On Monday the Seattle City Council will take final votes on a 2010 budget. The proposed budget, despite these financially lean times, actually has a lot to like. (I chair the council's budget committee, so I'm somewhat partial to the results.)
As proposed, the council budget restores hours to the Seattle Public Library system that earlier had been targeted in the mayor's budget for reduction. (This has become somewhat of an annual exercise.) In these tough times, libraries are an important resource for the newly jobless to apply for employment. They provide the computer access that many lack and they offer help in composing resumes and navigating job information websites.
The proposed budget will provide a measure of tax relief to small businesses that have been buffeted by these difficult times. The repeal of an unpopular head tax is only one of several business-friendly measures. Earlier the council raised the Business and Occupation tax threshold from $80,000 to $100,000. The council also passed legislation exempting small live music venues from the city'ês admissions tax.
Public safety, one of the council'ês top priorities, also has been kept strong. The council will be taking a vote to add 21 police officers, an important step in implementing community policing plans. The council also is poised to add $1 million to programs that help offenders keep from reoffending.
The fact that Seattle is one of the few big cities that has been able to weather the storm is a credit, partly, to past fiscal prudence, to the city employees'ê willingness to take unpaid furloughs, and to a healthier-than-most local economy. The sacrifice that city employees are making (10 days of unpaid leave) cannot be underestimated. Their personal sacrifice saved jobs and meant that Seattle will not have to lay off large numbers of seasoned workers and drastically curtail services to the public.
It's not so encouraging in other big cities. In New York City, for example, Mayor Michael Bloomberg initially talked about 4,000 layoffs. In Chicago, Mayor Richard Daley threatened 1,500 layoffs if city labor unions did not offer huge concessions. Detroit Mayor Dave Bing described that city'ês fiscal situation as 'êa train to hell.'ê
Seattle, while feeling the recessionary pain, hasn'êt reached those levels of financial despair. One saving grace is that Seattle, along with the rest of the state, was able to dodge a killer bullet on election day when voters rejected Initiative 1033, the latest budget-busting Tim Eyman ballot measure. Voters statewide recognized the lure of short-term gains wasn'êt worth the damage that would be done to education, health, and city services.
But there still remains a fiscal crisis, one that isn'êt going to go away in 2010 or in 2011. In fact, forecasters say that 2011 figures to be an even worse year for Seattle. One reason for concern is that the balancing the budget this year required spending the lion'ês share of the city'ês painfully accumulated $30 million Rainy Day Fund.
My colleagues on the council were concerned over depleting the Rainy Day Fund, so we asked for a review of city departments'ê discretionary funding — expenses such as travel, nonessential supplies, and consulting fees. The idea was to take a percentage of discretionary funding in order to add to the city'ês Rainy Day Fund. The result is an addition of $5 million to the fund, leaving a total of $10 million — still not a healthy cushion.