Instead of unveiling grand visions for King County, candidates Dow Constantine, Ross Hunter, Susan Hutchison, Fred Jarrett and Larry Phillips are talking about how they would deal with budget shortfalls in the general fund and Metro Transit.

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This isn’t the year for big promises.

In the most competitive King County executive election in 16 years, none of the candidates is offering grand visions of new things the county could do.

There’s no money for that in the post-Ron Sims world.

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The government that prosecutes accused criminals, operates courts and jails, manages elections, runs buses, treats sewage, fights outbreaks of disease and provides police protection across a vast land base may not have enough money to carry out some of the basics.

This time around, everyone’s running as a manager.

The five major candidates in the Aug. 18 primary are talking about whether it’s better to cut programs or reduce employee compensation, to raise taxes or reduce bus service and sheriff’s patrols. Shortfalls of about $110 million in the general fund and $168 million in Metro Transit are expected over the next two years.

“I think job number one is budget, budget, budget,” said former Seattle Mayor Charles Royer, who sought to fill the county executive post for the remainder of Sims’ term.

Sims, who became executive in 1996, quit last month to become second-in-command in President Obama’s Department of Housing and Urban Development, opening up a free-for-all for one of the most powerful political jobs in the state.

Running for the office are Metropolitan King County Councilmembers Dow Constantine and Larry Phillips, state Rep. Ross Hunter, former KIRO-TV news anchor Susan Hutchison, state Sen. Fred Jarrett, disbarred attorney Stan Lippman, engineer Alan Lobdell and investor Goodspaceguy.

It’s the most wide-open executive race since 1993, when four Democrats and one Republican challenged Republican incumbent Tim Hill. Then-state Rep. Gary Locke won the election and moved up to governor three years later.

A county charter amendment passed by voters last year made the executive race nonpartisan.

Thorny issues

There are plenty of problems besides the budget that could keep the next executive awake at night.

Kurt Triplett, who was Sims’ chief of staff before the County Council appointed him county executive last month, sees several “sleeper issues” he and his successor must deal with, starting with the possibility that Kent, Renton, Auburn and Tukwila will be flooded if the Army Corps of Engineers can’t stop water from seeping through the earthen Howard Hanson Dam.

Then there’s the risk that a deadlier form of swine flu will return next winter, and the touchy subject of working with Seattle and suburban cities on issues such as new jails and likely cuts to bus service.

The next executive also will be expected to finish consolidating the separate accounting and payroll computers inherited from the 1994 King County-Metro merger — a project that failed spectacularly under Sims’ watch.

But ahead of those thorny issues is — the budget.

Financial woes at fore

Just as the collapsing economy dominated debate during the 2008 presidential election, King County’s precarious financial position outweighs all other issues in the executive contest.

Bellevue developer Bob Wallace, who co-chaired a 2003 budget task force appointed by Sims, says the next executive must find a way to contain fast-rising labor costs.

“If I were going back to my bank and said I had a $50 million hole I had to dig myself out of five years ago and did it through Herculean efforts, and now I’m back with a $100 million deficit, I don’t know how you can say that’s good performance.”

During an election year that coincides with a crippling recession, there’s been precious little talk about raising taxes this year — though Phillips and Hunter say taxes might be needed later to keep pace with inflation.

Without new taxes now, the county may be forced to lay off sheriff’s deputies, prosecutors, jail guards, public-health workers, bus drivers and court employees — a prospect that advocates for those already-diminished programs say is unacceptable.

Hunter, Hutchison and Jarrett are campaigning as county-government outsiders who say they can control costs in a way longtime insiders such as Sims, Constantine and Phillips have failed to do.

They have criticized labor agreements that guarantee employees annual cost-of-living increases and that don’t require workers to pay for their health-care premiums.

“Nobody else right now is getting raises,” says Hunter, who often speaks of a county “spending problem.”

Hutchison, in her first debate with the other candidates Thursday, said she would freeze hiring and renegotiate wage increases and benefits. “We will open up talks with the labor unions and start a process of getting things back in line in this county,” she said.

Even Constantine and Phillips are trying to make the case that, despite their votes for three new taxes in 2007, they have worked to keep spending down. “I firmly believe that we have to address the cost issue before we can, with a straight face, turn to the taxpayers and say, ‘Give us more property tax, give us more sales tax,’ ” Constantine says.

When Constantine proposed to make nonunion employees begin paying a share of their health-care premiums, Jarrett responded by saying that union workers also should pay part of that cost, just like most non-county workers. “King County overhead is out of control,” Jarrett said.

Health-care costs

County Councilmember Reagan Dunn applauded the call for changes in the county’s “gold-plated insurance,” under which he will pay $200 when his wife gives birth to their child. “That’s a great deal. I’m not so sure that it ought to be quite that good a deal.”

That kind of tough talk angers Triplett’s lieutenants and the unions that recently agreed to pick up a bigger share of health-care costs through higher co-payments and deductibles, and new premium payments for spouses covered by other plans. Those changes will cost the average employee $70 a month and save the county $37 million over the next three years, Triplett’s aides say.

“It’s so easy for people who want to take a bean-counter mentality and say we need to cut and slash. There’s a big picture here,” said Joe McGee, executive director of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers Local 17.

Phillips and Constantine blame the county’s recurring budget problems more on an archaic tax structure than on a failure to control costs.

Phillips says he has worked to control costs by casting the only vote last fall against an expensive contract with sheriff’s deputies and by sponsoring a Metro Transit audit that found $105 million in capital funds he and the auditors say could keep many buses running.

Phillips says the most important challenge facing the next executive will be to revitalize the local economy — first of all by pushing ahead with planned Sound Transit light-rail expansion and construction of an Alaskan Way tunnel and a new Highway 520 bridge.

Constantine, who like Phillips has the support of a number of employee unions, says the best way to make government more efficient is to solicit workers’ opinions:

“It is not a manager who knows where the inefficiencies are in a front-line employee’s job. It’s the bus driver, the employee in a sewage plant, the employee in the health department, who understands what about their job could be done better,” Constantine said.

Even while containing county costs, the candidates say, the new executive must be careful not simply to push costs onto city governments. Hutchison says suburban cities feel the county is “arrogant and disdainful toward them.”

Hunter and Jarrett say the county cut its jail costs at the expense of cities when it closed the Kent jail booking desk at night, forcing police officers to drive to the distant Seattle jail.

Keith Ervin: 206-464-2105 or

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