City of Seattle
With his 2012 budget proposal, Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn stepped up to the kind of challenges facing governments everywhere. Forced to make some cuts and find savings, McGinn came up with a plan that is, on balance, a responsible budget and one that the City Council will find difficult to change in any meaningful way.
There will be areas of disagreement and opportunities for lobbying and discussion, including several that bear particular watching. But the mayor has come up with viable proposals on even the toughest issues for a city government.
First and foremost is the mayor’s decision not to fill 26 vacancies on the Seattle Police Department for a savings of $2.4 million. While I would like to see more officers on the street, the mayor’s decision makes sense in the broader picture of the city’s budget and public safety. There will be many who will be critical of this decision and will say Seattle is understaffed and that we are already treading water. But changing the discussion might be more productive.
It would be more productive to focus on how we police our city and how our officers perform their duties rather than the sheer numbers of uniforms. Playing the numbers game takes away from the more important questions of officer discipline; support from both command staff and the community; tactics; and morale.
My fear is that officers now feel they aren’t supported and, so, are not confident about doing the kind of proactive policing that really makes a difference in a community. Certainly, there must be discipline for officers that step over the line or abuse their authority. Cops understand this better than most: No one dislikes a bad officer more than another officer. How our leaders, particularly the mayor, the chief, and the city attorney achieve this balance of discipline while improving morale will be far more important than another 26 officers.
The council will likely express concern that a hiring freeze will hurt the department long term if we can’t continue to put candidates in the pipeline for what is a lengthy training program. Look for Councilmember Tim Burgess to take the lead in solving this problem without trying to overturn the mayor’s proposal in total.
Unexpected revenue will foment discussion with the Council as well. The city received $19.8 million for the sale of the Rubble Yard property to the state for the Alaskan Way tunnel project. Of that, $3 million is being spent in 2011 on street repair. The mayor's budget recommends using an additional $6.7 million on street cleaning, bridge painting, traffic control, and ice sensors on seven bridges, which would help with winter storm emergency response. The mayor and the council will likely differ on how that money should be spent. The mayor has also targeted some of that money for the Mercer West project, critical for freight movement.
The mayor is also pressuring council to move more quickly in creating a longer-term home for a tent city. The council is looking at a number of solutions but is not comfortable so far with siting a permanent tent city. They are looking at the Lake City Firehouse for a permanent shelter in addition to other options including hotels, and other permanent housing. This issue may split homeless advocates working with the county’s Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness and those who want a tent city similar to Dignity Village in Portland. I’m betting the protests and lobbying on this issue will dominate the public hearings of the council.
Another proposal of note in the budget is to merge the Office for Housing with the Office of Economic Development (OED). This follows a months-long process led by the Director of the Department of Neighborhoods (DON), Bernie Matsuno. The original plan was to merge five smaller departments. That was scrapped, and the new plan was to merge DON and OED. Because both departments provided grants and pass-through funding to communities and were engaged in community development, it appeared to make sense. Unfortunately, the forced marriage made some in OED extremely unhappy. That too was scrapped.
A new suitor for OED was found: the Office for Housing. DON, however, received the consolation prize of consolidation of funding under their roof. Four out of five city programs that provide community grants through five different departments will now be consolidated in the Department of Neighborhoods. The fifth will collaborate with DON, saving $400,000 in administrative costs. OED may have got Housing but DON got the house.
There are many reasons why the council rarely provides wholesale changes to the mayor’s budget. The mayor has the departments and the budget office and lots of time to craft a budget; much of the budget is non-discretionary (for both legal and political reasons); and the council doesn’t have the luxury of time on their side.
In this case, the council plans on finishing their deliberations by Nov. 10. They will hold public hearings on Oct. 4 and Oct. 26. These meetings typically go long into the night with hundreds of people giving testimony. The individual commenter is dwarfed by the numbers of organized groups and their show of force.
The mayor has produced a good budget overall in difficult times. He deserves credit. The ball and the lobbying are both in the Council’s court now.
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