OLYMPIA — Elected leaders of Washington’s 39 counties are gearing up to sue the state on two fronts as early as this fall with another legal battle looming next year.
They’ve told staff of the Washington Association of Counties to prepare for lawsuits to be filed either by individual counties or the organization as a whole. Final decisions from the board of directors on how to proceed could come in September or November.
It’s all about money and power — too little of the former, too much of the latter, in the view of counties.
On one front, counties are primed to fight a 2017 law in which lawmakers made ballot drop boxes a mandated piece of voting equipment but failed to provide funds to cover the costs of acquiring, installing and maintaining them.
It’s not a big expense. But in the view of county officials, it’s a clear breach of a prohibition on the state enacting unfunded mandates.
Seven counties — Snohomish, Pierce, Kitsap, Kittitas, Lewis, Cowlitz and Jefferson — filed claims with the state earlier this year seeking reimbursement for their respective expenses. Those requests, which totaled roughly $725,000, were denied.
On the other front, the association is readying a challenge to the constitutionality of a 2018 state law altering the makeup of the Spokane County Board of Commissioners.
It requires Spokane County move from a standard three-person commission to five members, and to elect them by district in both the primary and general elections. Historically, in the primary, commissioners run in the district in which they live then, in the general election, are on the ballot countywide.
Association members fumed at lawmakers imposing their will in this manner.
They contend the law violates a clause in the state Constitution calling for uniformity in governance structure of counties unless voters step in and adopt a charter containing a different arrangement — as Snohomish County and others have done.
And a third lawsuit could come in 2019. It would center on the requirement for counties to provide a public defender or other attorney to represent individuals a court deems to be indigent.
Counties spent $153 million in 2016 and got $6.2 million in reimbursement from the state, according to the association. Counties will seek $300 million in the next state budget and if they don’t get most or all of it they may decide to fight for it.
It’s all happened with much deliberation.
County leaders understand the tab for any legal confrontation will be borne on both sides by taxpayers. Hence, they want to be sure the ones they represent fully understand the stakes for them.
Pierce County Councilman Derek Young, a leader of the association’s legislative steering committee, laid it out frankly in statement issued following a May gathering of county officials.
“Every dollar that I have to spend on laws that are passed down from the legislature without funding comes directly out of my budget for sheriff deputies, road maintenance and resources to combat important issues like the opioid crisis,” he said. “We are tired of the Legislature balancing their budget on the backs of counties especially since we all share the same constituency.”