JOHN CARLSON: What resulted in the deficit?

Underfunded or poorly run? Two wildly different pictures about King County government are being painted by the current King County executive and one of the contenders who wants to succeed him.

Kurt Triplett, tapped earlier this year by the County Council to fill out Ron Sims’ last year in office, told the Seattlepi.com that he will close all 39 county parks unless the voters agree to raise the sales tax in November. Triplett says the county is facing a $50 million deficit and that a higher sales tax will help close it. Why the deficit? The recession.

But earlier this month, eastside legislator Fred Jarrett, a state senator from Mercer Island, hosted a press conference and uncorked a fascinating statistic.

“In the past five years the county budget has increased by 44 percent, while the consumer price index increased only 16 percent. This is not just unsustainable – it is an insane fiscal management practice,” he said.

It turns out that under Ron Sims, King County started tapping its rainy day fund before the recession hit. Social spending and health care was expanded and climate change programs were grown.

But also grown was the cost of government itself. Example: from 2006 to 2008, the number of county employees went up 2.2 percent, but compensation for county employees rose by almost 7 percent. Sims’ staff received an increase of 20 percent. The county council staff got an increase of more than 23 percent. Just four years ago, there were 13 county council members, a council staff of 121 people and a staff payroll of $13 million. The public went to the polls and shrunk the size of the council to nine members. Today, instead of 121 staff people, there are 117. And instead of a $13 million payroll, it’s $16 million.

Triplett, a government lifer who spent the last half decade helping Sims spend the county’s seed corn, is actually making two other liberal candidates for executive look reasonable. That may be intentional. Both Dow Constantine and Larry Phillips, Seattle Democrats and veteran members of the council, are saying that now is not the time to raise taxes. But Triplett and Sims could not have locked these spending increases into place without help from both Phillips and Constantine.

Opposing tax hikes during a recession is easy. The hard part is tackling the county’s runaway spending and tangling with its powerful unions. County employees, according to Jarrett, pay nothing for their current health care premiums when employees of other local governments pay an average of $41.20 per month. That one change would shave $7 million off that $50 million deficit.

The real tension in county government isn’t between Republicans and Democrats, it’s between unions and public services. Law enforcement is the county’s first priority, but there has been a dramatic drop in nighttime arrests in the city of Seattle, and it’s not because there’s been a dramatic drop in nighttime crime.

King County’s prosecutor, Dan Satterberg has downshifted some felonies to misdemeanor status, while the sheriff’s office won’t investigate thefts in unincorporated King County, if they involve a loss or damage of less than $10,000.

Fewer services or weaker unions? The choice really is that stark, which is why November will be the county’s most consequential election in the last generation.