By Tracey A. Thompson
Published in the Seattle Times
August 8, 2009

IN the current debate about the future of King County, there has been a lot of finger-pointing over the county's budget crunch.

While this is a result of a healthy and vigorous campaign for county executive, it does not excuse the way some candidates and the press have been demeaning the work of county employees. The political discourse is awash with tales of "bloated" salaries and "too-generous" benefits for county employees.

As President Obama, who faced similarly absurd accusations in the 2008 presidential campaign, aptly noted: "We're getting into the silly season in politics."

The reality is a far cry from the rhetoric. The truth of the matter is that most county workers earn a decent family wage that reflects their education and training and is competitive with the marketplace. Tales of excessive benefits are simply untrue unless you count as excessive standard holiday pay, a respectable retirement plan, and health care that keeps families from foreclosure and bankruptcy.

County workers make indispensable contributions to our communities. They are the men and women who drive our buses, treat our mentally ill, maintain our roads, clean up our parks, provide safe drinking water, work to clean up and protect our environment and keep our communities safe. As citizens, we correctly expect that public employees be the best that we can hire, and they are.

Yet, as easy targets, county workers are taking hit after hit by local politicians and the media. After enduring a pay cut in 2009 mandated by the furlough to help the county dig out of a $90 million hole, workers are now being asked to sacrifice again — not to fix the problem, but so that the county can attach a Band-Aid solution to what has become a medical emergency.

The county's budget crisis has little to do with worker salaries and benefits, which are on par with those of other county workers across the country. Instead, the crisis is a result of a structural problem. Revenue flow has been eroding for the past decade thanks to an uncooperative state Legislature and voter-approved initiatives that have reduced revenues, while the demand for services continues to increase.

King County, which by population is the equivalent of the second-largest city in the state, does not have the same taxing authority the city of Seattle has to impose a utility tax. This authority can be granted by the Legislature and would resolve the income deficit confronted by the county. That new revenue stream, combined with further belt tightening, would go a long way to solving a stubborn structural problem.

County employees have always been able, willing and ready to help elected leaders identify and eliminate waste. For example, cutting back on consultants and outside contractors and turning that work over to qualified county workers would be a first step in the right direction.

Public employees, not just at King County but at other counties and municipalities across our region, have been willing to make significant concessions in pay and benefits to help government deal with the downturn in the economy.

But this is the political season, and our public servants make a convenient target for candidates and editorial pages. We cannot allow campaign expediency to undermine the very employees who make our region one of the most desirable places to live.