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City View Newsletter

Volume 1, Issue #12  •  November 12, 2008
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This morning the Council began voting on various elements of the City's budget for 2009 and 2010. The Mayor submitted his proposed budget on September 29. Council members, along with our very capable staff analysts, have spent the past six weeks digesting what the Mayor proposed.

Believe me, some of our decisions today and Friday will be very difficult, possibly involving layoffs and program cuts.

My E-Newsletter is designed to keep you informed about my activities on your behalf at City Hall. This issue is devoted entirely to the budget and my budget priorities.

You can click on the links at the end of this newsletter to manage your FREE subscription. To stay even more current, or to join a conversation with me, please visit my blog at www.timburgess.com.

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Budget Priorities

My votes will be guided by these considerations:

  • Public Safety. Professional police and fire services are the City's number one responsibility. I will make certain that we remain committed to adequately funding our fire department and funding to put more patrol officers on the street to protect our neighborhoods.
  • Human Services. Especially during these rough economic times, it's imperative that the City continues to fund vital services for those struggling to make ends meet.
  • Economic Growth. Our economic recovery requires investments in the future so Seattle remains an attractive place for business, especially locally owned and operated businesses. Wise economic stewardship during these times requires creative public works projects, tax policy, and strategic investments to stimulate growth.
  • Quality of Place. Seattle is a unique city.  We are so fortunate - surrounded by water, mountains, and forests; blessed with a diversity of people, cultures, and jobs; possessed of a keen sense of environmental stewardship; and led by elected officials who are committed to transparency and accountability. Protecting all of this is important; we must not take it for granted.

With these thoughts in mind, here are some specific budget actions I will encourage my colleagues to support.

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Youth Violence Prevention Initiative

Councilmembers Sally Clark, Bruce Harrell and I have worked closely with the Mayor's staff the past couple of weeks to fine tune the Mayor's initial proposal designed to curb youth violence. (I've written previously on this topic at my blog.)

The Mayor's plan is based on what has worked in Seattle and the experience of other cities. However, our proposal focuses on more immediate violence suppression, including expanded police presence in select middle and high schools (the Mayor's plan limited officers to middle schools), an illegal gun interdiction effort, and a high offender focus with emphasis on those repeatedly involved in gang violence. The school district should share the cost of the school resource officers, as is the national model for such cooperative police ventures. These refinements of the Mayor's plan will increase the City's ability to more quickly stop the violence occurring on our streets.

To enhance prevention efforts, both short-term and long-term, the Council will likely add funds for youth mentoring programs and enhanced case management services, the latter to continue existing services while adjusting and adopting new approaches to transition youth out of gang involvement and prevent others from becoming involved in the first place. We will also restore funding for parks department community center youth-focused computer programs and expanded recreation options.

The issue of youth violence is very complicated and not easy to resolve quickly. There are many reasons why our young people become gang-involved and we could argue about these reasons for weeks, even months. But, what IS clear is that the city must act decisively to protect our children while offering those headed for trouble an alternative path to a meaningful, fulfilling life.  The refined program the Council will vote on this week is designed to do just that.

Significant parts of the Mayor's plan are not complete because they depend on grassroots, neighborhood-driven development underway now in three target neighborhood districts - Central, Southeast, and Southwest. Until this community process is done and a detailed plan is reported to Council in March 2009, the Council will reserve a significant portion of the initiative's 2009 funding and all of the 2010 monies.

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Other Public Safety Considerations

The Council will almost certainly restore funding for three anti-crime, community-based programs - GOTS, CURB, and Co-Star. The Mayor proposed to defund these programs, but there is no evidence-based justification to do so. The Council in 2007 and again in 2008 asked the Mayor to study the effectiveness of these programs. A cursory and woefully inadequate evaluation was presented last September and I have recommended that Council we continue funding in 2009 until a thorough evaluation is done. The Council will move funds for the evaluation from the Mayor's office to the legislative branch as part of our 2008 3rd quarter budget supplemental action.

The Council is also very likely to order a study of jail capacity needs in the future, including a review of the City's very successful jail diversion efforts that have led to a 40% reduction in jail bookings over the past 10 years. The Council wants to study additional alternatives to jail for low-level criminal behavior, such as minor drug offenses. I toured the region's jails this summer as part of my work on jail expansion plans and found two types of individuals incarcerated who didn't belong there - persons with mental health challenges and low-level drug offenders. Both of these groups deserve treatment services instead of jail.

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Caring for Those in Need

One of Seattle's special characteristics is our willingness to provide for those in need. These are voluntary City expenditures.  While they aren't required as, say, police and fire services, they do reflect our community soul.

Seattle invests in homeless services at a level far greater than any other Washington city, in fact more than all other Washington cities combined. The Council will vote this week to continue that emphasis. I have advocated for increased funding for emergency food supplies for food banks, more shelter beds, more food home delivery assistance for home-bound individuals, more rent eviction assistance, and more access to essential services for refugees and immigrants. These increased services for those most in need are likely to win Council approval.

We know there is a growing need for these services. For example, the evidence from our food banks. The recent experience at all the area food banks is similar to that reported by the West Seattle Food Bank:

  • October 2008 was the busiest month on record for households served -
    3,005 compared to the 2007 average of 2,100.
  • 38% increase in 2008 in seniors served.
  • 37% increase in 2008 in infants served.

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Big Picture Budget Context

I must admit that one of my frustrations in my first year as a Councilmember is the lack of a big picture perspective on the budget.

Each year the Council studies recommended additions and cuts to the budget, but we do not examine the entire budget. The City does not follow zero-based budgeting where all expenditures are reviewed and justified, nor do we do performance-based budgeting. Instead we assume the continuation of all core services and focus only on recommended changes.

When I questioned our standard approach, I was told that core services, such as police, fire, transportation, and utilities take up most of the budget and since that discretionary spending constitutes so little of the overall budget, it's not really worth the effort. I wonder about that.

So, I prepared a chart that shows recent trends with the City budget. The chart shows cumulative percent increases since 2000 in Seattle's population, consumer price index (CPI), and the City's general sub-fund (often called the "operating budget"), and the total budget (operating budget, plus utilities, capital projects, and State and Federal pass-throughs).

You can download this chart and related footnotes here.

While the City's population has increased slightly over the eight-year evaluation period, and the CPI has increased 28.3%, the total City budget has increased 85.2%. Most of this growth is fueled by rising health care costs, employee labor contracts, expanded services, and utility investments.

I prepared a similar chart showing City-imposed property taxes several weeks ago - those trend lines are down.

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Economic Growth and Quality of Place

Seattle voters approved both the Seattle Parks and Green Spaces and Pike Place Market levies earlier this month by very strong margins. These projects will protect our parks and open spaces and contribute to economic growth by creating jobs.

The Council will act on another important project this week when it votes on the Mercer Corridor project. This project is important to our region's transportation grid, and it supports economic growth and environmental stewardship.

Some claim this project it does not adequately solve traffic congestion or represents a give-away to Paul Allen, and they are trying every trick in the book to continue our 40-year "do-nothing" approach. Lately, the opponents have twisted and distorted the findings of the City Auditor, implying the Council is somehow not following proper procedures.

As with all major projects, planning and studies are still being completed. Adjustments are being made. Work is getting done, especially on securing adequate funding, but construction has not been authorized and won't be until the Council is certain we have the right plan and funding is in place. It's important that the Council remain focused on the ultimate goal. Derailing the project now would doom it yet again.

The Mercer Corridor project is another example of public works projects that can help create jobs and spur growth during rough economic times. Paul Krugman wrote an interesting opinion piece on this point earlier this week. Read it and think about what Seattle should do.

Finally, the Council will consider the Mayor's proposal to waive admission taxes on certain live music clubs in the city. It's part of the Mayor's City of Music program to bolster the live music scene in Seattle and I strongly support it. Read The Seattle Times editorial in support of investing in a growing music industry.

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Join me online!

Blog me at www.timburgess.com. Join the conversation. Share your opinions, thoughts, questions, and criticisms.  All postings at my blog are moderated.

We'll talk again soon.

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