What I’m Looking for in Mayor McGinn’s Monday Budget Message

The Mayor will present his proposed budget for 2012 to the City Council and kick-off our budget season in a speech next Monday at 2:00 p.m. at City Hall. The Council’s process of reviewing, modifying and approving a budget is done in a very short 57-day period that ends on November 21 when the Council votes to adopt our version of the budget. (Seattle is the only Washington city required by state law to approve its annual budget no later than the first Monday in December. Why? I have no idea. But it means we will be in a sprint to complete our work with extremely limited time to do the job and do it right.)

I will listen carefully on Monday to what the Mayor has to say. The goals and priorities he outlines for us will be a measure of his focus and leadership. We are in tough times. We need vision to ensure that even with constraints on our revenues, critical City services will continue to be delivered and delivered effectively. Here are important areas of emphasis requiring strong leadership that I hope the Mayor will prioritize:

Outcome-Based Budgeting and Program Accountability
As I wrote in the Seattle Times earlier this year, we don't do a very good job proving that we spend taxpayers' money efficiently and effectively. One of the very best ways to build public trust and confidence in government is through increased accountability. We need to set measurable goals and stop funding programs that don't achieve good results. Getting the city government bureaucracy to adopt rigorous outcome-based accountability standards will require very strong leadership grounded in collaboration and respectful partnership with our excellent city employees.

City Government Makeover with Strong Service Focus
Today's economic reality compels us to rebuild city government by discontinuing unnecessary functions and services and creating more efficiencies. At the same time, we need a strong service focus. Government must be oriented to serve the people, not the bureaucracy. Author Ken Miller says it well: "The work of government is noble. The people of government are amazing. The systems of government are a mess." That is precisely why we need a top-to-bottom makeover which will increase our capacity to do more good work. This is work for the long-haul and requires deep engagement with our partners in every city department.

Acknowledgment of Significant Public Safety Challenges in Some Neighborhoods
Major crime is down in Seattle, as it is across the nation, but the reported frequency of other crimes is up. These so-called quality-of-life crimes increased 4% in 2010 compared to 2009, and as of July 2011 they remain at this higher level. Such crimes include all drug trafficking and use violations, car break-ins, prostitution, non-aggravated assault, liquor violations, graffiti and other more petty street disorder offenses. Frustration and anger about quality-of-life crimes are widespread and growing. Specific intervention plans, tied to measurable outcomes, are urgently needed from the Mayor and Police Chief to address these public safety problems. Platitudes about living in an urban environment and “that's just the way life is in the city” won't cut it any longer.

Policing Reform
We should embrace sweeping changes in how we police our city and how we manage our police resources. 

Experience in other cities reported in research findings and the fiscal limitations on police hiring indicate we should formalize proven strategies and spread them citywide. We should move away from the traditional American policing philosophy that focuses on the policing of the overall population. Instead, we should adopt a new philosophy of policing place, because crime is intensely concentrated and anchored at a few micro-places and policing the frequent offenders responsible for a vastly disproportionate amount of crime.

Seattle police, to their credit, have experimented with several new policing strategies over the last few years. Two examples in particular prove my point. First, after the 23rd and East Union "hot spot" intervention by the City last autumn, 911 calls in area fell by over half. Businesses are thriving, and new businesses are opening. The people in an area which has been plagued by crime for decades are rejoicing. Second, after Seattle police focused its efforts on frequent offenders involved in auto theft several years ago, the rate of auto theft dropped by more than half.

Smart policing gets results.

Caring for the Most Vulnerable Among Us
Poverty is increasing in our region. There are dangerous signals about a weakening middle class, something I wrote about last week. Our city is well known for the effort we take to care for those among us who need support. My colleagues and I have sustained (and sometimes increased) funding for human services in each of the past three years. We will do so again.

And in doing so, we should also become much more committed to funding human service programs with proven track records. One great example is the Nurse Family Partnership (NFP) which serves low-income mothers. NFP has been tested and evaluated for over 30 years. It works. The City currently provides funding at a level that allows us to reach about one-third of the new moms in Seattle who qualify for NFP services. Since this program is so effective—providing benefits that significantly outweigh its costs—we should extend it to all qualified moms.

We also need to be innovative in how we arrange for or directly deliver social services. For example, many of our immigrant and refugee neighbors—now 17% of our population—already poor, are experiencing increased economic and other hardships which I believe require unique and specialized interventions. The City can do so more effectively if it consolidates its outreach and services to these communities, allowing better coordination of resources available to them.

Seattle's Strengths and Opportunities
I've listed some of my priorities which I hope the Mayor addresses next Monday. While City coffers are not flush, the limits on our resources also offer us an opportunity to be more innovative, more focused and more deliberate in how we organize and manage City services. That is a good thing.

We have an amazing city with terrific assets—the beauty of our setting, the caring and energy of our people, the drive and talent of those who run businesses, large and small. We are fortunate to live here.

Because all of us love our city and want it to flourish, it’s important to pay close attention to the budget and business of City government because it affects Seattle’s prosperity and vibrancy. That’s why I will listen closely to what the Mayor proposes on Monday. And why my colleagues and I will work together diligently in the coming weeks to develop and adopt a final Council budget we can all be proud of.

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