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King County executive candidates spar at Bellevue debate
The main candidates for King County executive debated Thursday at Bellevue's Meydenbauer Center with the primary election just over a month away.
Each of the five contestants – County Councilmember Dow Constantine, state Rep. Ross Hunter, former news anchor Susan Hutchison, state Sen. Fred Jarrett, and County Councilmember Larry Phillips – promised to make the 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 collaboration of that sort as executive.
Most of the candidates have put forth proposals – some much larger than others – 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, like animal shelters and the county's low-income healthcare facilities, could be handled better by non-government 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.
"We are on a meatloaf not a steak diet," she said. "We cannot be coming up with these ideas that are costly and unnecessary."
Constantine 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 made a surface route its preliminary choice.
Sound Transit will continue studying the tunnel alternative as it's 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.
Hutchison said she would like to see East Link built along the abandoned BNSF railroad line, claiming it would cost less and save time.
All candidates agreed during the debate that the county should provide jail service for its cities, most of which have paired off to make plans for independent facilities – one in south King County and another to serve north and east portions of the county.
Each of the contestants also agreed on the need to re-visit critical areas ordinances to make sure they achieve their goals without causing undue burden on land owners.
Hutchison currently leads in the polls, and is expected to take on whichever candidates remain 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 over 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.
She said during the forum that she would "probably not" have chosen to run for executive if the position were still partisan. Voters elected to make the job non-partisan last November.
Hutchison said at one point in the debate that she would pressure state legislators 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.