Washington counties nearing boiling point with unfunded mandates

Counties band together to consider legal action against the state.

PORT ORCHARD — In this era of growing needs for services in Washington state, the state Legislature has made efforts to meet the demand. But unfortunately for the state’s 39 counties, the move to provide services to state citizens has come with some pretty onerous strings.

Increasingly, county leaders say, the help they get from the Legislature is assistance they can do without. Those programs and actions mandated by state legislators often arrive at the local level without the necessary funding to operate them.

County government officials from throughout the state have begun to cry “foul” about the practice. The Washington State Association of Counties has had enough. County representatives who are members of the organization have gone so far as to pool their resources — a reported $400,000 — to communicate their displeasure, some say outrage, to legislators.

According to the organization, one-quarter of those funds will be used to educate the lawmakers of the practice’s inequity during the upcoming 60-day session next year. And if that isn’t sufficient, the rest of the money will be used to hire an attorney and take legal action against the state.

Kitsap County Commissioner Charlotte Garrido, who represents the county’s 2nd District, said the association’s education component is critical.

“Many legislators actually were affiliated with cities or counties before they went to the Legislature,” Garrido said. “I think it’s important to remind them what it was like when they were in a different role.

“The educational pathway is always the first way to go.”

Josh Weiss, the county association’s legislative director and legal counsel, said wielding a big stick might be the only successful weapon at their disposal.

“It is a last resort,” Weiss told Everett Herald political reporter Jerry Cornfield (the reporter has written a column on the issue, which appears on page A4). “We want to make our case very well-known first.”

It’s not just a state legislature thing. Governors have tacitly aided and abetted legislators, Weiss told Cornfield, by signing legislation that includes unfunded mandates.

The practice isn’t a recent thing. The act of passing the check has taken place for decades now. State Sen. Jan Angel (R-Port Orchard) has been face-to-face with the issue during her tenure at a Kitsap County Commissioner from 2000-2008.

A past president of the counties’ association, Angel said unfunded mandates are not a new irritant.

“I am totally against unfunded mandates to local and county government,” Angel said.

“This is nothing new. When I was a county commissioner, we actually sent an invoice to the state every month with what it was costing all of our counties in the state. I believe we had contemplated bringing a lawsuit as well, so this isn’t the first go-round on these issues.”

It’s also a frustrating fact of life at the federal level, where Congress and the President pass legislative mandates — the No Child Left Behind Act comes to mind — with little or no means to pay for them. By penning his signature, the President passes mandates down the line for county officials to implement and fund.

Despite a growing economy in Washington state that is feeding state coffers through tax revenues, counties such as Kitsap haven’t experienced the same bonanza.

In a legislative hearing for the state House Local Government Committee last month, Kitsap County officials told committee members that they end up paying 82 percent of the costs of mandates, or about $6.5 million in the current budget year.

“There are quite a few unfunded mandates that we track on a regular basis,” Garrido said. “Indigent defense is at the top of our list — actually, unfunded mandates (as a whole) are at the top of our list.”

Bob Gelder, Kitsap County commissioner, offered a litany of examples in which the county budget has been stretched to accommodate these mandates. The contribution of Kitsap County funding — $3.37 million — to the legal cost of indigent defense is the highest is the starkest example. The state contributes just $225,110 to the overall cost.

The state’s requirement for counties to periodically update their portions of the eight-year Comprehensive Plan and have GMA hearing board appeals under state code RCW 36.70A is costing Kitsap County $1.09 million. By contrast, the state doesn’t contribute any funding.

Mandates as innocuous as requiring counties to publish termination of parental rights notices in legal publications don’t require state funding, but counties like Kitsap must bear the burden on their own. For this county, the projected cost this year is $20,500. And other mandates require county governments to either hire staff or proportionally fund staff support to run the programs.

Judged separately, the county’s costs seem reasonable. But collectively, the overall cost to counties is substantial. And as Kitsap County grows and faces substantial pressure to accommodate growth overflow from King and Pierce counties as a result of a supercharged regional economy, the needs for human services and infrastructure expansion will increasingly tax the county’s budget.

Ultimately, though, whatever happens, taxpayers will be left holding the bill: Paying the state’s legal bills or continue to suck it up while cutting their property tax checks to the county.

— Bob Smith is editor of the Port Orchard Independent. He can be reached at rsmith@soundpublishing.com.