Start your budget engines

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Mayor Mike McGinn delivers his proposal for a 2012 City budget Monday thus kicking off the two month budget review season (which just happens to coincide with baseball playoff season, an important fact for people in many other cities). Over the past few years budget review has made Seattle’s otherwise delicious autumn days metaphorically darker. In the past two budgets we’ve hacked 447 employee positions from the City budget as we’ve dealt with the drop in revenue associated with the recession. Library employees take one-week furloughs, community centers operate with limited schedules, we have fewer neighborhood district coordinators, fewer construction permit reviewers, shuttered some Neighborhood Service Centers, froze hiring for the Neighborhood Policing Plan, and fewer precinct liaison attorneys.

The budget for 2012 promises more of the same. For context, unemployment nationally and regionally remains unexpectedly high; the housing market nationally is choking on a gut-wrenching number of foreclosures still “to clear,” as described in the media; and the Federal government is fighting us into a deeper hole with brinksmanship and the likelihood of deep cuts to domestic spending. Locally, tax revenues are no longer in free fall, but that’s the best thing we can say at the moment. This may be the “new normal,” or Greece, worse, will default on its debt and send reverb through the world financial system – and further gloom into the spending attitudes of you and me.

For the current Mayor and the Council, the reputed Chinese curse “may you live in interesting times” might be amended to be: “may you govern in really broke times.”  This will be Mayor McGinn’s second budget and the second time he’s had to propose layoffs and program cuts. Not an enviable position and one I know he does not take lightly.

A budget is the opportunity to demonstrate one’s priorities and values through a spending plan. Through the Council’s review of the Mayor’s proposed budget I hope we can produce a budget for 2012 that accomplishes important objectives:

  • Maintain the safety net. This Mayor and this Council have both prioritized direct services to vulnerable people in our community who have limited or no resources of their own. Food banks, shelter, counseling, job training and other social services are survival services in these times.
  • Preserve public safety. While Seattle’s rate of violent crime is down, property and quality of life crimes are up and we hear regularly about street-level drug dealing and assaults in certain neighborhoods. We need to see change in these areas. We’ll debate how police staff, beat patrols, “hot spot” policing, street outreach, treatment and other approaches get into (or don’t get into) the City budget.
  • Keep the infrastructure up. Whether we’re talking about sidewalks, concrete and asphalt travel lanes, overhead or underground wires, building roofs, pipes or conduit, I’ll be looking to see how each department (Transportation, in particular) deals with long-term infrastructure investments.
  • Reevaluate what we do and how we do it. We, including me, have to set aside long-held ideas about how to provide City services. Asking the right questions about outcomes and competency, we have to look at City programs and measure how effective they truly are. We can’t afford everything we’re doing today. Chances are we won’t be able to afford everything we’re doing this time next year, as well. The Mayor and Councilmember Sally Bagshaw, chair of the Council’s Parks Committee, have already announced a different approach to community center staffing that preserves our system, but at lower cost.
  • Cut where we have to, invest where we must. We will cut, there’s no doubt, but we should also maintain investments that draw in other sources of funding and that pay dividends for Seattle in the long-run. The Neighborhood Matching Fund is a great example of a fund that multiplies dollars and builds stronger communities.

We all want a City that does the basics really well and uses dollars effectively, despite the economy and predictions of future revenue declines. Easier said than done in a city our size, but we have until Monday, November 21 (final vote day) to get it right. The public hearings are slated for the evenings of Tues., Oct. 4 and Wed., Oct. 26 in City Council Chambers. I anticipate these will be well attended. You can find more information here, including a form for emailing councilmembers with your budget concerns and ideas. Please feel free to send ideas. I can definitely use them.