Political mystery: How council districts will change city budgeting

Guest Opinion: The new election system will surely mean a difference in how the city spends its money.
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Soon Seattle will elect its city council members by district. So, ah, how exactly is that going to work?

Guest Opinion: The new election system will surely mean a difference in how the city spends its money.

Seattle City Council members in 1960 had a simpler job. They were part time, shared a secretary with a colleague, allocated a $40 million general fund budget and mostly let department heads run the city through boards and commissions.

Already having seen two significant changes in how government is run since 1960, the city council is about to face another major innovation with the implementation of the district elections. The interesting question is how this new political structure will effect budget decisions and city services.

First, remember that Seattle had district elections in the past, albeit the distant past. In 1910, the council went from 14 ward representatives and four at-large seats to the current, nine member at-large system. History Link, the excellent on line source for local history, included this appraisal of the change, which was considered progressive at the time:

      “Supporters said that council members looked to the interest only of their home districts and traded favors to back pet local projects. Districts whose councilmen were less influential, would suffer. The constant growth of Seattle and the increase in the number of wards would result in a council of unwieldy size. Backers included the Chamber of Commerce, the Central Labor Council, the Commercial Club, and the Manufacturers' Association. Opposing the measures were incumbent Republicans led by councilman and mayoral candidate Hiram C. Gill.”

Fifty years later, in 1960, the city budget provided a snapshot of what Seattle residents expected in the way of services — before the vast social, political and cultural changes of that decade and the “Great Society” programs of President Lyndon Johnson.

The primary functions of city government were to provide police, fire, parks, libraries and the utilities that were special funds. These were considered basic city services and all were geography-based, serving the specific needs of neighborhoods and individuals for services that could be handled locally. The 1960s changed this calculus and added new services. And the demand for these new services — unlike for the long-provided and predictable ones for firefighting, police protection and libraries — was beyond the control of city government.

One of the great society programs was the Model Cities Program. Seattle was one of the model cities — first just a few neighborhoods and then citywide. A series of task forces exploring what to do with the Model Cities funding led to a new set of services which were delivered under the Seattle banner. The Model City program began in 1966 and ended in 1974 when the Nixon administration incorporated it into the Community Development Block Grant. Again History link adds perspective:

“The First-Year Action Program proposed projects in nine areas which corresponded to the focus of each task force. The areas included: Arts and Culture, Education, Employment and Economic Development, Health, Housing, Law and Justice, Physical Planning and Environment, Welfare, and Youth.”

The Community Development Block Grant (CDBG), which I was initially responsible for, gave wide discretion for service choices. Various Model City demonstration projects and then the CDBG were, for the most part, contracted out to existing nonprofit organizations. In some cases, new organizations were created. As the federal funds dried up, concerned parties lobbied the city to step in and make up the difference with city resources. As the provision of health, housing and other such human services is not particularly tied to geography, the demonstrated need cannot easly be satisfied. A city that provides more services may quickly find itself facing even more needs, in part from people moving in. The retrenchment of the federal budget beginning during the Carter Administration and continuing with Reagan budget director David Stockman’s “starving the beast” approach, as well as Washington state’s limited tax base have all placed pressure on Seattle and on other cities to continue services.

The late '60s also saw a significant change in Seattle's governance structure. Under the leadership of City Councilmember Phyllis Lamphere, the City Charter and state laws were changed to create a strong mayor and council system. City department heads reported to the mayor under Wes Uhlman, and the City Council went full time with a strong staff. We entered the 1970’s with a new structure for city government and a vastly expanded set of city resources.

The 2014 Seattle budget has reached $1 billion dollars. Yet the city has had to ask voters to pass special levies in order to help fund parks and libraries. These were once considered basic services. The advocacy for human services by external organization is arguably more sophisticated than the former, internal advocacy by department heads.

This brings us to  third major change: a return to the old ward, district or neighborhood council system. How will this shift affect budget allocation.

The theme of last fall's election was to make each councilmember more responsive to his or her neighborhood and its needs.

Some of the interesting questions to study during the first four or so years of the new district elections system will be the degree to which money is budget allocations are driven by geography (that is, neighborhood) versus need. And we don't know how the allocations might be affected by the political and demographic factors, covered by Crosscut recently, that make this a city that is blue but very different shades of blue in many neighbors,

Will police resources, for example, be deployed differently, or will crime priorities change? Will a councilmember from West Seattle have to focus on his or her neighborhood library or park at the expense of Seattle Center, the waterfront or the downtown library? How will the central business district fare under the new pressure to spend more of the city's limited funds on neighborhoods? How will the human service programs get funded if the need is felt in one district but not others?

Public Policy decisions have a history of unintended consequences. The city's attempts to solve human problems that are really national in origin have led to the outsourcing to levies of what was once considered basic services. A desire to bring the city government closer to the neighborhoods might return pressure to fund these basic services.


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