King County would spend hundreds of millions on clean energy and affordable housing programs, Executive Dow Constantine proposed Tuesday, even as he warned that the county faces budget shortfalls without changes from the state.
Constantine unveiled his proposed $15.8 billion two-year budget Tuesday, with hundreds of millions of dollars for housing, electric buses, habitat restoration and measures to fight homelessness.
He also announced a tentative collective bargaining agreement with the union representing King County sheriff’s deputies and sergeants that could clear the way for the use of body cameras. County officials have been pushing for body cameras on deputies for nearly a decade.
Constantine’s proposals are subject to the approval of the Metropolitan King County Council, which will consider and amend the budget over the next eight weeks.
In presenting the budget Tuesday, Constantine framed it as part of an “equitable recovery” from the COVID-19 pandemic.
“In this budget we advance our enterprise-wide commitments,” he said, “to continuous improvement, to equity and anti-racism, and to bold action against the looming climate crisis.”
But Constantine also warned the county’s $2.3 billion general fund budget faces deficits of $80 million to $100 million in 2025 unless the state changes how counties can collect property taxes. Those deficits, he said, would mean the elimination of as many as 350 jobs.
State 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 the largest source of income for the county’s budget, expenses are far outpacing revenue, Constantine said.
A longtime bugbear of local progressives, the 1% cap was originally passed in a 2001 statewide initiative led by anti-tax activist Tim Eyman. It was struck down by courts, but the Legislature enacted it in 2007.
Constantine, who has previously expressed an interest in running for governor, said the county would once again lobby for changes to the cap on property tax growth and other, more progressive revenue options.
“With the continuing absurdities of Washington state’s regressive tax system causing county revenues to fall far behind inflation and population growth, hundreds of millions of dollars in worthy requests for urgent needs were simply left behind,” Constantine said.
The general fund pays for things like courts, jails, elections and property assessments, many of which are required by state law.
More discretionary proposals in Constantine’s budget include more than $220 million for electric buses and infrastructure to convert King County Metro’s 1,400 bus fleet to all-electric by 2035. The county would spend an additional $27 million on charging infrastructure to electrify half of its light-duty vehicle fleet by 2025.
It would spend $28 million to remove blockages from local rivers and streams, with the goal of easing salmon migration that’s been disrupted by construction. Another $23 million would go to removing excess nitrogen and other nutrients from wastewater. And $60 million would go toward land conservation, buying and preserving what Constantine has called “the last, best” natural places, part of a larger program that voters will weigh in on in November.
A federally funded low-interest loan program would help homeowners convert from oil and gas furnaces to electric heat pumps.
Constantine has spent the past several weeks unveiling several of the higher-profile proposals embedded in the budget.
Those include the continued operation of 10 former hotels and nursing homes that the county has purchased to eventually provide 1,600 housing units with on-site case management, counseling and health services. The budget includes a plan to sell $45 million in bonds — backed by hotel tax revenue — to build affordable housing near public transit stations. It also includes more than $20 million in rental assistance funds and $28 million to help people getting rental assistance with transportation and other essential needs.
The budget would continue funding the King County Regional Homelessness Authority, contributing $96 million to the coalition of local governments that’s supposed to coordinate homelessness strategy.
On Monday, Constantine announced a plan to ask voters to raise property taxes to fund up to $1.25 billion over a decade for five mental health crisis care centers spread across the county.
The budget includes $5 million to buy body cameras for sheriff’s deputies, which, along with a planned $1 million from the federal government, officials say would be enough to launch the program. Millions more will be required for data and video storage and management.
And it includes millions of dollars for alternatives to traditional law enforcement and incarceration, as it seeks to boost the depleted staffs of both the county sheriff and county correctional facilities.