At City Hall: pressure's off for deeper cuts

UPDATED: Mayor McGinn's review of the midyear budget yields some small trims, as state and federal funding starts coming back.

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Mayor Mike McGinn

UPDATED: Mayor McGinn's review of the midyear budget yields some small trims, as state and federal funding starts coming back.

Editor's note: figures have been updated and corrected, as provided by Beth Goldberg, the city's Budget Director.

Back in May, the McGinn administration at Seattle City Hall made a brave show about taking some stiff mid-year cuts, consolidating some departments, and shifting some money to major maintenance and unfunded retirement benefits. Yesterday, budget director Beth Goldberg briefed the City Council on the cuts the mayor plans on making administratively (not needing council approval). It's a gentle trim compared to the 3-8 percent cuts the mayor asked departments to come up with for the coming budget year.

Some of the departments taking  reductions in the 3 percent range are the Office of Economic Development, the Office of Housing, Seattle Public Utilities, the Department of Information Technology, and Finance and Administrative Services. Parks took a mid-year cut of 2.4 percent by eliminating an unfilled management position and delaying opening of some new facilities.

Two factors helped limit the cuts: state and federal funds came through better than expected, and the relative inexperience of the McGinn staff may have made tougher cuts hard to pull off. In all, cuts amount to $9-10 million in the 2011 general fund budget, and 64.5 positions will be cut, many of them unfilled posts. That compares to the $67 million in general fund cuts in the last November adoption of the current budget, costing about 300 jobs citywide (counting all funds).

Police and fire, as usual, fared the best. Libraries continued to do well, apparently owing to the support of Julie McCoy, McGinn's chief of staff. Parks took an additional $1.9 million after a $10 million reduction in November; parks remain the relatively defenseless balance wheel of local budgets, since maintenance can be deferred in tough times. A surprise is the depth of cuts to the city's Department of Transportation, the one agency McGinn pays a lot of attention to but one that is dependent on state gas-tax funds and the willingness of developers to pay for curb cuts and other improvements. Human services continue to elude cuts. More details here.

The ongoing study of cost-saving by merging some small departments (arts, economic development, neighborhoods, housing, and an office of sustainability) will continue into the 2012 budget discussions later this year, according to the mayor's office. A city council source says these discussions have so far produced little in the way of savings, aside from a few shared support staffers. Such departments have strong constituencies that rally to their defense, and the savings would be modest compared to the political blow-back.

Not that the city hasn't been cutting steadily in the past three years. Budget chair Jean Godden says the employment level, about 10,200 workers, is down from 11,000 and is now back at 2002 levels. More cuts have been avoided by willingness of employees to forgo COLA increases and to accept furloughs. McGinn's budget shop has stayed ahead of the problem by making cuts each year, including at the mid-year.

Deeper cuts might have shifted some money to transportation and street repairs, especially sensible with so many of the city's streets pocked with potholes. Instead, 40 positions in SDOT will be cut, owing to cuts in funding from user fees and gas-tax revenues. The Budget Director points out, however, that many of these cuts come from spedcial revenue sources such as gas tax and street-use revenues that cannot be mixed with general fund money.

The go-lightly approach is an indication of the mood in many cities that a rising economy might obviate the need for more cuts and reprioritization. The council, facing elections this fall, is unlikely to raise many objections, and Mayor McGinn has not laid much groundwork for an austerity approach. It may also be an indication that this mayor, despite some posturing as a fiscal conservative on the waterfront tunnel, is now more interested in rebuilding his popularity by keeping popular government services. Most elected officials in this liberal burg would agree.

Meanwhile, the tougher questions, such as consolidating community centers or even getting rid of the cops' horse patrol, await next fall's debates.


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