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2014 State of the County address

2014 State of the County address

King County Executive Dow Constantine
Feb. 10, 2014
White Center Heights Elementary School

dow constantine king countyChair Phillips, council members, elected leaders, valued employees, people of King County – and I want to extend a special thank you to our hosts: Superintendent Enfield, Principal Anne Reece, and the teachers and children.

I was here for the opening of this school, when I represented this district on the Council. As I begin my second term as County Executive, I wanted to return because White Center is a microcosm of our changing region, and I think it's an ideal setting to consider the future we really want.

Decades from now, when these kids are grown and look back, what will they say of us? Of what we did, or failed to do, about the great generational challenges of our time?

About the grotesque inequality of means and opportunity in our society, and

About the destruction of our planet.

Confronting climate change, and building equity in our community – addressing the physical world and the people who live in it – these are inescapable, global responsibilities.

Big ambitions for a county government, to be sure. But as an organization, we confront them from a position of strength, based on the foundation of all that we have accomplished in the past four years. In short, we did what we set out to do.

We reformed county government to put it back on sound financial footing, and restore public trust. We partnered with our employees on wellness and healthcare, saving tens of millions of dollars. We joined with others to rebuild a bridge; repair a dam; provide humane animal care; protect forests, farms, and shorelines – and make other critical investments in our physical, natural and human infrastructure.

These successes were achieved by all of us, working together as One King County: Our partners in cities, labor, business, and nonprofits; our employees; my cabinet and leadership team; and members of this Council and other County elected leaders. You all deserve a hand.

We earn public trust by following through on our commitments.  Last year at this time, I launched three initiatives:

I asked Public Health to develop data-driven strategies to reduce gun violence. They found that children in King County are nine times more likely to die from gun violence in homes where a firearm is stored unlocked.

To avert future tragedies, we partnered with a dozen retailers and two dozen law enforcement agencies, including our King County Sheriff, on a campaign for safe storage of guns. One retailer reports a one-third increase in sales of lockboxes and gun safes.

To connect military veterans with the services they have earned, I launched a Regional Veterans Initiative with the goal that there will be no wrong door for a vet seeking help.  We mapped the service system and brought providers together.

Today, I am appointing our first regional veterans services coordinator. Lieutenant Colonel Dana Sawyers is a retired Air Force commander who has counseled injured vets, and developed a Wounded Warrior project in the Republic of Georgia. Colonel Sawyers.

Last year, I set the goal of full enrollment in affordable healthcare. Thanks to the combined effort of our employees and partners, Washington state has perhaps the most successful enrollment campaign in the nation. And Washington State’s largest county is a big part of that success.

Today, I’m pleased to announce we have already signed up 100,000 people in King County for healthcare coverage.

You could say that our hundreds of In-Person Assisters in Public Health and across the county are the true “12th man” for coverage. Let’s recognize Daphne Pie and the team.

Delivering on promises is one marker of success, as we aspire not just to be good but to be great – to become, in fact, the best-run government in the nation. And here are some of the other characteristics that will define us: A triple-A bond rating, higher than the federal government; efficiency and continuous improvement; Lean management; engaged employees, delivering vastly improved customer service; and outside recognition.

Everyone needs a little validation. And our collaboration has earned many awards, from Seattle Business Magazine, United Way, Tabor 100. the Washington Business Alliance, the Municipal League, and others. There is one more award that will be officially announced soon – considered the most prestigious in the nation.

King County will receive the 2014 Innovations in American Government Award from Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. It’s for our nationally renowned Healthy Incentives program. This is a tremendous recognition, one that we share with our fellow county elected officials, former Executive Ron Sims, all our employees, and our labor unions. Well done.

These are the hallmarks of what it can mean to be the best-run government. We manage those things that are within our control.

Some things are beyond our control – and one is the broken system of funding for large counties in this state, a business model no business could survive.

We did our part – by reducing growth in our costs to the rate of inflation plus new population. We did our part – by reexamining services, innovating to create excellence, and delivering value. Voters did their part – by supporting parks, criminal justice, Medic One, and veterans and human services.

But when our partners at the state and federal level fall short of their responsibilities – and no question they have challenges of their own – they leave us unable to deliver what our community expects. At some point the state must free us from the failing finance model developed during the Depression, and provide us the tools to confront the challenges of the 21st century.

* * * 

Those challenges – of growing inequality and a changing climate – are insistent and inexorable. But this is a strong community with a frontier legacy, willing to take on big jobs, and we will team up with any who share our commitment.

The challenge we face in building equity is most visible in South King County – and here, at White Center Heights, with families from 41 nations, 80 percent of whom speak a language at home other than English.

Our strengths as a region attract people from all over the globe – people who in turn make us even stronger. King County enjoys one of the highest qualities of life in the world. Median household income is $71,000, well above the nation. Median life expectancy is nearly 82 years, well above the nation. Unemployment is 4.7 percent here, two points better than the nation.

Yet we also have a disturbing inequality of opportunity. The average household income in one ZIP code can be $100,000 less than in another just a few miles away. Average life expectancy is ten years shorter in South Auburn than on Mercer Island. Unemployment among African Americans is twice what it is for whites.

This is unacceptable, and not just because it’s immoral. A growing body of evidence shows that places with greater social and economic equity have greater economic growth and overall prosperity.

Income inequality is part of a larger conversation. True equity is about more than a minimum wage for those who have found a low-end job. It is also about having the opportunity to advance and to thrive, based on merit, drive, and determination.

One does not succeed because another fails. We are all better off, when all of us are better off.

Building equity means creating access to opportunity – access to early learning and good education; affordable housing and healthcare; safe streets and safe communities; job opportunities; transportation choices; and, to create access to opportunity, we also need to transform the way we deliver health and human services.

Just as our reform agenda brought new efficiencies to County government, we are embarking on a countywide Transformation Plan to remove barriers, wring out inefficiencies, and align efforts so that we can deliver the most value to people – and make the most of our investments in health and human services.

Our investments in people should begin at birth and continue through the first five years, when we have our one chance to start the next generation off right.

Building equity means children must be ready to learn when they arrive at schools like White Center Heights. Studies show that differences in readiness hinder the learning of every student in class.

We’re home to many projects aimed at birth to five: Head Start, King County’s Nurse-Family Partnership, promising pilots led by nonprofits, and Seattle’s new “Preschool for All” Plan.

As the regional government, we can help knit a cohesive system of support around young families.

In partnership with the University of Washington School of Education, King County will map existing childhood development and learning readiness pilots.

With that inventory we can identify the gaps, and tee up the discussion of how our region can support the development of our youngest residents and start them on a life-long path to opportunity.

Over the next two years, I will visit every school district in King County to hear what’s working, and develop a countywide plan to link early childhood efforts with success in school.

Of course, it’s harder for a child to study without a settled home.

Building equity means making homelessness relatively rare, short in duration, and easily resolved. 

Through Rapid Re-Housing we will work to get or keep 350 families off the streets, out of shelters, and in their own homes this year.

In partnership with the Council, our Youth and Young Adult Homelessness Initiative will seek to intervene before kids become homeless – to break the cycle early so they do not grow to become homeless adults. 

In partnership with our cities, I will pursue a regional strategy to promote construction of affordable housing around future transit centers.

If we can demonstrate the best results through our Health and Human Services Transformation, we will be in a strong position to show the public, in 2015, where additional investment will yield the kind of healthy people and healthy communities our region needs.

System transformation is bigger than any one of us. So we are teaming up with more than 100 non-profits and philanthropists who share our commitment to equity. I want to recognize those who have joined us today: the Seattle Foundation, Raikes Foundation, Giddens Foundation, Medina Foundation, Gates Foundation, Building Changes, United Way, and many more. Please stand and accept our thanks.

By focusing on services for youth, we give ourselves the best chance of preventing inequities that cycle through the criminal justice system, as the kids of today grow into adults.

Building equity means breaking the cycle of people from disadvantaged communities coming back into our jails.

It means developing a strategy to create better support for those who have served their time and are re-entering society. It will require all of us to work as One King County: courts, cops, prosecutors, defenders, corrections officers, and community partners.

Building equity means growing a competitive regional economy, so we can reach our goal of job opportunities for all.

In April, King County will co-host the Brookings Institution as part of the Global Cities Initiative – for a robust discussion of how we can strengthen our metropolitan economy and create more jobs here.

Building equity means having a functioning transportation system – and access to it.

At the Council’s request, I’ve sent you a reduced-fare program to ensure a bus ride remains affordable for those of limited means who need to get to school or their jobs.

Those who ride a crowded bus, or drive on a congested highway, know we should be growing our bus system, not cutting it. Can you imagine trying to move an extra 100,000 people after last week’s Seahawks parade, with a drastically reduced transit system?

We’ve made it clear; our first choice is a statewide transportation package. But without action by the state, voters deserve the chance to decide whether to save Metro Transit and repair our crumbling roads.

Members of the Council, thank you for working with me, and let’s get this on the ballot for April 22.

* * * 

As it happens, April 22 is Earth Day. And our resolve on equity must be matched by our willingness to protect the environment, and to confront the changes in climate that already threaten our planet and our community.

To the west, Puget Sound has risen 8 inches over the last century.

To the east, the Cascade snowpack has shrunk 25 percent since the baby boomers were kids. 

In summer, low flows and warmer water in our streams imperil our treasured salmon.

In winter, storms of growing severity threaten catastrophic flooding.

We can no longer wait for international consensus or a dysfunctional Congress. It’s on us, and we’ve shown that this region can set the pace.

King County government has surpassed the goal of using or producing renewable energy to meet half our energy needs.

We replaced half of our diesel buses with cleaner hybrid-electric vehicles, and we plan to go all-hybrid by 2018. 

We protected more than 200,000 acres of working forest that will limit sprawl and capture carbon. 

We’ve shortened vehicle trips by ensuring that 95 percent of new growth is in already-compact urban areas.

And we are fighting to save our Metro Transit system, which removes 175,000 cars from the road every day.

In my second term, King County will expand on our climate change agenda with specific commitments to reducing greenhouse gas emissions – countywide.

Cities are an essential part of this puzzle.

This Thursday, in partnership with our cities, I will convene the first of two meetings to chart a specific package of joint commitments that will meet state and local climate targets. Thank you, Mayor Larson of Snoqualmie, for joining us.

Our local reputation for climate-friendly business practices is an asset that draws innovative companies. We are a region of adventurers and entrepreneurs.

Building on the model of our successful Aerospace Alliance I will bring together clean-tech businesses, non-profits, and universities to elevate King County as a center for clean technology.

I am pleased to announce that during my second term, our Department of Natural Resources and Parks will become King County’s first carbon-neutral agency.

And I will bring together cities and concerned people from throughout the Northwest to stop the export of coal to Asia.

Climate change is not an idle threat: even our supply of safe food and clean water – once viewed as an endless resource – is no longer a given. We need look no further than the severe drought now afflicting California. We must act now to protect ourselves and secure our local food supply.

To address both equity and climate concerns, I am launching a Local Food Initiative to expand our supply of healthy foods, and expand access to them, while helping make farmlands profitable and protecting them from development.

To lead this work, I am naming the County’s first food economy manager. Lilly Simmering has impressive credentials with the USDA and The Boeing Company. But what’s special is she is also the daughter of Hmong farmers who grew strawberries and owned a restaurant, so she knows what it means to think “farm-to-table.”

* * * 

The past four years showed that we can work together, as One King County and, in doing so, lead the way for the state and the nation. Building on a foundation of success, we are reaching our goals on the priorities we’ve set – justice and safety, health and human potential, economic growth and the built environment, and protection of our natural environment.

With that record of accomplishment and a plan for the future, the state of King County is strong and we keep it strong by facing our inevitable challenges squarely, and united.  Yet no matter how good we are at managing problems, we fall short if we fix only that which is right in front of us.

By building equity and opportunity, we set the stage for a thriving community with higher on-time graduation rates, wage equity, lower rates of crime and incarceration, and a workforce ready to fill abundant high-skill jobs.

By confronting climate change, we help reduce the obvious impacts on our oceans, rivers, forests, wildlife, and food supply – and the not-so-obvious impacts to human health and household budgets.

Our region has grand plans that anticipate the future: Vision 2040, Transportation 2040, climate targets for 2050. By 2040, the kids in class today will be adults – looking for their next job, maybe getting married, or raising kids of their own.

We reap enormous returns on early investments, in our children and our environment. Those returns won’t all be visible in one budget cycle, or one term or, in some cases, even in our lifetimes. But we aim high. To set our sights lower would be a disservice to ourselves and to those who elected us.

We have achieved a lot in the last four years. I look forward to what we can accomplish together in the next four. We here in King County, in Central Puget Sound, we have the will and the capacity to nurture and unlock the great minds that will solve the greatest challenges of our time.

The best ideas may come, not from us in this room, but from those in the classrooms down the hall. When they look back, I hope they will say that we believed in their potential and provided them the same opportunities to succeed that we have enjoyed.

Thank you.
King County Executive
Dow Constantine
Dow constantine portrait

Read the Executive's biography