Budget 2012 – What We Know So Far

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Mayor McGinn has now presented a proposed 2012 budget.  The Council will take October and most of November to review and evaluate the Mayor’s proposal, and will vote to formally adopt a 2012 budget in mid-November.

The 2012 proposal is part of a 2-year budget cycle.  State law provides that the City can only adopt budgets one year at a time, but Seattle does most of its budget work during the years when City officials are not on the ballot, formally adopting a budget for the next year and endorsing a budget for the one after that.  The 2012 budget was endorsed in November of 2010, but now must be formally adopted.  Traditionally, Mayors propose relatively modest adjustments to the endorsed budget, to meet changed financial and economic circumstances.

But the circumstances of 2012 are different.  Two weeks ago, I suggested a series of challenges that the Mayor should meet in crafting a budget in these difficult times.  I noted that I wasn’t expecting a finished product, but a set of strategies for hard times that will involve the public and the Council as partners in pivoting over the next year to a new Seattle governmental model.  Now that we have seen the Mayor’s budget, let’s see how he did – and what’s likely to be debated or at issue in the next few weeks.

What I looked for:

  • A continued commitment to core services, like public safety, human services, and neighborhoods.
  • A plan to overhaul the Department of Transportation and its budget, management, and accountability procedures.
  • A reinvention strategy for the Department of Neighborhoods.
  • Extending the community centers reinvention into other areas of the Parks Department.
  • A strategy for overhauling the City’s hundreds of contracts for human services to ensure that we are targeting for outcomes, not just renewing existing arrangements – along the lines of outcomes measurements incorporated into the Family and Education Levy proposal.
  • A clear explanation of how we are going to deliver on the neighborhood policing plan when we cannot fund the number of officers envisaged in the original approach.
  • An investment in economic development that will bring new revenues and create new jobs.

What the Mayor delivered:

  • Fire Department and Human Services budgets were kept pretty much at their endorsed budget levels.  These are important steps to keeping our communities healthy.
  • Police personnel, on the other hand were cut by leaving vacant positions open.  The Mayor suggested that we are meeting our public safety goals, so do not need to fill these positions.  But (see my later point above), these statistics may not accurately reflect reality on the ground – we may be meeting our goals most of the time in most neighborhoods, but may not be meeting them at critical points in time and in ‘hot spots’.  The neighborhood policing plan included several hard-won concessions from the police union that were to be realized when we reached a level of personnel that we may not attain, including setting schedules so that we have the most police available at the times when there is the most need (summer weekend nights).  Which is, of course, the times when police, like the rest of us, want to be on vacation, hence the need to negotiate the agreement.  The Council will have to closely examine the Mayor’s proposal to see if his metrics really work.
  • The Department of Transportation budget was reduced from the endorsed budget, but the Mayor used one-time money available from the sale of property to prevent further cuts.  There‘s not much evidence of significant change in accountability and management, although there are a few steps in that direction.  The Council will have to consider whether using one-time money for operations is appropriate, or whether we need to make more drastic cuts and use this money for capital projects.  And the Mayor has proposed to spend $1.5 million of the land sale proceeds on planning for high-capacity transit lines – while this is a one-time expenditure that is more appropriate for this kind of funding, the Council will look at what this will actually be used for and how it fits into the long-range plan for transportation improvements.
  • The Mayor’s budget proposes doing major surgery on the Department of Neighborhoods.  Some of this reflects a new approach to our community grants programs, bringing together the granting functions from several Departments, a clear reinvention step that will be both more efficient for the City and easier for community groups to access.  Other reductions seem less systematic, and there does not seem to be a clear vision for where DON goes in the future.  The Council will take a long hard look at this area.
  • Along with the consolidation of grant functions, the Mayor proposes to consolidate the Offices of Economic Development and Housing into a single Department of Housing and Economic Development.  The Council will look carefully at whether this works given the similarities in the work of the staff members but differences in mission between the two offices.  One question will be whether the same or more savings can be achieved without actually merging the two offices.  However it works out, I applaud the Mayor for taking the risk of proposing this controversial idea.
  • Reinvention has taken a firm hold in the Parks Department.  Along with the community centers changes, which were developed cooperatively with the Council, the Department has proposed a number of other changes that will improve service delivery, foster great engagement with community partners, and provide budget savings.  I applaud the Mayor for this follow through, and the Council is likely to look favorably on these changes.
  • The Department of Human Services is a strong candidate for reinvention – we have gradually moved to a more systematic method of outcome evaluation for human services programs, and it appears that this is likely to continue.  The challenge will be to follow through on making tough decisions to support efficient and effective programs without making mistakes that will have negative impacts on people in need.  It’s a delicate balance, and the Council will have to watch this area with great care.
  • The Mayor proposes to continue the current economic development strategy and programs, and there are indications that there will be some openness to new and creative approaches to economic development (such as permit consolidation and improved service delivery).  However, not much of this shows up in the budget, and it is likely to require significant work in 2012 to ensure that this work is carried out.

On balance, there will probably be relatively limited controversy over the final 2012 budget.  One indication of this was the budget hearing held on October 4:  fewer people showed up to testify than in any budget hearing in recent memory.  I am hopeful that the remainder of the budget work will go smoothly, and that the Council and Mayor can work through the fairly modest issues outline above.