Reading the Seattle City Council’s priorities for 2010 leaves one at a loss as to how it’s all to be managed and afforded in a severe recession and a major deficit of at least $40 million and maybe $50 million by mid 2010.
The council’s list of 17 top priorities would seem more sensible if they were described as goals or objectives than a list of things most important to a major city. When the public thinks about priorities they usually see life in more practical terms. The public operates on a limited budget so setting priorities for them usually means evaluating what is the most critical thing that needs attention.
Ordinary citizens would make a list of what’s broken or in danger of total failure. They might decide that fixing the leaking roof ranks high. Scattered pans collecting the drips from the ceiling need fixing. Maybe getting new tires for the car since the old ones are bald? They might decide to buy little Bobbie new shoes because he’s growing fast; and don't forget to get braces for little Gracie. High on the list is to set aside money for a new washing machine because when it does run it sounds like the garbage truck picking up the trash. And 85-year-old Jake next door almost fell because of the broken hand rail on the front steps. We think of real need and taking care of the maintenance of things we already have.
The same list for Seattle might be to choose one or two of the most critical pieces of worn out infrastructure and fix it. Seattle is said to have nearly $1 billion in deferred maintenance, so how about replacing the Magnolia Bridge which is failing or repaving N. 85th St., where the street damage is so severe it’s damaging tires of cars and buses.
If the seawall is really ready to slip into Elliott Bay then maybe we could afford to fix 200 feet of the most critical section this year and a little more each year as money permits. It may not be the best way, but it gets the job done. Maybe the cops need some new patrol cars, since theirs seem to be in a lot of accidents, burned, and shot full of holes. Also technology moves rapidly and their communication equipment won’t last forever. No one will complain if we spring for some more bullet-resistant vests.
R.H. Thomson, a visionary civil engineer a century ago, designed and built our water system and sewer system. It’s hard to believe that there are parts of it still in service. To avoid further water main breaks it would seem to make good sense to start replacing some of the oldest pipes. There are places where sewers back up into homes because they are too small to carry sewage from all the new construction. At the rate new development is consuming our urban forest why not set a priority to plant and care for 1,000 trees? Almost everywhere in the city there is a building or street or part of a critical part of our infrastructure that is well past due for replacement.
If we gathered together a bunch of sixth graders and their parents, maybe they could come up with a list of ideas or the kind of priorities they think our city should set.
There are some nice hard working folks on our city council. But when they get elected something strange happens to them. They beginning to think differently than the public. The say they have set priorities, but what they have come up with is more reminiscent of wishful thinking than tangible realities. No doubt they intended to set goals, but decided after making the list to call them priorities. The list they came up with is more reminiscent of a speech a nanny might give to her charges than practical service priorities for the administration of a city.
Each of their 17 priorities are worthwhile things to do, but may not really be the most critical thing to focus limited money and administrative time on. For example they would have us make 2010 the year of “urban agriculture” and encourage us to create gardens to grow our own food. It’s a delightful idea and clearly worthwhile. But is it the most critical thing that needs to be done, and might not the good people of Seattle be trusted to do it on their own?
Another worthwhile item is to “implement the next stages of zero-waste strategy.” Who would argue that we are a wasteful society and had better change our ways if we are to build a more sustainable society, but is this the most important thing for Seattle to accomplish with limited money this next year?
Another priority says we should adopt a “sustainable budget that invests in human services, housing, and sets performance measures and financial targets to reduce costs and increase program effectiveness.” It sounds good, if very vague; but it’s a stretch to understand how setting a financial target actually increases program effectiveness.
There is a priority “to strengthen our relationship with regional and state partners.” I think that means to play well with others. Whether that’s another of Seattle’s top priorities all of a sudden is worthy of discussion — but what the heck, why not?
Clearly one that would rise to the top of anyone’s list is to “support and enhance historic, cultural, and recreational assets through smarter, more economically attractive preservation efforts and tools such as the Pike-Pine and Cultural Overlay Districts.” Would you focus major city resources on this goal?
There is one priority that will get a mixed review in any neighborhood in the city, but it’s on the list of top things to do: “DEVELOPMENT to promote smarter building design, business success, housing affordability, and neighborhood sustainability through revising the Multi-Family Land Use Code, effectively implementing the Housing Levy, changing zoning and land use rules in the South Downtown Neighborhoods and around light rail stations, and modifying zoning and adaptive re-use rules in industrial areas.” Many folks will go along with parts of the statement until it gets to revising the multi-family codes and changing zoning around light rail stations. This priority is rich in what informed citizens call green Kool-Aid.
Clearly our council members see their job as visionaries, goal setters, and leaders who will inspire our population and city to more lofty ideals. As much as inspirational leadership is worthwhile there are many who believe that we elect council members to make sure the city works, to take care of the nitty-gritty, pay the bills, stay within the budget, and keep their city in repair. Our city has established a pattern of approving spending on cosmetic projects while infrastructure is put off year after year.
In the past our city council was confident its role was to to comment on foreign policy or national affairs. They weren’t good at saying no and were soft in negotiating labor agreements that they now are hard pressed to fund. In many other cities their leadership is more direct, more pragmatic, and more down to business. Their voters make it clear that the top priority is making sure the toilets flush — to “GET ER DONE!
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