Courtesy of Mike McGinn for Mayor
The world recession, as it turns out, is as much about political philosophy as it is about money. A near-rebellion in Greece and, now, one in France feature populations who don’t want to give up government support. Opposition in these nations question the core values of politicians in power. France and Spain admit they have borrowed heavily to build all the new transportation infrastructure, high speed trains, subways, long tunnels, and, of course, extensive social services along with generous retirement packages for its citizens.
Here in Seattle, many thought we were so smart that we would be immune to a recession. Our current budget crisis, however, may have reached a point that is sending warning signals to those who have never before taken cumulative debt or finance seriously.
With the prospect of anticipated debt for a series of bridge replacements, a tunnel, a seawall, and mass transit, even progressives are beginning to question if we are digging a debt hole so deep we can't climb out. Add to that a city with a several decades of not being able to say "no" to city amenities and generous labor contracts for its employees. A financial day of reckoning is now looming over us like a dark cloud.
Referring to generous pay for city workers, former council member Peter Steinbrueck, after being given an overview of Seattle's public employee pay scale, commented at a neighborhood meeting, "Council members never see that kind of data." Fiscal responsibility are words the typical Seattleite seldom hears.
Maybe we haven't been as smart as we thought.
Why the realities of debt and fiscal responsibility haven’t been high on the radar of Seattleites may be related to a factoid released by the The Puget Sound Business Journal. They report that there are an estimated 90,000 millionaires in and around Seattle. So many, in fact, that the wealth management industry has become one of the region's biggest businesses, managing $315 billion in the assets of local billionaires. Maybe they can afford the higher cost of living here and just don’t raise a fuss by calling the mayor or city council.
Concerning the proposed new city budget, the mayor supposedly made his budget decisions through the lens of three overarching priorities. He would:
- Emphasize sustainable changes over one-time cuts.
- Seek internal savings in order to preserve direct services.
- Identify opportunities to streamline management functions.
The mayor at his budget press conference claimed his budget proposals protect core city services related to public safety and essential human services — certainly what many wanted to hear.
One floor down in City Hall, the city council last August developed a list of four priorities, where budget cuts should and should not be made. First on their list was to protect the health and safety of all Seattleites, while providing help to the city's most needy. They emphasized that police and fire protection should not be reduced, especially in neighborhoods, but that no new programs should be started to accomplish this. The council recommends the mayor reduce costs and re-evaluate the size and scope of city government. And last, they tell the mayor it's okay to raise revenue when and where appropriate. In this recommendation they suggest raising the rates for commercial parking lots may be okay, but to not unduly burden local businesses with excessive parking fees.
As you might expect, no one is happy. Evaluating the mayor's budget pits one person's idea of an essential priority against another's very different opinion.
McGinn's entry into public office has been criticized. Accused of brash decisions and rookie mistakes, McGinn has been more politically savvy than expected. Notable in his response to the budget crisis McGinn has made decisions that suggest he has done what all politicians do best, demonstrate allegiance to his political base. Ever aware of the membership lists of the Sierra Club and Cascade Bicycle Club, whose support got him elected, McGinn has defended and defined their political agendas at every turn.
The mayor's three overarching priorities are so vague as to be meaningless in making definitive line-by-line cuts. The realities of the mayor's cuts make the agenda of his supporters much clearer. While the mayor has imposed a hiring freeze and eliminated some 200-plus positions in city government he has fired only 214 of the city’s 11,200 workers. But, he has hired parking enforcement personnel to enforce one of his notions that eliminating or reducing parking will get rid of cars.
Meanwhile, small businesses and restaurateurs argue that raising revenue by increasing parking fees will damage their business and further reduce the tax revenue the city depends on. The mayor was proud that he has reached an agreement with 17 of the cities 24 public service unions to reduce pay.
McGinn's press conference announcement claimed he saved $6 million. His negotiations, however, while real for next year, are nothing more than a raise city workers were expecting to get. There was no "basic pay" reduction in any of the public employee contracts. Yes, several unions agreed to furloughs without pay, but the majority didn't give an inch in their existing pay scales. Seven of the city's unions didn't budge at all. Notable among them are two of the city's most political powerful unions, the firefighters' union and the police guild. Both escaped without having made any concessions, yet their pay and benefit contracts with the city represent a sizable part of Seattle's expenses. McGinn is no dummy, he knows who holds the power at election times and it isn't the librarians or gardeners for city parks (whose budgets he hammered).
The city council priority list to the mayor suggested they didn't want policing reduced. One can speculate they didn't want the police who patrol the streets, or firemen who enter burning buildings, to be part of cost-cutting. The sad part is that 179 upper level personnel in these two departments make over $100,000 a year each. This doesn't count overtime, health care, or retirement benefits. The high pay jobs give up nothing to help meet the city's budget deficit while the patrolmen or firemen who risk their lives in the line of duty aren’t in that pay bracket.
The council's request that the mayor reduce costs and re-evaluate the size and scope of city government is a laudable request. The mayor, who has the basic responsibility of administering the city may, unfortunately, have very different ideas on how to go about the task. While the city council has a small staff to provide analysis of city operations the advice they give isn't as comprehensive as one might hope, partly because they get the bulk of their information from the city departments asking for money. As a result, the city council members seldom know exactly how much a specific project, decision, or policy costs. Do they know an average stop light costs between $50,000 and $200,000, according to national data surveys? Or, do they know how much a cosmetic median on Greenwood Ave N. actually costs?
Lots of luck to get any reliable data on the exact cost of traffic revisions citywide to support the mayor's bicycle program. Planners at the Seattle Department of Transportation and workers have been busy installing new bike-actuated traffic signals, as well as lane revisions and signage that support his allegiance to the Cascade Bicycle Club.
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