’s sheriff’s office in taking more than 750,000 pills off the streets as well as treatment services and distribution of overdose prevention kits. He said these efforts are “making King County safer.” 

Safety, which was a major topic in last year’s address, was again mentioned Tuesday. Constantine did not address violent crime rates in King County, which were a mixed bag last year. The number of shootings continued to rise, but fewer people were killed by gunfire, according to data compiled by the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office. Homicides stayed roughly on par with 2021. Half of those occurred in Seattle, which saw violent crime hit a 15-year high last year.

Constantine did emphasize the hiring of 55 new deputies, and a plan to deploy body-worn and dash cameras throughout the King County Sheriff’s Office in the coming weeks.  

The speech also touched upon an issue Constantine and county officials have faced criticism for in recent weeks: the future of the King County jail. The ACLU recently filed a lawsuit against Constantine and and the county over conditions there, claiming inmates were kept in round-the-clock solitary confinement without access to clean clothes or medical care. Constantine previously proposed to close the jail in his 2020 “State of the County” address, but has not yet publicly announced specific plans to do so. When asked for comment, a spokesperson for the executive’s office says the jail is “an obsolete facility, and not built in a way to deliver the care needed today. Eventually the downtown jail will need to be replaced with something else.” However, no timeline was given for when that process might begin.

Constantine did emphasize the need to address the behavioral health system with regards to the jail. State law says when a person charged with a crime is deemed not competent to stand trial, the state has seven days to transfer them out of jail and provide the person with mental health services until they are found competent. According to Constantine, that’s not happening in King County.

“Through a lack of funding, a lack of capacity, or a lack of political will, the backlog has left hundreds of people around our state waiting in a jail cell for the help they need. For King County, there are around 100 people languishing in our custody on any given day … some for up to 10 months,” he told the county council. He said only action from the state would be sufficient to address that problem. 

In the final part of his speech, Constantine proposed redeveloping the county’s eight-block downtown campus into commercial or residential buildings, in addition to the courthouse and jail. He said the historic area can remain a center of local government, but could also be revitalized into a neighborhood that is a “vibrant place to live, to work, to visit, and to thrive.”

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The area, consisting of buildings between Pioneer Square, the central business district, and Interstate 5, has become an area known for increasing crime and drug activity. Additionally, Constantine proposed the county keep ownership of the land currently housing the shuttered Administration building, but donating it to Sound Transit to build a new Light Rail tunnel and station below.

While there is no timeline for this plan, Constantine said he wants to begin conversations with developers and community leaders “right away.” 

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Constantine: King County to make ‘harmful cuts to essential services’