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King County Executive Dow Constantine took only a few minutes Monday evening to veto a County Council bill that would have averted three rounds of bus-service cuts next year.

Constantine insisted despite a recent uptick in sales-tax revenue — for this year, an extra $32 million beyond projections is expected — Metro Transit doesn’t have enough money to prevent a 16 percent cut.

“We can’t spend money we do not have,” his veto message said.

This is Constantine’s first veto since taking office in late 2009.

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Moments earlier, a 5-4 majority approved Councilmember Rod Dembowski’s plan to make cuts this September, but defer the more painful reductions set for February, June and September 2015.

Dembowski, representing northern King County, wanted to wait until November to decide on any 2015 cuts. That way, members would have another sales-tax update, results from an independent audit, and maybe a contract with Amalgamated Transit Union Local 587. He also suggests fare increases, as well as limits to the cash reserves Metro might accumulate.

That way, he said, the county might be able to avoid disrupting people’s homes, time and jobs.

“The average fare income per boarding, after accounting for every discount, is $1.14,” Dembowski said at Monday’s meeting. “That tells me there is room, within fare policy, to get that number up. I would rather keep them (buses) rolling at a higher price then park them on the sidelines and put people out of work.”

But both Constantine and Council Chairman Larry Phillips of Magnolia called his bill irresponsible.

“We all want to be a hero,” Constantine said in a post-veto interview. “Everybody wants to be the person who saves transit. But, sometimes somebody has to be the adult, and deal squarely with the reality that faces us.”

Technically speaking, the county hasn’t enacted the three dozen or so September service reductions, since no bill is alive. Asked if Metro staff are still instructed to prepare the public for fall cuts in the county’s neighborhoods, Constantine answered that he believes it’s in the council’s power to act quickly on another bill.

On April 22, voters rejected Proposition 1, which called for a $60 car-tab fee and a 0.1 percent sales-tax increase, divided between transit and local streets.

“We always learn a few things when the voters speak,” said Councilmember Reagan Dunn, who represents the southeast county. “They didn’t like $60 car tabs, and a few other things.”

For Dunn, Dembowski’s bill represented “a more nuanced approach” than imposing cuts more than a year in advance.

For some voters, the idea that some of the deepest service cuts might be avoided raised the question of whether county officials, including transit managers and Constantine himself, had exaggerated Metro’s plight.

“You don’t know when the next recession’s going to be, you don’t know how deep, or how long,” Phillips said last week. Constantine said Monday he’s seen reports of prominent economists warning of another downturn.

During and after the recession, the county lost an expected $1.2 billion in sales-tax revenues, but avoided the service cuts many other big transit agencies suffered. Metro spent down a $100 million reserve, raised fares $1, collected a $20 car-tab fee that expired in May, and forged a one-year wage freeze with the union.

Council members compromised on a secondary amendment, watered down from Dembowski’s version, to consider making fares pay 30 percent of operating cost. The current rate is 29 percent, but could drop to 27.5 percent next year when a new, discount fare of $1.50 for low-income riders takes effect.

Emotions flared between Dembowski and Phillips about delaying the pain.

“It is no different, in my opinion, than writing a big check from the bank without knowing how you are going to pay for it,” Phillips said.

Dembowski replied, “I think we are going to be fine,” then added, “I reject, Mr. Chairman, you insinuating this course of action is irresponsible.”

Phillips: “That’s not an insinuation. That’s my opinion.”

A council-staff spreadsheet, cited by Dembowski, shows a cash reserve of $822 million in 2021, assuming full cuts and 4 percent growth in sales-tax revenues.

Constantine wouldn’t say how much reserve Metro needs. An audit will help answer that, he said. But he said even if the sales tax surges in the coming August report, Metro would still need two or three of the four waves of service reductions.

But perhaps money isn’t at the root of the rancor.

Dave Freiboth, executive secretary of the Martin Luther King County Labor Council, seethed during testimony about how he and other volunteer panelists spent endless nights crafting objective standards to determine which routes to save — only to have their work tossed into doubt.

“What this ordinance implies is that we were lying to the public,” he said in a letter. He also wondered if the result would be to squeeze hardworking transit employees.

Dembowski was joined by Dunn, Jane Hague, Kathy Lambert and Pete von Reichbauer. Voting no were Phillips, Dave Upthegrove, Larry Gossett and Joe McDermott.

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631

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