Tough Budget Choices
It is budget season once again here at City Hall, my third since joining the City Council. We face some very difficult, painful choices; we can’t afford many programs and services we have come to appreciate and take for granted.
On September 27, Mayor McGinn presented his budget proposal to the City Council. Last week, my colleagues and I heard presentations on the proposed cost reductions and additional revenues. Over the next four weeks, we will review key issues and sort out our options. The 2011-2012 budget will be adopted the Monday before Thanksgiving. (You can watch all of our deliberations live or online at the Seattle Channel.)
The Mayor’s budget proposal is gloomy, but solid. To make up for the City’s revenue shortfall, it includes deep cuts to city departments, staff reductions of over 200 city employees and increased fees and taxes. The Mayor made his decisions through the lens of three overarching priorities, which I think are good ones:
- Emphasizing sustainable changes over one-time cuts.
- Seeking internal savings in order to preserve direct services.
- Identifying opportunities to streamline management functions.
The Mayor’s budget also protects core City services related to public safety and essential human services. The proposal gives the Council much to build on.
I’d like to make two points about the role of the Council in this process.
First, establishing policy priorities is very important. The Council can and should say to the Executive, “This is what we believe is best for the City. Please give us a budget that takes us there.” We provided this policy guidance in a letter from seven councilmembers sent to the Mayor last August.
I am pleased that the Mayor’s proposal aligns with many, though not all, of our priorities in the letter. I am worried about cuts to advocates who support the victims of major crimes and to domestic violence batterer intervention programs. Also concerning to me is the Mayor’s decision to fund vital transportation services with an increase in the Commercial Parking Tax higher than we thought prudent in the current economic climate.
It is not the Council’s role or in the City’s best interest for us to make all of the line-by-line, nitty-gritty budget decisions, however. The Council should establish desired program outcomes and make certain city departments meet those outcomes. As one city official in a neighboring community once said to me, “Don’t let the bureaucracy consume you. Manage for outcomes and policy.”
One specific example of this approach involves on-street parking meter rates. I wrote this week on my personal blog (my personal blog) that we should focus our efforts at establishing the best on-street occupancy rate—85% or about one open space per blockface—and direct our transportation officials to set rates to achieve this goal.
Second, we must keep in mind the big picture. Too often we get so far into the minutiae of year-to-year changes that we are blind to long-term trends. Last month my office completed an interesting analysis of the city budget over the past twenty years (my personal blog). City spending has outpaced inflation but has closely tracked personal income growth in the area. The number of total city employees has not changed dramatically over this period—but the cost per employee has. I’m sure many businesses who struggle with rising health care costs can relate.
This analysis tells me that many of the City’s larger budget issues are substantial and will require more structural fixes. The Council cannot lose sight of this fact as we debate which programs to keep or which fees to adjust.
Making budget decisions is hard but fulfilling work. I am grateful for the continued opportunity to serve my city.
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