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King County budget cuts threaten Equal Benefits Ordinance
King County budget cuts threaten Equal Benefits Ordinance
by Mike Andrew - SGN Contributing Writer

King County will cut the employee charged with ensuring compliance with the Equal Benefits Ordinance from its 2009 budget, if County Executive Ron Sims has his way. Under the budget Sims proposed for next year, the position of Equal Benefits Coordinator will be eliminated. The County has no plans to re-assign the Coordinator's work to other employees.

The Equal Benefits Ordinance, passed in 2004, requires businesses that contract with King County to offer the same benefits to domestic partners of their employees as they do to married spouses. Modeled on a similar ordinance passed in San Francisco in 1996, King County's ordinance allows LGBT workers to provide medical, dental, and vision care, pensions, and other benefits for their partners, even though same-sex marriages are not permitted under Washington state law.

King County reported a budget shortfall of more than $93 million for 2009, and deep cuts are expected in many areas. In his October 13 budget speech to the King County Council, County Executive Ron Sims announced what he calls a "lifeboat strategy" funding only what he considers the most essential services, and those at the lowest possible levels.

Sims also indicated he was not prepared to negotiate over the proposed cuts. "Many expect that we will engage in political infighting over this budget," he told the County Council. "If we do, we will only affirm the cynicism people feel about government."

"I don't know of any efforts to save the position. The county is faced with a $93 million shortfall," the current Equal Benefits Coordinator Dale Sirek told SGN. "The executive's response has been that the budget is the budget."

Sirek would be terminated on December 31 if Sims' proposed budget is approved by the King County Council this month, and he worries that the Equal Benefits Ordinance will not be enforced without a knowledgeable coordinator in charge. "Nobody in the county knows what I do because I'm it," Sirek said.

Sims' proposed cut came to light when Sirek cancelled a scheduled appearance at a community forum sponsored by Allyship, where he was slated to discuss the impact of domestic partnership legislation. Allyship is a local activist organization working in solidarity with marginalized communities to understand the interconnectedness of oppression. The group has worked to build LGBT participation in the annual May 1 immigrant rights march, as well as on domestic partnership issues.

"I was looking forward to the Allyship forum," Sirek said. "I wanted to present the statistics, to show how much impact we'd had. We've had many people file requests for benefits." Sirek told SGN that his department suggested he cancel his appearance. "I hadn't received written permission to speak as a spokesperson - much to my disappointment. I was advised internally not to do it without permission."

While Sirek would not discuss specifics with SGN without official permission, he did reveal that his position was at risk in last year's budget as well. "You know how I learned about my pending departure last year?" he told SGN. "I read the budget! That made me feel really special." Money for the position was put back in the County budget in the County Council's final budget striker meeting, the day before funding was due to run out.

SGN called Ron Sims' office for comment, but none was forthcoming by press time. SGN also requested details of the Equal Benefits Coordinator's work from County Public Information Officers. This information has been promised, but has not yet been made available.

Contacted for comment, County Council President Julia Patterson (D-Dist 5) told SGN, "I questioned the elimination when I saw the budget. It's a social justice issue from my perspective."

"I raised a red flag so we wouldn't just pass it through. We'll come back to it later," Patterson said. Typically the Council holds a series of hearings on the budget in October and November, then a final budget striker meeting to put it into final form. The final budget should be passed just before Thanksgiving.

Patterson did not promise that the Equal Benefits Coordinator could be saved, however. "This issue is completely overshadowed by grave cuts in criminal justice and public health," she said. "Until constituents call on this it's just not going to get much attention."

The final public hearing on the proposed County budget will be Monday, November 10, at 11:00 a.m. in the County Council Chambers at 516 3rd Avenue, Room 1200. Speaker signup for begins at 10:30 a.m. Public comment is also taken online at www.kingcounty.gov/council/budget/Testify_Online.aspx.

On Wednesday, November 5, the Martin Luther King County Labor Council (MLKCLC) unanimously passed a resolution opposing the elimination of the Equal Benefits Coordinator position. The resolution was proposed by Pride At Work, the LGBT constituency organization of the AFL-CIO. Pride At Work includes members of both AFL-CIO and Change To Win unions, as well as non-union allies.

County Councilmember Larry Gossett (D-Dist 2), who represents the U District, Capitol Hill, the Central Area, and Rainier Valley - all neighborhoods with high concentrations of LGBT residents, as well as other communities dependent on County services - said he'd received "many, many, many, many, many calls" from constituents protesting proposed budget cuts.

"This is the most difficult budget I've had to deal with," Gossett said. "These are the biggest cuts we've ever had." Gossett has served on the County Council since 1993. "We have to take public comment before the final vote," he said, "but realistically most things are set by that time. The best way to have an impact is to come to the November 10 hearing."

Contact the King County Council:

www.kingcounty.gov/council/budget/
Testify_Online.aspx

Bob Ferguson (D)
District 1
206-296-1001
bob.ferguson@kingcounty.gov

Larry Gossett (D)
District 2
206-296-1002
larry.gossett@kingcounty.gov

Kathy Lambert (R)
District 3
206-296-1003
kathy.lambert@kingcounty.gov

Larry Phillips (D)
District 4
206-296-1004
larry.phillips@kingcounty.gov,

Julia Patterson (D)
Council Chair, District 5
206-296-1005
julia.patterson@kingcounty.gov

Jane Hague (R)
District 6
206-296-1006
jane.hague@kingcounty.gov

Pete von Reichbauer (R)
District 7
206-296-1007
pete.vonreichbauer@kingcounty.gov

Dow Constantine (D)
Council Vice Chair, District 8
206-296-1008
dow.constantine@kingcounty.gov

Reagan Dunn (R)
Council Vice Chair, District 9
206-296-1009
reagan.dunn@kingcounty.gov

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