by Ralph Nichols 
Crime â€“ including a high level of gang activity â€“ is an ongoing concern in the Highline area, along with the rest of King County, especially at a time when multi-million-dollar budget deficits have forced staff reductions in the sheriffâ€™s and prosecutorâ€™s offices.
And not surprisingly, all five major candidates for King County executive told the King County Police Chiefâ€™s Association on Thursday that public safety is the primary responsibility of county government. They spoke at a forum at the Criminal Justice Training Center in Burien.
Former King County Executive Ron Sims, who resigned earlier this year to become President Obamaâ€™s number two man in the Department of Housing and Urban Development, sought in 2008 sharp cuts in the staffs of both the sheriffâ€™s and prosecutorâ€™s offices. The county council lessened the impact of Simsâ€™ proposed reductions by reinstating some of the funding he wanted to eliminate. But interim Executive Kurt Triplett now wants Sheriff Sue Rahr to cut an additional $7 million from the budget for her office next year.
Although Rahr is unopposed in her bid for election to a second full term, any attempts to make additional cuts in public safety to balance the countyâ€™s 2010 budget could make the sheriffâ€™s and prosecutorâ€™s offices a key issue in the race for county executive.
The county executive candidates who spoke at the Burien forum are King County Councilman Dow Constantine, D-West Seattle, State Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina, a former Microsoft project manager, Susan Hutchison, executive director of the Charles Simonyi Fund for Arts and Sciences and a former KIRO-TV news anchor, State Sen. Fred Jarrett, D-Mercer Island, a Boeing project manager, and King County Councilman Larry Phillips, D-Seattle.
Also on the Aug. 18 primary election ballot for King County executive, which now is a non-partisan position, but who did not take part in Thursdayâ€™s candidate forum are Stan Lippmann, Alan Lobdell, and Goodspaceguy.
Here are the highlights of what each candidate, listed alphabetically, told the police chiefs:
Dow Constantine, whose district includes Burien and North Highline, said the primary role of county government is public safety â€“ the sheriffâ€™s, prosecutorâ€™s and public defenderâ€™s offices, the courts, and the jails.
â€œUnfortunately, the general fund is in a period of declineâ€ and the county council has â€œstruggled mightilyâ€ to protect public safety from severe cuts, including the sheriffâ€™s gang unit in Burien and White Center and its community storefront office in Boulevard Park.
Detention facilities continue to be a problem for the county, which needs to be a provider of jails for the region, he added.
(Note: Constantine had to leave after making these introductory remarks to keep a previous commitment.)
State Rep. Ross Hunter noted that 70 percent of the general fund budget goes to public safety. â€œThatâ€™s what we do as a county.â€ Now, to improve efficiencies, â€œwe need a new regionalism,â€ especially in the management of jails.
â€œThe county is not an autocrat,â€ he said. â€œWe need sound financial decisions, fair accounting, for county cities and for taxpayersâ€¦.
â€œWe have to get a handle on (county) labor costs. We have to have an executive who is willing to sit at the bargaining table and bargain hard.â€
Susan Hutchison said the paramount â€œresponsibility of government at every level is the protection and safety of its citizens.â€ And reducing crime doesnâ€™t happen by accident. â€œYour hard work,â€ she told the police chiefs, â€œin collaboration with the prosecutorâ€™s office means we are living safer.â€
Describing citizens as â€œfed up with the county not living within its means,â€ she charged that â€œthere is waste and overspending. The first think I will do is cut out waste before we cut out other spendingâ€¦. People just want the services they pay forâ€¦. Citizens donâ€™t trust government to get anything done unless itâ€™s cutting something thatâ€™s a benefit to them, like deputies or prosecutors.â€
She would impose a hiring freeze on all county agencies, and attempt to negotiate county employee benefits down to national averages. â€œThatâ€™s what people in this county are demanding.â€
Fred Jarrett said King County â€œneeds to come into the 21st centuryâ€ in its management of government operations and finance. The countyâ€™s primary responsibilities are public safety, criminal justice and civil justice, and these can be addressed more effectively if the county executive becomes a partner in justice system.
Sustaining the criminal justice system â€œhas to be a budget priority,â€ he said, describing not prosecuting property crimes below $5,000 as â€œnot a good ideaâ€¦.
â€œTotal King County spending is up by three times the rate of inflation,â€ he noted. â€œWe have to get our costs under control as a county.â€
Larry Phillips noted that he was instrumental in moving major county programs, including parks and social services, out of the general fund â€œso they would not compete with public safety.â€
Citing a â€œgood working relationshipâ€ with Rahr, he added, â€œIt is important that the executive and the sheriff get along.â€ Phillips said he worked with her to restore from Simâ€™s cuts in the sheriffâ€™s budget funding for â€œall 10 of her top priorities.â€
Moving forward, public safety will be maintained as the top priority by finding efficiencies and new revenue sources. â€œWe may have to go the public â€¦ for some sort of approval (to increase taxes) in the future.â€ He blamed Tim Eyman initiatives that imposed tax limits on local government as part of the current budget problem.
Problems with county jail space can be reduced by providing non-custodial programs for the mentally ill and the drug dependant under strict guidelines and enforcement, he said.