News

County Council candidates debate today’s tough issues

By JOSHUA HICKS

The Bellevue Reporter

The main candidates for King County executive debated in Bellevue on Thursday with the primary election just more than a month away.

Each of the five contenders — County Councilmember Dow Constantine, state Rep. Ross Hunter of Medina, former news anchor Susan Hutchison, state Sen. Fred Jarrett of Mercer Island and County Councilmember Larry Phillips — promised to make county government more accountable and reduce its ballooning deficits

None said they would raise taxes to make ends meet.

Debate moderator C.R. Douglas turned up the heat on Phillips by asking why he wasn’t able to fix the county’s budget problems during his multiple stints as chair of the council’s budget committee.

Phillips noted that the council implemented $200 million in cuts based on recommendations from the private sector. He promised more of that type of outreach as executive.

Most of the candidates have put forth proposals for fixing the county’s financial woes.

Hunter recently released a 16-page document outlining what he calls “King County 2.0.” The proposal suggests that certain services, such as animal shelters and the county’s low-income health care facilities, could be handled better by non-governmental organizations.

Jarrett has suggested that all county employees should pay a portion of their health care premiums, while Constantine is pitching a plan to make at least the highest-paid non-union workers pay those costs.

Jarrett has also called for the county to halt plans for expanding its ferry system until Metro Transit is brought up to par.

“It doesn’t make sense to me to have Metro service to the suburbs being cut at the same time we’re expanding (new ferry services),” he said.

Jarrett also suggested that the county’s proposed foot ferries would be more of a tourist novelty than a transportation alternative for commuters, noting that ridership on the West Seattle ferry is highest on weekends.

Hunter said the county could buy each foot-ferry passenger a $19,000 boat for the same price that the ferry service costs taxpayers — currently $18 million per year.

Hutchison agreed with the notion that new foot ferries would be a waste, suggesting that people in the private sector would be operating a fleet by now if it were feasible.

Constantine, whose district includes Vashon and who chairs the county’s new ferry district, defended the ferry system, saying there are areas where boats work better than buses.

When transportation talk moved to light rail, Hutchison promised to put a Bellevue representative on the Sound Transit board that chose a preferred routing alternative contrary to the city’s recommendation.

The Bellevue City Council wants a light-rail tunnel downtown, while the board has preliminarily voted for a surface route.

Sound Transit will continue studying the tunnel alternative as its board prepares to make a final routing decision in 2010.

Hunter and Phillips both said they want to see a light-rail tunnel in Bellevue, so long as the city can find additional funds to build one. The money from last year’s voter-approved light-rail initiative will not pay for such an option.

Each of the candidates also agreed on the need to revisit critical areas ordinances to make sure they achieve their goals without causing undue burden on landowners.

Hutchison currently leads in the polls and is expected to take on whichever candidate remains after the primary.

Constantine, who calls himself a progressive Democrat, received a key endorsement this week from the Service Employees International Union. The group represents more than 20,000 workers in King County.

Hutchison has declined to identify herself as either a Republican or Democrat, despite her reputation as an evangelical conservative. Voters elected to make the job non-partisan last November.

Hutchison said at one point in the debate she would pressure state lawmakers to raise the threshold at which businesses are required to pay the business and occupation tax.

“This is a terrible burden on small businesses,” she said.

— Joshua Hicks is a reporter at The Bellevue Reporter, a sister paper to The Beachcomber.

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