McGinn's budget: heavy lifting in troubled times

Seattle's mayor has just finished his budget, one that will face criticism but that he believes can prove to be sustainable in the future.

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Mayor Mike McGinn

Seattle's mayor has just finished his budget, one that will face criticism but that he believes can prove to be sustainable in the future.

Another way to describe what it means to be the mayor of Seattle during a major recession is that Mayor Mike McGinn does not get to have the benefit of the doubt. During desperate times, blame flies quickly, credit is given slowly, and responsibility weighs heavier.

McGinn talked about some of that growing weight yesterday during a visit to the Crosscut offices, three days after announcing his first ever budget, which came with a $67 million shortfall he had to compensate for with cuts and revenue increases. He arrived on his trademark bicycle, in a helmet and blazer, from a meeting at the Seattle Center. He took up an offer of a slice of pizza (not valuable enough to constitute a bribe even if he hesitated over the health implications) and spent most of an hour discussing his budget, which is now under review by the Seattle City Council.

The council will hold a series of public hearings to consider the concerns of citizens. A few hundred attended the first hearing Wednesday at the Northgate Community Center, where most of the concern expressed was about the cuts to certain programs, not increases in fees and taxes. The Council has until Dec. 2 to adopt a balanced budget and either accept McGinn’s plan or come up with an alternative.

"Now it’s in the public realm and it’s their turn,” McGinn said of the council, with which he has not always seen eye to eye. Council members have already taken issue with some of the revenue increases the mayor has proposed, such as utility and parking taxes.

In his new budget, McGinn has also asked for substantial increases in parking-meter rates and increased hours of enforcement. He seemed to expect those particular proposals to receive a lot of attention, given how many people drive and park in the city.

Two-thirds of the $67 million deficit — the city’s general operating budget is $888 million; its overall budget is $3.9 billion — will be covered with cuts and greater efficiencies; one-third will be made up for with increases in fees and revenues. He acknowledged he will have to defend his budget on two fronts, against those who believe the increases are too steep and those who believe his cuts go too deep.

One consolation: if the budget is balanced now, he said, it will stay balanced for the foreseeable future depending on three variables, the health of the overall economy and the outcome of two statewide initiatives that could result in further reductions in city revenue of as much as $15 million. (Initiative 1107 seeks to repeal the tax on soda, candy, and bottled water; Initiative 1100 seeks to privatize liquor sales and would end liquor taxes as a source of revenue for the city and state.)

McGinn pointed out that the city’s own employees are bearing the brunt of the cuts with layoffs and wage freezes, and that a quarter of the job cuts are at the senior level even though those jobs make up only 9 percent of the total staff. But some cuts involved less if any pain.

The city sold one of the two hybrid SUV’s issued to the mayor’s office “on eBay” he said. And he combined into one, the two street-sweeping programs of the public utilities and the transportation departments.

McGinn pledged the city is “going to be serious about collections” of parking fines. Apparently, Seattle still has a bit of the outlaw left in it, with $25 million worth of unpaid parking fines. If everyone who owed money paid up, the city would have almost half of its deficit made up. McGinn said the median fine owed is $250, meaning that half the scofflaws owe less than that, and half owe more.

Explaining how the economic downturn hit the city in its pocketbook, McGinn mentioned the huge drop in real estate excise taxes, the tax paid by a seller when a property is sold. During the real estate boom, McGinn said, the Columbia Center skyscraper was sold twice in the same year, creating a huge windfall for the city.

"Because of the drop in the number of transactions and the drop in property values,” McGinn said, the excise tax revenue fell sharply. In boom times, new structures become new sources of property tax revenue. But because new construction has slowed to a crawl, those new sources are not being created, McGinn said.

Part of McGinn’s plan is to create new sources of revenue, such as selling naming rights to the skateboard park near the Seattle Center. He is willing to look at public-private partnerships in the city’s parks, inviting vendors to sell food or stage events as long as they pay the city for that privilege. He also mentioned the possibility of allowing ads on bus stops, and is not opposed to corporate logos on downtown buildings. He wants Seattle to be “a place where commerce occurs.”

In his own life, McGinn is trying to lose some weight by exercising more and staying away from foods like pizza. As a compromise yesterday, he traded a slice with meat for a slice with vegetables. This winter he will coach his child’s basketball team. He often works one weekend day but tries to get at least one full weekend off each month.

“I focus on diet, exercise and getting enough rest,” he said.

In the same way, he focuses on certain fundamentals for the health of the city — “people in need, the environment and the economy,” he said.

In particular, he defended his record of providing social services for kids and families, something that was attacked in a Crosscut article by state Rep. Reuven Carlyle, who stated the mayor’s budget proposal reflects the city’s lack of commitment to the needs of children and families by cutting funds for the library system, community centers, and parks.

The mayor’s response: “Give me a break.”

He pointed to his Youth and Families Initiative, for which the city has convened meetings and workshops, a youth summit, and more than 100 neighborhood caucuses to identify the needs of children. McGinn also pointed out that Seattle was among the recipients of the Cities of Service grant (funded by the Rockefeller Foundation) this year. The city will use its $250,000 grant to improve literacy in schools.

“When I’m out there on the street,” McGinn said, “people tell me I’m doing a great job.”


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Hugo Kugiya

A former national correspondent for The Associated Press and Newsday, freelance writer Hugo Kugiya has written about the Northwest for the Puget Sound Business Journal, The Seattle Times, the Los Angeles Times, and The New York Times. His book, 58 Degrees North, about the sinking of the Arctic Rose fishing vessel, was a finalist for the 2006 Washington State Book Award. You can reach him at