At City Hall, more austerity politics

Mayor McGinn delivers the sad news for 2012, putting a few mini-departments on notice and applying cross-the-board cuts to the rest.

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Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn

Mayor McGinn delivers the sad news for 2012, putting a few mini-departments on notice and applying cross-the-board cuts to the rest.

The countdown to a Seattle city budget in 2012 has begun and it's deja vu: more cross-the-board cuts. Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn held a press conference on Tuesday (May 3) telling all departments to prepare cuts in the 3- to 8-percent range, and putting five smaller departments on notice that they are being looked at for possible consolidation.

The context is continuing slow recovery of sales and B&O taxes, owing to the weak economy and a continuing structural deficit at City Hall. After three consecutive years of cuts, we'll have another less drastic round. McGinn says he'll look for cuts in the range of $25-40 million from the departments, including police and fire. The actual shortfall was put at around $20 million, but the deeper cuts would allow for some money to be diverted to covering lost state and federal money, and to catch up on years of deferred major maintenance.

The mayor declined to be specific about any overarching policy to drive the 2012 budget, other than to list his major priorities of "economic competitiveness, addressing inequality, and environmental sustainability." As for new revenues, the mayor was coy about which ones he might favor, if any. He discounted ideas of partially shifting funding for some departments, such as Parks, Libraries, or Seattle Center, to special levies, saying that such a move would lead City Hall to keep cutting back general support of these functions. The next levies he would like, he said, would be for schools (next November), then a seawall levy, his baby-steps planning measure for in-city transit, and maybe a police and fire special levy.

The new director of the Department of Neighborhoods, Bernie Matsuno, will head up the "feasibility study" of the five small departments: Neighborhoods, Housing, Economic Development, Arts and Cultural Affairs, and Sustainability & Environment. It's a hurry-up study, with no outside members on the committee. McGinn said he was looking for economies of scale, shifting some functions to other departments, and consolidation. (He ruled out consolidation with King County for any of the agencies.)

One wonders why McGinn's budget office didn't just go ahead and propose reorganization and slimming down. Instead, the departments will themselves be in charge of the study of their fates, which gives them time to rally supporters and fight for their autonomy. Some functions are certainly reasonable for dieting. Many governments are scaling back on economic development, since there is a welter of such agencies; housing will suffer from curtailed federal funds; neighborhoods has been an ungainly catchall of programs since Mayor Nickels' decision to expand its mandate to race and social justice issues. Arts is, well, arts.

But even if they take some deeper cuts, the overall budget issues loom. There were some hints that McGinn, like King County Executive Dow Constantine, will be looking for productivity measures or "better ways of doing business," and he noted the large number of separate departments (about 30), each with expensive administrative overhead. Both McGinn and the City Council at this point are saying they want to get serious about deferred infrastructure needs, like potholes and neglected buildings, but those are fairly easy to put off to the next year. And the next.

And what about the politics? McGinn is probably right, when talking shared austerity, not to hold out hope for more revenues, lest the departments put away their scalpels. (A likely revenue boost, to be surfaced after the fall elections: a tenth of a cent increase in local sales tax.) He's smart in trying to get out in front of the City Council, which is a few weeks away from announcing its plans for a new way to do these budgets, more based on evidence-based priorities than politics. The council, busy filling the vacuum created by this mayor, is also trying to find ways to get more time than the 70 days it normally has to react to the mayor's budget, due next Sept. 26.

Still, cross-the-boardism doesn't exactly seem like the most far-seeing policy. McGinn said he expected priorities and themes to emerge as he weighs the suggestions percolating up from the departments. Putting Police, Fire, and Human Services (half the city budget) on the line for 3- to 6-percent suggested cuts takes some courage, since Police and Fire are normally exempt, and the mayor's relations with the SPD are said to be very rocky. Morale is also low in the other departments, partly from years of belt-tightening and a widespread sense that McGinn is "not on their side."

The usual advice in austerity politics is that you need to explain how the painful, temporary cuts fit into a long-range framework for a better tomorrow. "Cut to invest" is one kind of advice from the Brookings Institution, urging investments in economic growth and a smarter workforce. "Cut to divest" is a way of admitting that programs grew too large in the boomtimes or have proven to be flops. "Cut to shift" moves programs from one inefficient level down to a more targeted focus, as Gov. Gregoire tried (unsuccessfully) to do in creating a Puget Sound ferry district to fund and control the ferries.

Such rationales were only lurking between the lines of the press conference. This is surprising, given how reform-minded McGinn seems to be, how much he leaps at chances to think about things in a fresh way, defying conventional thinking. One example of the way status-quoism seems to be seeping into this administration came from a question about getting an NBA basketball team back in Seattle. "I miss the Sonics," McGinn said, with heartfelt simplicity.

But asked if he was willing to have a new team go to Bellevue, if that was the (likely) requirement, he firmly insisted that he'd fight to have any new team in KeyArena, even though that would likely come with a big fat bill to the Seattle taxpayers. "To have a competing arena in Bellevue would be damaging for the city. I don’t think it would be a wise investment of regional dollars to do that," McGinn said.

That was Mayor Nickels' position as well (though he was also playing chicken with the NBA). Seattle-Center-or-nowhere was a big reason the team left for Oklahoma City. No breakthrough thinking there.


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