The Council is moving into our two month process of reviewing and formally adopting the 2014 Seattle budget. The City budget is in good shape, thanks to careful budgeting during the last several difficult years. As we come out of the recession, there is more money to spend, and the Mayor has proposed a number of additions to the 2014 draft budget approved last year. We will review this with great care, and Councilmembers will undoubtedly have ideas for the uses of this new money – I know I do, and I’ll describe some of them in this article!
To recap the budget process: the Council is required by law to adopt a balanced budget for the next year by the end of November. We actually use a two-year budget cycle: in even-numbered years we go through the major work on budget review and approve a budget for the following two years. In odd-numbered years we have a less intensive process, reviewing what we did last year, making any needed modifications to the 2014 budget draft, and turning the draft into a final budget. During this time, regular Committee meetings are canceled unless there is legislation that is time-sensitive.
We are required to adopt a balanced budget each year. The City’s revenue sources and tax rates are set by state law or voter approval; we have very little flexibility to vary them, so generally our task is to live within our means. While revenues from the property tax and utility taxes are relatively stable, the other two major components of our budget, revenues from the sales tax and business and occupation tax, decline during recessions, so we have been cutting budgets for the last three years. When we approved the 2013-2014 budgets in November of 2012, the recovery had stabilized our revenues, so we were able to balance the budget without major cuts.
Now the economy has continued to improve, so we find ourselves with projections of increased revenues from sales tax, business tax, and the real estate excise tax (a tax on real estate transactions that is dedicated to capital projects by state law). The Mayor has proposed putting some of this new money in our rainy day reserve fund, but was also able to propose a number of significant additional expenditures, including:
- Adding 15 police officers and more funds for the Center City safety initiative
- Increasing support for human services, including homelessness, domestic violence, and senior services
- Increasing funding for the Neighborhood Matching Fund and other community projects
- Adding more funding for transportation capital projects
- And launching a number of new initiatives in areas as varied as creating a civic leadership institute for refugee women and investing in our historic theaters.
I generally applaud these initiatives, and the Council will review them carefully. I and my colleagues will ask whether each one is a well-designed approach that is ready to implement, or whether they are ideas that should be considered more carefully before they are funded. My personal preference is to emphasize programs that have already been vetted with the public and through a Council process (such as the proposed funding for improving early learning, which implements the resolution just adopted by the Council), and to look more carefully at ideas that are completely new, even if they seem promising.
There are several priorities that are new initiatives in the budget that I enthusiastically support, such as:
- Funding a program called Startup Seattle as an economic development initiative, which has enthusiastic community support and was presented to the Council last summer
- Funding the Fresh Bucks program, which was launched as a pilot and is demonstrably successful
- Creating a Duwamish Opportunity Fund, which was called for in a joint letter from the Mayor and Council as part of our work to implement the Duwamish cleanup
I am also reviewing other possible budget additions, such as:
- Funds to implement the tree maintenance and outreach/education programs that were adopted as part of the Urban Forest Stewardship Plan
- Additional funds for human service priorities, such as shelter for housing for domestic violence programs and food banks and home meal deliveries
- Funds to assist community health agencies to meet the demand from people who have new health coverage under the Affordable Care Act.
We are fortunate to have the budget resources that allow us to increase services for the people of Seattle. While the City can take credit for doing our best to help Seattle’s economy recover, it is important to recognize that these resources are mostly due to the investment and activity in the private sector. The creativity and energy of the Seattle business community is what provides not only jobs and housing for our people, but also the revenues that we rely on to provide services for all of our communities.