Editor's note: This is the fourth installment of There Go the Neighborhoods, an occasional series on Seattle's neighborhood-planning process.
"We will see each other again in October," City Council member Sally Clark said in closing. It was the last of four community budget meetings in May chaired by City Council member Jean Godden. After the pace of public meetings in May, the gap of an entire summer season seemed ominous. The more I've learned about the process of preparing the city of Seattle's biennial budget, the summer gap seems even more strange, a missing link in the process.
To recap this series, I am trying to master the intersection of Seattle neighborhoods and city government. The journey has taken me from 13 district councils up to the city Neighborhood Council and to a month of community budget meetings designed to allow citizens to speak directly to members of City Council.
"Don't miss this opportunity to make your voice heard!" declared the information flyer and the message on the city's Web site.
How would you choose to spend your tax dollars while balancing the city's need for: police and public safety? Open space and parks? Human services and housing for the homeless? Talk directly to your elected council members about how you want your city tax dollars spent.
The flyer also noted: "Passage of a balanced budget is one the most important things your City Council does each year."
Over the course of meetings held in the Capitol Hill, Ballard, West Seattle, and Rainier Valley neighborhoods, an average of 30 people per meeting waited in line to speak. Their voices were indeed heard, videotaped for later viewing on the Seattle Channel. Yet the members of the City Council repeatedly urged the attendees to also contact city departments and Mayor Greg Nickels' office directly with their budget input because, as council member Tom Rasmussen said, "He doesn't hold public hearings on the budget before he presents it."
It was obvious by affiliations identified at the microphone that the importance of attending the May community budget meetings had been communicated to social service agencies, in particular representatives of and administrators for senior centers and homeless shelters. Working backward, I learned that the City of Seattle's budget season had actually launched earlier than May, with a daylong panel on the process at Seattle Center on Feb. 10 and videotaped for the Seattle Channel and city Web site. I've since watched highlights; participating council members each spoke on how to make effective comments during the budget process, with particular emphasis on starting early, relating the need to a specific neighborhood plan, and showing broad and fact-based support. At that time, Clark remarked, "Figure out how to get a department out to see your project and convince a department to love you. It can be a lot easier to convince a department early on than all of us later."
The people who made their case in person, primarily for the social services portion of the budget, often seemed coached, carefully placing their comments in context of broad support along with strong accounts of need. The majority of speakers over the course of all four meetings spoke on behalf of agencies, such as Casa Latina and the Chicken Soup Brigade. Clearly, agencies had received the message about using these forums, but not necessarily neighborhoods, which might have made a case for neighborhood plans to guide the process. Budget Committee Chair Godden was present at every meeting, along with a varying group of other council members, with Clark also present at all four meetings. (All City Council members are de facto members of the Budget Committee.)
Each meeting started with a PowerPoint presentation titled, "Understanding the City's Budget Process." It shows the classic pie chart in which the General Fund had a 26 percent share of the 2008 budget. Then came a breakdown of the General Fund revenue sources, followed by how it is spent. More than half (52 percent) of the general fund is earmarked for emergency services: police, criminal justice, and the fire department. Human Services and Housing commands only 5 percent of the budget pie but consistently commanded the highest share of audience attendance.
After Budget 101, it was time for the audience to identify their budget priorities by using a handheld device for instant polling. The Human Services and Housing category polled as highest priority at every meeting. Throughout the public comment period, almost all of the speakers made the case for continued support for the Human Services and Housing category. The top three priorities within those services were homeless services, aging and disability services, and low-income housing. Testimonials included poignant accounts from senior center users, Casa Latina supporters sporting yellow construction hats, and state Rep. Mary Lou Dickerson's plea for a public restroom in Ballard.
Each meeting ended with City Council members reiterating the need to communicate directly with city departments and the mayor's office, along with warnings that fiscal cuts will make the fall stages of the budget process "very difficult." May-June is when city departments develop "budget issue papers," which are reviewed by the mayor from July to September. A balanced budget is due to be delivered to the City Council on Sept. 29. The council members emphasized that "balanced" means that any additions will necessitate a cut elsewhere. Public meetings on the budget specifics are held in October and November, and there are City Council Budget Committee and full council meetings until the budget is formally approved, by no later than Dec. 1.
"There's never a great time to do a series of meetings, especially when it's finally getting nice," council member Clark remarked at the final neighborhood budget meeting, at the Rainier Valley Cultural Center on May 29. "But it's so important to do this now."
But after eight hours of meetings, what was the point of public comment to the City Council when they will not receive the budget until fall? Chair Godden said comments will be summarized and used in preparing a resolution addressed to the mayor's office about citizen priorities. She reiterated that citizens can make written comments all the way through the budget process (e-mail them to firstname.lastname@example.org). Clark referred to the public input as "mental placeholders" that will help the council later in the process, once again encouraging those who live and work in the neighborhoods to "convey those messages to the mayor." If he and his departments are interested, the public comments are all available on Seattle Channel videos, no less moving than when witnessed in person and easier to replay over and over.
Next: Updating neighborhood plans: a revised proposal