MAKING IT WORK
Welcome to MAKING IT WORK, Councilmember Conlin's monthly email newsletter.
The purpose of this newsletter is to provide information, inspire involvement, and make things work in this great city.
On Monday, November 20, the City Council completed the 2007-2008 budget process, unanimously approving balanced budgets for both years, as required by state law. The budget process this year was easier than it has been in recent years, partly because the healthy economy is generating a strong revenue stream, and partly because of good news from the November ballot.
Resources available for the general fund increased by about 9% between 2006 and 2007, to $842 million. Seattle's booming economy generated about 2/3 of this increase, with the remainder coming from a significant budget surplus in 2006, as the economy grew faster than predicted in that year. The City struggled with budget problems and shortfalls in the 2003-2005 time period, as the recession and the effects of adverse court decisions and statewide initiatives cut into city revenues. The 2006 budget was developed using very conservative assumptions, leading to a significant surplus at the end of the year.
The past few years have also often presented the Council with bad budget news in early November, often the passage of a statewide initiative reducing revenues (usually over the vehement opposition of Seattle voters). This year, however, Washington voters rejected the so-called property rights initiative, which could have cost the City millions of dollars in legal fees and assessments, and Seattle voters approved the Bridging the Gap Levy.
The good news is that this healthy budget allows Seattle to restore most of the cuts made over the past few years, catch up on many deferred maintenance projects, especially in the Parks Department, and add significant investments in other key services such as library collections and the ten-year plan to end homelessness. In addition, as noted below, the Council used these revenues to make a number of changes in the proposed budget, with particular emphasis on public safety and human services.
The bad news is that it is likely that this rate of growth is not sustainable in the future. A slowing economy, the continued loss of federal funds for important services, rising health care costs, and the impact of a state law that cuts revenues from the Business and Occupation tax by over $20 million in 2008 combine to suggest that 2008 could be challenging, and 2009 and beyond contain much uncertainty.
However, in 2007, Seattle residents will see increased services in a number of different areas, from more library books to more police officers on the street, from better maintenance of parks and roadways to fewer homeless residents without shelter.
In addition to these impacts in the general fund budget, as a result of Council action on Seattle City Light rates, residents and businesses will see a reduction averaging 8% in their electric bills in 2008.
The Council made a number of changes in the Mayor's proposed budget, and the sections below gave some details on the most significant Council actions.
Back to Contents
PUBLIC SAFETY PACKAGE
The Mayor's proposed budget added six officers to the City's Police Department. The Council heard from a number of citizens concerned about crime and public safety. In response, the Council crafted a public safety package under the leadership of Council President Nick Licata, which includes:
$2,916,000 for 31 new police officers
$982,000 for programs aimed at diverting at-risk youth from offending
$840,000 for treatment, housing and other services to help reduce recidivism
$648,000 for civilian assistants for patrol and for community-oriented solutions to crime
$405,000 for legal assistance for victims of domestic violence
Putting more police officers on patrol is a very important step in addressing public safety concerns. However, it will not prevent all crime, nor is it the only step. Providing employment and counseling for youth are also critical. We must also engage community members in supporting each other and promoting public safety through programs such as Block Watch. And, while they may not be as visible as more public criminal activities, domestic violence makes up a very large proportion of the injuries and fatalities that are the highest priority crimes.
Adding more uniformed officers is also of limited significance unless these officers are actually efficiently deployed in patrol. Only a little more than half of current uniformed police officers are in patrol, and some of the others are doing desk jobs that could be better done by civilians, such as supervising the 911 operators or staffing precinct front desks. Patrol jobs are also deployed inefficiently -- beats have not been realigned for more than 15 years, and staffing therefore does not match the actual level of public safety concerns in specific areas of the city. Some officers are constantly busy, while others experience many fewer incidents. Beat realignment (sometimes known as 'geopolicing') is being done this year, and is a step than can be taken by SPD management.
There are other changes, however, that will require concurrence of the Seattle Police Officers Guild, including moving officers to patrol from the kinds of 'civilian' duties cited above, and changing the time of day and seasonality of officer assignments. Right now, the lowest patrol staffing is typically on summer weekend nights, because these are the times that officers prefer to be off duty or on vacation, and yet these are also the times with the highest number of public safety issues.
Simply adding more officers to a system that is not functioning efficiently is not going to achieve the kind of public safety objectives that Seattle citizens are looking for. We have a well-qualified and talented staff of officers in SPD, but I encourage those who are concerned about public safety to keep the pressure on the Department and the Seattle Police Officers Guild to make the changes that will actually result in putting more officers on patrol at the times and places they are needed.
Seattle remains by all objective measurements a very safe city with a very effective police force. While we will never attain zero crime rates, we can -- and must -- do better to address the concerns that people have about safety in their neighborhoods and around the City. However, there were a number of misleading assumptions and statistics being circulated about police staffing during this budget year that led people to focus on the number of officers, rather than promoting public safety.
For example, a fact sheet circulated stated that there was a zero increase in police in service from 1990 to 2006, while population increased by 13%. However, this glosses over the dramatic 26% increase in officers from 1985 to 1990. The number of police officers on duty has increased at double the rate of population growth over the last 20 years. Unfortunately, because of the issues noted above, the number of officers visible and active on patrol has not.
Criminal justice analysts generally agree that the ratio of police officers to population has little relevance to either the rate of crime or the perceived level of public safety. Contrary to some statistics that were circulated, Seattle is about in the middle of all cities in this ratio, and has one of the higher ratios of major cities on the West Coast. Ironically, cities with the highest number of police officers per capita often have the highest crime rates.
Addressing the real public safety concerns in Seattle will require additional funding for an array of public safety programs. It will also require effective management and an aware and engaged citizenry that partners with the City to address issues in their communities. Only when all parties work together will we be able to become truly safe.
Back to Contents
The budget proposed by the Mayor included full funding for the Ten-Year Plan to End Homelessness, and significantly increased other human services funding as well. In past budgets, we have often had to work hard to restore funds that had been cut in the Mayor's budget, and there was much less need to do that this year.
The Mayor did reduce funding for Capacity Building and Advocacy by $280,000, and the Seattle Human Services Coalition asked the Council to restore that as well as to add funds for other new programs and replace funds that were cut by the Bush administration.
I took the lead on adding funds for programs to address domestic violence. I consulted with the Seattle Human Services Coalition and the King County Coalition Against Domestic Violence to ask what additional funding would have the highest priority to meet the needs in the work to prevent domestic violence and assist victims. They recommended legal assistance for victims as the place where City funding could make a major difference, and recommended allocating $270,000 per year for this purpose. I proposed this, and after negotiating with my colleagues, we agreed to initiate this program. The Domestic Violence Advisory Council and Human Services Department will put an implementation plan in place in the next few months, and the funding will allow service to begin by the middle of the year. The Council approved funding of $135,000 for 2007 to initiate the program, and $270,000 for 2008 to fully fund the program for the entire year.
Domestic violence is one of our most critical public safety and human services issues. Seattle has one of the best coordinated community responses to domestic violence in the United States, but there is still much work to be accomplished. This budget allocation will take us another step on the road to the goal of ensuring that the victims of domestic violence are personally safe, have appropriate legal protection, and do not lose access to their families and personal property.
The Council also added a number of other human service programs, including $54,000 for LGBT health services, $50,000 to restore mortgage and credit counseling services at the Fremont Public Association, $225,000 for youth tutoring, $135,000 for SOAR pre-school education programs, $62,000 for the Meals Partnership, $100,000 for Capacity Building and Advocacy, and $410,000 for youth employment and late night recreation programs. These are all important programs that will make a difference in people's lives and in our future.
Back to Contents
PARKS AND PLAYGROUNDS
The Council approved a budget for capital projects for the Parks Department that covers more than 100 projects over the biennium. This includes the Magnuson Park fields, the Leschi Marina, additional lighting and field conversions around the City, the Washington Park Playfield, and a number of other projects. This large capital budget allows the City to catch up on much of its deferred maintenance in the Parks Department as well as to complete a number of important improvements.
Funding for Phase II of the Magnuson Parks Fields is already dedicated in the budget, but the projects have been delayed due to permitting issues with the federal government. It appears that those permits will be approved in the next few weeks, and construction of these projects is likely to begin by next spring. The Council added funds to Magnuson Phase II to complete construction of sidewalk and entry improvements as well as to remove the parking lot and access road from the proposed wetlands restoration area.
The vast majority of these projects are funded from the Real Estate Excise Tax (REET), which has grown to unprecedented levels due to the very hot real estate market of the last two years. While part of this is the result of increased turnover and higher prices in the residential sector, much of this growth has been generated by a very strong market in office tower sales in downtown Seattle. An office tower that sells for $100 million generates an additional $500,000 in REET funds for the City. Some office towers have turned over two or three times in recent years.
Unfortunately, while 2007 and 2008 are forecast to continue to have very healthy REET revenues, the cooling of the real estate market appears to have already begun, and REET revenues are expected to decline at least somewhat from their current high levels. These revenues are also legally allowed to only be spent on capital projects, and the City will face increasing challenges in funding staff and ordinary maintenance and operations at our Parks facilities, especially with the expiration of the Pro Parks Levy in 2008.
The imbalance between a healthy capital budget and limits on the City's abilities to fund operations is the result of the state's fairly quirky tax system, whose faults have been exacerbated by recent tax limiting initiatives. In the absence of real tax reform at the State level, the City should begin considering renewal of the Pro Parks Levy, with an increased emphasis on operations and maintenance and reduced emphasis on capital projects. In all likelihood, the levy could be renewed at a lower tax rate because of the reduced need for capital funding from levy sources.
Back to Contents
The Mayor's budget added a new staff person to the P-Patch (Community Garden) program. In addition, I was able to persuade my colleagues to add $195,000 to the P-Patch budget for the acquisition of a proposed new P-Patch at 25th East and E. Spring Street, as well as to provide the needed funds to support reconstruction of the High Point P-Patch and to open the new P-Patch/Urban Agriculture site at 51st Ave. S. and S. Leo.
P-Patches are a wonderful community asset, a source of locally-grown food, an amenity in our urban areas, and an important part of our Food Security system. Next year, I plan to work on developing a Seattle Food Security plan that will include the P-Patch program and other activities that will increase access to locally-grown food and help ensure our food supply in the event of a natural disaster or other emergency.
Back to Contents
PHINNEY NEIGHBORHOOD CENTER AND UNIVERSITY HEIGHTS
The Council approved a budget action that I sponsored to provide funding to acquire these properties from the School District and preserve them for the community. I was happy to introduce this on behalf of the Phinney Neighborhood Association and University Heights Center for the Community, and I was pleased that the Council voted to take us one step closer to implementing a plan that would preserve these buildings as community centers.
The Council's action sets aside funds to support the interest payments in the 2008 budget on a $5 million bond issue to support acquiring the two properties. This money will be held in reserve pending successful negotiations with the School District, an agreed upon price and financial plan, and an agreement with the City on a mechanism for making the funds available and ensuring that the community will be able to own, manage, and operate the two centers. The Council also expressed support for allocating to the purchase of the University Heights south lot $1.8 million currently designated from the Pro Parks Levy for acquisition of park property in the University District. This recommendation goes to the Levy Committee and provides another potential source of funds for that Center.
Finally, the Council passed a resolution asking the Mayor to enter into negotiations with the School District for the two properties, and approved $100,000 to be used to appraise the properties and assess their conditions.
The next step is to bring the School District to the table for serious negotiations, and for the communities to develop funding plans to complete the acquisition and fund the ongoing operation of the centers. I am very pleased that we are finally moving forward with this, and look forward to continuing to work to make this happen.
Back to Contents
"A child born to a Black mother in a state like Mississippi… has exactly the same rights as a white baby born to the wealthiest person in the United States. It's not true, but I challenge anyone to say it is not a goal worth working for."
-- Thurgood Marshall
"For every unit of accountability, you have to provide a unit of capacity."
-- Ernesto Cortes
Your Seattle City Councilmember
Back to Contents
Back to MAKING IT WORK Newsletters