Executive Constantine’s State of the County: ‘Delivering on the promise of tomorrow, for everyone’
King County Executive Dow Constantine gave his State of the County address, sharing progress made over the past year and laying out a vision for the future, including the launch of his Civic Campus initiative to reimagine the downtown Seattle courthouse neighborhood.
King County Executive Dow Constantine delivered his 2023 State of the County address to the King County Council today that highlighted progress in the last year and continued work ahead, including the need for action in the state Legislature to avoid budget cuts this fall.
In his address, Executive Constantine launched the Civic Campus initiative, a proposal to reimagine the courthouse neighborhood, and with Sound Transit considering the shuttered Administration Building as the site for a new Link Light Rail station, Executive Constantine urged making the most of the opportunity if selected. He also urged the legislature to remove the 1% cap on the county’s primary funding source, and build statewide solutions to behavioral health.
In his prepared remarks, Constantine outlined his vision to overcome the real challenges facing King County:
Tackling the Homelessness Crisis
"Unlike other places, we decided that here, in King County, we’re not going to treat homelessness as an annoyance to overlook — but a challenge we can help people overcome. That’s why two years ago in this speech I launched Health through Housing and the acquisition of our first hotel. Since then, we’ve purchased 10 more properties, and now nearly 600 formerly unhoused people have a place to call home.”
Protecting Public Health & Safety
“Protecting health and safety requires constant vigilance. Fentanyl has flooded American streets, including ours, with tragedy after tragedy. But King County is fighting back. In the last year, the Sheriff’s Office stopped more than 750,000 pills from hitting the streets, Public Health connected 10,000 people with treatment, and our Human Services staff distributed more than 13,000 overdose prevention kits.”
Restoring Our Natural Environment
“Few places in America cherish the natural environment like King County. It’s our way of life. That’s why I proposed — and this council sent to the voters — a measure to restore the Conservation Futures fund. With an overwhelming 70% of the November vote, the people told us to keep preserving and restoring irreplaceable wilderness and open space for all the generations that will follow.”
Reforming Our Broken Tax System
“Unless the legislature finally reforms our broken tax system, now, we will be making harmful cuts to essential services as early as this fall...There are countless mission critical investments at risk — everything from local Sheriff’s deputies and Public Health clinics, to programs that keep people out of the criminal legal system, to environmental and farmland protection, and help for survivors of domestic violence. We even stand to lose funding our elections staff needs to protect our democracy.”
Expanding Behavioral Health Care
“How many people are in a jail cell when they need to be in a treatment bed? How many people are at risk on the street when they just need a place to recover? How many people, how many families — in every community — are quietly suffering with nowhere to turn for help? Providing crisis care, and treatment beds, and compassionate, professional help is the right and decent thing to do. But it is also the smart thing to do at a time when jails and hospitals are bursting at the seams, and so many people are sleeping on our streets.”
Revitalizing the Courthouse Neighborhood
“This historic area can remain a center of local government, but it can also be so much more: a neighborhood with residents of all incomes, with shops and restaurants and gathering spaces, a place that enlivens and supports the surrounding neighborhoods. Public and private workplaces that reflect the way people work in this new era. It’s clear that we’re not simply going back to how things were — so let’s use this moment to go forward.”
2023 State of the County Address
Thank you Chair Upthegrove, and thank you to the members of this council, our employees, and the 2.3 million people of King County.
Before I begin, I want to take a moment to applaud Councilmember McDermott and Councilmember Kohl-Welles. Thank you for all that you’ve done for the communities you’ve served – in the House, in the Senate, on this Council. I know you’re both looking forward to the next chapter – but not so fast! - because I’m looking forward to us getting more good work done, together, this year.
The County Charter requires that the Executive deliver “an annual statement of the financial and governmental affairs of the county.” But this address is always something more. Not about line items or County Code, but about what we value and who we fight for.
What we value, and who we fight for. This notion is engrained in everything we do as leaders - everything our 18,000 employees do every day. King County, I stand here today proud of all we’ve accomplished – and looking back, the list of hard-won victories is remarkable. The achievements of our employees form a roadmap of which any government would be envious. But I’m even more excited about the road ahead.
We have the opportunity, right now, to create a place – a global metropolitan region - worthy of our children, and of theirs. And if we seize it, we can show this state, and this nation, what it means for government to be a catalyst for progress and, in that progress, to leave no one behind.
Let’s start with the crisis of chronic homelessness.
This is one of the most obvious and impactful challenges in our community, and while its origins are many, it requires the policy and fiscal leverage of government and the strength of our entire region to solve.
Too many of our neighbors spend their days worrying about how they are going to survive the night, or where they’re getting their next meal.
But unlike other places, we decided that here, in King County, we’re not going to treat homelessness as an annoyance to overlook – but a challenge we can help people overcome.
That’s why two years ago in this speech I launched Health through Housing and the acquisition of our first hotel. Since then we’ve purchased 10 more properties, and now nearly 600 formerly unhoused people have a place to call home.
On top of that, together with our partners across the county we funded another 640 homes last year for veterans and people transitioning out of homelessness.
And today I’m pleased to report that we are working closely with our South County cities moving people from encampments along the Green River into housing, with the support to start again.
It’s strong progress — but it’s just the beginning. These folks aren’t just getting shelter. They’re getting the security of a home, a bed to return to at night; a launch pad to begin a new chapter.
More than 350 people experiencing homelessness are doing just that with our Jobs and Housing program. They’re earning a living wage, moving into a place of their own, and turning skills and talent into a job. A job is so much more than a paycheck, and this program is helping our neighbors reclaim agency; autonomy; dignity.
There’s no escaping the fact that our region’s staggering economic success has been great for a lot of folks these past few years – particularly those at the top; but too many have been left behind. We must make it affordable for everyone here to have a home. That’s why we’ve invested $25 million in housing affordable to working people with more modest incomes - and more than 1,000 of those new units are opening this year.
You know our mission – our True North: To make this a place where every person has… not just what they need to survive, but has the opportunity to thrive. King County must be an affordable place to live; and, more than that, it must be a just place to live. For everyone. In every neighborhood. Every day.
Over the last few years, this nation’s been having a long-overdue conversation about what it means to ensure genuine justice for all. In King County, we’ve been acting on it.
We’ve expanded our diversion programs, holding individuals accountable for their actions, while helping turn lives around, and reducing repeat offenses.
In the next few weeks, the Sheriff’s Office will begin deploying body worn and dash cameras - a critical tool of transparency and objectivity for the communities we serve. Under the leadership of Sheriff Patti Cole-Tindall we’ve hired more than 55 new deputies this year, bringing the latest de-escalation and anti-bias expertise to the hard work of keeping us all safe.
Protecting health and safety requires constant vigilance. Fentanyl has flooded American streets, including ours, with tragedy after tragedy. But King County is fighting back. In the last year the Sheriff’s Office stopped more than 750,000 pills from hitting the streets, Public Health connected 10,000 people with treatment, and our Human Services staff distributed more than 13,000 overdose prevention kits.
Let there be no mistake: through all these accomplishments, we are making King County safer, and more just, today than it was a year ago. And we will work every day so that we can say the same next year.
Even as we expand possibility and prosperity today, we’re also taking decisive action to secure it for our children — and for theirs.
Few places in America cherish the natural environment like King County. It’s our way of life. That’s why I proposed — and this council sent to the voters — a measure to restore the Conservation Futures fund. With an overwhelming 70% of the November vote, the people told us to keep preserving and restoring irreplaceable wilderness and open space for all the generations that will follow.
We’re removing barriers along streams, opening up long-lost habitat for salmon – investing in the health of Puget Sound. And we worked with the Muckleshoot Tribe to remove the levee and restore the place called Čakwab (Chock-wob) along the Green River. In a few weeks we’ll celebrate the opening of another project, along the Cedar River, protecting against flooding and improving even more salmon habitat.
To fight the greatest threat, climate change, each of us can take small steps in our daily lives. But King County has the responsibility to take giant leaps.
That’s why we’ve made Metro Transit even greener thanks to 40 new battery electric buses and a new charging station, well on the way to our goal of a zero-emission fleet by 2035. Next week, we launch the Rapid Ride H Line. And, as a reminder, every kid in King County now has a free ride anywhere they want to go thanks to the Free Youth Transit Pass.
All of this is possible thanks to the tireless work of all of us – not just public servants, but our partners in the community, labor unions, Tribal nations, cities, business leaders, community-based organizations, everybody in King County.
And none of it would have happened without the support of this council, and the adoption of our biennial budget last fall.
That budget is one we can all stand behind. But despite our strong record of fiscal stewardship, a storm is ahead. Unless the legislature finally reforms our broken tax system, now, we will be making harmful cuts to essential services as early as this fall.
This is a story that starts more than two decades ago.
In 2001, an initiative was floated to cap our primary funding source – the property tax – at 1%, below the rate of inflation. And unlike city governments, counties don’t have access to utility or B&O funding sources. This county’s residents voted against that initiative. But the rest of the state did not. It became law. And even when the Supreme Court threw it out, the legislature locked it right back in.
Every household knows that inflation has not stayed anywhere near 1%, especially recently. Since 2001, our population has grown nearly 30%, and consumer prices are up 70% – far, far beyond where the law caps our ability to keep up.
The cuts will have to come from the general fund budget, which does not have a lot of room to work with. Nearly 75 cents of every dollar is dedicated to state-mandated criminal legal system costs. And then, in the quarter that’s left, there are countless mission critical investments at risk — everything from local Sheriff’s deputies and Public Health clinics, to programs that keep people out of the criminal legal system, to environmental and farmland protection, and help for survivors of domestic violence. We even stand to lose funding our elections staff needs to protect our democracy.
This is the stark reality if the legislature doesn’t fix the problem it created. We should not let a bad idea from nearly a quarter century ago – one that King County voters rejected – dictate our finances today. The legislature must take action this year, this session, to finally undo this shortsighted policy so that we can continue leading, continue investing, continue building the future we all want to see.
That future also depends on another urgent proposal – our chance for practical, humane, genuine solutions to untreated behavioral health problems: the Crisis Care Centers levy.
How many people are in a jail cell when they need to be in a treatment bed? How many people are at risk on the street when they just need a place to recover? How many people, how many families – in every community – are quietly suffering with nowhere to turn for help? Providing crisis care, and treatment beds, and compassionate, professional help is the right and decent thing to do. But it also the smart thing to do at a time when jails and hospitals are bursting at the seams, and so many people are sleeping on our streets.
This measure was developed in partnership with cities, providers, clinicians, paramedics, law enforcement, and members of this Council — and if approved next month, it will take on three critical areas of unmet need.
First, there is currently no walk-in urgent care clinic in King County for a person in mental health or addiction crisis. All too often there’s the emergency room... there’s the jail... or, as we’ve all seen, there’s the street. With this levy, we can chart a new course by building a network of five crisis care centers across the county – including one exclusively for youth — where people can get immediate help.
Second, we will stop the alarming loss of longer-term residential treatment beds, and build back the capacity that has disappeared as aging community facilities have closed.
And finally, we’ll invest in the workforce, to ensure that those caring for patients can have fulfilling and sustainable careers – because it takes people to treat people.
With the approval of voters, King County will set out with renewed energy and resolve, opening up access to behavioral health care for the people we serve. And while our plan is built by and for our community, this crisis impacts families nationwide.
That’s why I’m honored to co-chair a new National Commission on Mental Health and Wellbeing, made up of county leaders seeking solutions for our own communities and calling on Congress to take action nationally.
There’s another point in the behavioral health system where we need action from the state. Under the law, when a person charged with a crime is deemed not competent to stand trial, the state has seven days to transfer them out of jail and provide that person with competency restoration services. In other words, one week to get them the help they need so they can have their day in court. But the state is simply failing.
Through a lack of funding, a lack of capacity, or a lack of political will, the backlog has left hundreds of people around our state waiting in a jail cell for the help they need. For King County, there are around 100 people languishing in our custody on any given day, unable to be tried and without access to court-ordered services, some for up to 10 months.
Now, because of this failure, the state is being held in contempt of court, racking up fines of over $360 million to date. But those fines don’t help the people crowded inside our jails, or the people who are suffering without appropriate treatment, or the victims waiting for justice.
The impacts of this backlog stand in the way of our work to reimagine the criminal legal system. The state must work with us, and create the solutions that only the legislature can provide. There’s no ambiguity here. There’s a moral and legal responsibility that the State of Washington must meet, now.
I know it can be done, because we’ve seen what’s possible when the state makes bold policy choices and transformational investments to deliver change for the people of Washington. Just look at how our state under Gov. Inslee is leading the battle against the climate crisis. We now have a clean fuel standard, long championed by House Majority Leader Joe Fitzgibbon, helping reduce emissions in transportation. The first carbon pricing auctions are happening this year — a significant piece of the puzzle to cut greenhouse gases here and across the state.
Let’s keep showing the rest of the country what it looks like to get the difficult stuff done. On every issue where Washington D.C. fails to act, Washington state has the chance to step up — with King County leading the way. We’ve led through historic investments in children and youth. We’ve led in expanding access to affordable health care, and soon behavioral health care. We’re leading in the fight against climate change, systemic racism, and so much more. And we will continue working, together, to solve the big problems and do the tough things that the people of this county elected us to do.
Finally, we have another opportunity to reshape our future, and I’m excited to share it with you. King County government’s home base is spread out across seven blocks of downtown Seattle.
Built more than a century ago, both the Yesler Building and this old Courthouse need restoration. The 1960s Administration building next door is vacant; the 1980s jail is obsolete. On some of the most valuable real estate in this region, we have a 9 to 5 workplace, rather than a 24-hour neighborhood. We have the chance to rethink and remake this vast urban tract in light of what it means to be a city today.
This historic area can remain a center of local government, but it can also be so much more: A neighborhood with thousands of residents of all incomes, with shops and restaurants and gathering spaces; a place that enlivens and supports the surrounding neighborhoods. Public and private workplaces that reflect the way people work in this new era. It’s clear that we’re not simply going back to how things were – so let’s use this moment to go forward.
That’s why I am launching our Civic Campus Initiative. Together with community members, our employees, city and county leaders, we can honor our past and create the shared future we want. We can turn this neighborhood into a vibrant place to live, to work, to visit, and to thrive.
This is no small task. It is a project that will take years to design and longer to complete, but we can start with a key decision right now. Sound Transit is considering the shuttered Administration Building as the site for a new Link Light Rail station. If selected, we should make the most of this opportunity.
Members of the council, rather than selling the land, I propose we keep it, and allow Sound Transit to build their new tunnel and station below. Their investment in infrastructure could set the groundwork for new development above, and jump start the reinvention of this old hillside.
It’s a win-win. For the city. For the county. For a world-class transit system. It’s an exciting possibility for the people who call our region home.
This moment, as we rebuild from the pandemic, calls on us to think big and act boldly.
It requires consistent vision - grounded in our values and made real through determined hard work. It takes persistence, block by block, day by day, to build the better world we envision - a world where every person has a solid footing in life.
So, let's dream big, let’s roll up our sleeves, and let’s get to work. If anyone can do it, the people of our region can. We have proven time and time again that we can be the people who do the big things, the difficult things, and never give up. We can build, we can heal, we can work together, and most importantly, we can deliver change that makes a difference in people’s lives.
Members of this council, the state of our county is strong; courageous; ambitious – determined to rise above petty political distractions and overcome the real challenges before us.
The next chapter is ours to write, and we can't let our story go the way cynics and naysayers want it to. In a county with shining towers and mountain summits, ancient tribal traditions and world leading technology, we are bonded together by the strength of our individual stories, woven into the legacy of a vibrant and constantly evolving community.
Let's prove once again that when the stakes are high; when the storms approach, the people of King County don’t falter; we don't retreat. We forge ahead, step by arduous step, building our shared future, and delivering on the promise of tomorrow, for everyone, starting today.
For media inquiries, contact:
Chase Gallagher, Executive Office, 206-263-8537