The Seattle City Council is used to talking about the waterfront tunnel with engineers, state Department of Transportation planners, and lawyers. This week, a contingent of leaders from social-services providers popped up at a meeting of the council's Special Committee on the Alaskan Way Viaduct and Seawall Replacement Project.
They were there to express fears that the construction of a waterfront tunnel will deplete the general fund and impair the city's traditionally generous support for social services. The social services providers are, by reputation, largely accustomed to getting their way with the council, even when mayors are urging modest cutbacks in funding. And they are considered experts at turning out to make their views heard with the council.
Chairing the committee meeting, Councilmember Sally Clark remarked at start of public comments on Monday (July 22), "There are a lot of folks here today." And a good number of them were social-services representatives there to make points against the tunnel.
"We are very concerned about the high potential for cost overruns on the viaduct replacement project," said Diane Narasaki, executive director of the Asian Counseling and Referral Service and an early speaker at the meeting. "We ask the council not to approve any contracts with the state on the project before the state passes legislation to take Seattle off the hook for cost overruns on this $4.2 billion project."
Narasaki went on to warn against "gambling with our city's future" and said low-income and minority individuals could be "most at risk from severe budget cuts to critically needed safety-net services." She said the council should ensure that the legislature changes its cost overrun provisions before approving anything to move the tunnel forward.
To a good number of council members, the testimony came off as a surprising shot from groups that have no reason to worry and, indeed, from the very sector the council has a long history of favoring. Councilmember Tom Rasmussen, long involved with social service issues and now the head of the council's Transportation Committee, said, "I was just amazed." And Rasmussen said of the people envisioning scenarios like Narasaki's, "I want to assure them that that we would never allow that to happen."
For one thing, in the council members' view, even if the state somehow forced the city to pay for cost overruns on a state contract, there is no indication that the money would come from the general fund, which finances social services. And then there are the legal assurances they have been given by City Attorney Pete Holmes that the state has not, in fact, assigned responsibility for cost overruns to the city.
Rasmussen and Councilmember Tim Burgess both said they assumed that the inspiration for the social service providers' parade of appearances came from tunnel-opponent Mayor Mike McGinn. Burgess spoke of "a rather manipulative effort to persuade some of the city's social-services providers that they are at risk." Rasmussen said, "I would say that the mayor is getting desperate."
Burgess conceded he didn't have access to conversations between the social service providers and the mayor's office. But he noted that the McGinn administration has been voicing the same ideas as the social services groups. Indeed, in an article that included a good summary of the administration's arguments for the budget worries, Publicola's Erica Barnett reported that the mayor said during a briefing the day after the council meeting that he shared the concerns.
In an e-mail message Thursday night, McGinn's chief of staff, Julie McCoy, said that the mayor is certainly concerned about the potential that any cost overrun repayments demanded by the state would hurt the city's ability to finance services. "The city's ability to raise taxes or borrow money is limited, and human services competes in the budget process with transportation and other general fund purposes," she said.
And she said the mayor's office talks about its concerns with both public and constituent groups. "We have urged people to become involved in the public discussion of this issue, because it is important to Seattle," she wrote.
In a follow-up note, McCoy suggested, in effect, that none of what the mayor or the groups were saying should come as a surprise, since the concerns have been around since before McGinn's election in November. "The mayor spoke extensively about this with many people during the campaign and found that many shared his concerns about tunnel cost overruns and its potential effect on the budget," she wrote. "Human services providers are smart people and they know how the city budget process works."
Council members won't argue with that assessment of the human services leaders. The council majority and other tunnel supporters might argue, of course, that one great assurance for generous social-services funding is a transportation system that moves people and goods well enough to generate the revenues for a healthy general fund. But adding one of the council's favorite constituencies to the already-tense debate certainly raises the political stakes and the temperature at City Hall.