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It Takes a City

Mayor Mike McGinn delivered his proposed 2013-14 budget to the Seattle City Council on Monday afternoon Sept. 24. It was his third budget message and, partly because times are better and city revenues not so constrained as they were in the grim years of the Great Recession, this message was more favorably received than in the past.

Since Monday’s presentation, the City Council has been analyzing and concentrating on proposed budget details. Citizens have weighed in by phone, email, public testimony, snail mail and in person on budgetary issues. Councilmembers have attended community and civic meetings to hear citizen concerns. The issues have been addressed in the press and on the blogs. Seattle’s dedication to public participation means that it takes a city to pass a budget.

The City Council typically takes seven weeks to consider, reallocate, and pass a balanced budget (unlike the federal government, the city is prohibited from operating with a deficit; in other words, it cannot spend money that it cannot reasonably expect to receive). The budget deadline is December 1, but custom dictates that the council passes the budget on the Monday before Thanksgiving.

For the past four years, the city has had to trim operations, due to the dismal economy. To achieve this belt tightening, it has been necessary to implement numerous efficiencies, reduce the number of workers and accept concessions from city unions. Some city workers – foremost among them the Seattle Public Library employees – even agreed to accept unpaid furloughs to help the city keep layoffs to a minimum. There were cuts in branch library hours, grass was mowed less frequently and there were fewer community center hours. And, although the Council vowed to keep virtually untouched the City’s highest priorities – public safety and direct human services – there were even small savings found in these critical core services.

There was a tendency to gloss over the austere times saying that the city was “doing more with less;” but the reality was that the city was doing less because we had less.

Thus it was heartening last week, at the Council’s first budget discussion, to hear, City Budget Director Beth Goldberg predict that there would be only a $20 million shortfall in 2013 (down from an earlier $32 million prediction). The source of this additional revenue: More from real estate sales, street vacation funds expected from Children’s Hospital and Amazon and the welcome news that federal bloc grants will be holding steady. There will also be a few million added to the city’s general fund, an amount freed by passage of the Library Levy.

Goldberg, one seldom on the side of wild enthusiasm, plainly assessed the situation: “There still are constraints in the economy, but there are signs of improvement.”

Among some of the miscellaneous savings in city spending are the lowering of temperatures in city buildings, Seattle Parks’ reducing water usage, selling of vehicle parts inventories and reduction in unneeded parks’ planning staff. Goldberg said that the Mayor also is proposing higher parking fees at city garages and the Seattle Municipal Tower, as well as an amnesty period for pet licenses that might bring in several thousand in fees for previously unlicensed pets. She proposed using several million remaining from the City’s sale of a property known as the Rubble Yard to the State DOT.

These savings to the City’s general fund are proposed to pay for 10 additional Seattle Police Officers, replacing in-car systems, paying for a gunfire location system, expanding community center hours and adding 450 slots to the Youth Violence Prevention Initiative. There also would be an expansion of the Human Services Department’s safety net, including more for child care; support for homeless families and domestic violence survivors; increased “only in Seattle” neighborhood business grants; several million more on Safe Routes to Schools; greenway development; and funds to complete a Freight Mobility Plan.

Goldberg was careful to caution that there remain downside risks to the proposal. She talked about what would happen if there are fiscal troubles in Europe and China. But, all in all, prospects sounded a good deal better than when the Mayor, during his Budget Message, suggested, somewhat illogically, that the City Council should join him and “jump off the cliff together.” Fortunately, it seems as if that might not be necessary.

The Budget Public Hearings are the 4th and 25th of October at 5:30 pm at City Hall. Be a part of the City Budget Process.

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