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Q&A: Mellani McAleenan, Director of Government Relations at WSAC, on the 2019 session

Mellani McAleenan is the Director of Government Relations and General Counsel at the Washington State Association of Counties. In the week after Washington’s 2019 legislative session adjourned, Wire reporter Sara Gentzler talked to McAleenan about how it went, from the standpoint of counties.

McAleenan also wrote several updates on Washington counties’ perspective throughout session, which are available on WSAC’s website.

Sara Gentzler: Generally, how do you feel session went?

Mellani McAleenan: From our perspective, it was a session of missed opportunities.

The biggest thing counties have to deal with is funding. About 60% of counties’ revenue comes from property taxes. For the state, it’s more like 12%. And counties, for example, can’t collect B&O tax. They do get some sales tax, but more of that goes to cities than counties — because more businesses are in cities.

Even though we had record revenues with the state, they found they couldn’t live within that box and had to increase revenues. Even with McCleary, they found they couldn’t live under that 1% property-tax cap. So, they exempted themselves from that. In the meantime, counties don’t have any way to get around those issues. We’re still in a place where we have 10% less staff than we had before the recession, for example.

When they were looking at raising all of this revenue for all of these things, the fact that local governments really didn’t enter into consideration — in any way — is disappointing, because we continue to struggle, and all of our major priorities this year were funding-related. They did tackle a couple of them, but to a much lesser amount than, really, is necessary.

SG: Can you give a brief rundown of what you feel wasn’t funded, but should’ve been?

MM: We had four main priorities.

[One was] funding for foundational public health services. The measles outbreak in Clark County is a great example of what your local health department does. They’re the ones who make sure your restaurants are safe and sanitary, and had to make sure they found all the people who might’ve been in contact with someone who had measles.

Funding for them is incredibly important. We had a request for, I think it was originally $100 million for foundational public health services. The budget ended up at $22 million, which we’re definitely appreciative of. But, obviously, 22 is less than 100.

It was $12 million from the operating budget and $10 million from the new vaping tax — I could have those reversed, but roughly 50/50. We’re hoping, as things go forward with the vaping tax, more of that money might go into foundational public health. If not, hopefully we can get some additional operating funds.

Another big issue for us this year was the fish passage barrier issue. That one is really huge, as you know. The state is under a mandate from federal courts because of a lawsuit the tribes brought against them. The state’s numbers indicate that’s roughly a $3 billion issue for them — for every one state culvert, there are seven other culverts that belong to local governments, railroads, or private citizens. For the 14-county case area, we anticipate that fixing county barriers would cost $7 billion.

We’re not subject to the lawsuit, but that doesn’t mean we don’t want to do the right thing. We want to address the issue, we want to do it without a court mandate, and we want to be partners with the state to do it. The state only funded themselves at about $100 million. And they funded local governments at $26 million, which is a far cry from where this needs to go — especially when you think about the deadline of 2030.

We’d like to see a coordinated watershed approach, where the state picks the highest priority river, for example, and fixes the culverts along that area for themselves, but also works with us, cities, and others, to help us fix our culverts along the same watershed. That way, we can get the most bang for the buck out of one, then move onto the next one. But there’s no way we can solve this problem without additional revenue.

SG: Do you know how many removals the budget will actually fund?

MM: I don’t know there’s a really good answer. You might have a culvert that’s really easy to fix, or you might have one that’s a complete bridge. I know the state has over 800 barriers. We think we have 3,200 county-owned barriers. Without additional revenue, counties are addressing one or two culverts a year. If you have a really good year and can put a lot of money into it, maybe you can fix four. There’s no way that’s a good, long-term solution or strategy.

Another big issue for us, which has been a big issue for us for a long time, is adequate funding for trial court public defense. We know this is a constitutional mandate — anyone who’s ever watched a criminal justice TV show knows you have a right to a lawyer, and if you can’t afford one, one will be assigned to you. But, the state pays almost none of that. That’s all county funding.

I think the state pays about 4%, which is about $6 million per year. The rest of it is picked up by the counties, which is $156 million per year.

That continues to grow, and it’s something that’s completely outside of the county’s control. Because, if someone needs a lawyer, they’re going to get one, which means you don’t fund something else.

The state has not been interested in funding this. We’ve asked, for a long time, for them to fund it. We’ve tried a variety of different legislative strategies. And, honestly, I don’t know if we’ll try to do this legislatively again, or if we might try the lawsuit route. That’s definitely possible.

SG: How much funding are you asking for?

MM: Well, we’d like full funding. I think we’d settle for something less than that, because anything would make a difference.

A lawsuit would be kind of similar to the McCleary lawsuit, in the sense that you have an unequal level of services, county-to-county, depending on how financially well-off the county is.

We don’t believe you should have a different level of service in the programs in Asotin County than you have available to you in King County. And, the only way you can address that is with state funding. So, we’re having a meeting next week to start talking about this, but it is definitely possible that we try a different path after this.

SG: Would that be this interim?

MM: I think there’s legal research that needs done, to really decide. But, it’s possible.

SG: Are the legislators aware of that?

MM: They are aware. We’ve been very public and transparent about the lawsuits we have talked about filing. They knew going into session that this was one we were looking at. That didn’t make a difference.

SG: What are some reasons they give for not funding it?

MM: That there are other priorities. That the counties are adequately funding, so there’s no crisis in place. If there were a crisis, then maybe they would step in.

SG: A crisis, meaning people aren’t actually being assigned defenders?

MM: Right, either they aren’t getting defenders, or they’re getting over-worked defenders or under-qualified defenders — something like that, where you would, maybe, start seeing defenses in criminal cases for inadequate assistance of counsel. Because the counties are going to make sure they’re adequately funding this, they’re not going to let it get to that crisis point.

SG: What are some of the services the resources are being pulled from?

MM: Yakima County, for example, doesn’t have any parks that are county-funded. I think 13 counties don’t have 24/7 Sheriff’s deputies on the road. Some counties no longer provide WIC services or senior services — those are left for community organizations to provide.

Anything that’s not constitutional and can be cut, does get cut. County-to-county, they decide where their priorities are within existing resources.

SG: Are there other priorities you want to talk about?

MM: The last priority we had was to oppose any additional, unfunded mandates.

Initiative 601 instituted the property cap and told the Legislature, essentially, ‘You have to live within your means, and you can’t add programs at the local level and not pay for it, as a way to get around living within your means.’ There’s an RCW that says all of that, and they continue to ignore it.

Counties operate under a lot of unfunded mandates, so we had a priority this year of trying to prevent as many of those as possible. I think we did an OK job there. There were a couple of things, but there wasn’t a lot added to what they already have.

SG: Can you think of a couple mandates added this year that are unfunded?

MM: One was the addition of ballot drop boxes on tribal properties.

SG: In the Native American Voting Rights Act?

MM: In the Native American Voting Rights Act. Obviously, that is a policy that is completely supportable. Our objection to that is in no way reflective of access to voting. But, when the state doesn’t provide any funds for those additional boxes or servicing those additional boxes, that becomes a problem.

SG: At the beginning, you talked about property taxes. That made me think about the REET graduation. I’m curious the impact that has on counties.

MM: I think this is another area of missed opportunity. This is something we tried to fix and weren’t able to.

Obviously, the graduated REET was a pretty politically charged piece of legislation. The issue the counties have with it is, again, not the policy on what that tax rate should be. But, collecting that tax is one of the few things the state actually pays the counties to do.

Originally, the counties collected 1.3% of the 1.28% tax that’s collected. If you change that 1.28% to 1.1% or 3%, then the percentage the counties collect is more or less. We wanted to hold all of the counties harmless, so you wouldn’t see a county with a lot of high-dollar-value properties see a windfall in the administrative collection, while lower-property-value counties lose money. The amount of work is going to stay the same, but the fee collected is going to vary, essentially, based on the price of the property.

We asked that there be an amendment to do a percentage of the actual sale price, rather than the tax collected, which would’ve ended up just being status quo. We tried that in all of the committees and in all of the floor votes. Even though, I think, at the end legislators started to understand the issue, they did not want to send the bill back and forth for concurrences. We ended up losing that, so it will have a fiscal impact.

The counties that are least likely to be able to afford it are going to take a hit. And the wealthier counties will, actually, probably see an increase.

SG: The end of session was hectic for a lot of people. Did anything that happened then surprise you?

MM: The biggest surprise during that rushed period at the end was the treatment of the Model Toxics Control Act — I think it was SB 5993.

We were told there would be a number of county priorities funded as a result of that tax increase, so we supported it. In the final budget, some of our major priorities didn’t get funded at the level they promised and actually got funded at less than they are currently. So, we have some people who are really upset, who may not have supported that bill if they would have known what the outcome would have been.

This year, the budget process seemed even less transparent than normal. It was very troubling, I think, to a lot of us, that they put the budget into a conference committee so that there could be no amendments. This is the type of thing we would’ve asked to have addressed, had amendments been possible.

SG: Anything else in the budgets you want to highlight?

MM: I think the budgets, in large part, were more or less status-quo budgets for counties. One particular concern that the Senate proposal did not originally do, but ended up in the final budget, is that they swept $160 million out of the Public Works Assistance Account into the Education Legacy Trust Fund.

They’re also spending Public Works funds on the broadband bill. We like the idea of getting broadband out the extra mile, but would’ve preferred a different source.

The number of things they’re spending Public Works dollars on, in terms of grants rather than loans and then the sweeping of the funds, means we’re really concerned about the longevity of that fund. If we’re not getting money back into it and we’re just taking money out, at some point it’s not going to be a usable fund anymore.

SG: Are there other issues you want to touch on?

MM: In the last couple years, the Association and their members developed a strategic litigation and communications policy that ties into their legislative program. Nothing in there is a surprise to legislators, because we’ve been very open and honest in talking about it, but we have filed one lawsuit already in Spokane County.

The Legislature passed a bill that would require Spokane County to have a five-member board of county commissioners and elect those commissioners by district.

There are two ways that you can have county government: One is the standard, three-member board of commissioners and the other is the charter process. Those are in the Constitution, this one is not. So, we believe it’s unconstitutional. We’ve taken them to court to prove that it’s unconstitutional. In fact, Spokane County voters turned down a ballot initiative to become a chartered government just, I think, the previous year. Then, the Legislature decided that is what they should be. We, and they, find that to be objectionable. That suit has been filed, and the first hearing is May 31.

We also have approval for, but have not filed yet, a case to test the unfunded-mandate statute.

Referring back to the ballot drop box issue: Last year, the state required additional ballot drop boxes be placed in most counties and provided a $1,000 grant program as their funding. Where you put your drop box will determine what kind of box, what kind of security [is needed] for the box — so, you might have an inexpensive one, or you might have a really expensive one. Also, you have to monitor the boxes, which takes two people.

SG: More than $1,000?

MM: More than $1,000, and it’s ongoing. The statute says that the Legislature cannot mandate new or expanded services or programs without paying for it. We’re in the process of drafting that one, and that is relatively imminent, I think.

One of the things that has surprised me since I took this job is how little the legislators seem to understand county government, and the fact that county government is supposed to be an arm of the state. They’re supposed to exist to carry out the functions of government, elections, as an example. And yet, counties get treated like any other stakeholder with their hand out, rather than with the respect they deserve.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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