2014-09-26

City of Seattle

Ed Murray presents his budget to city council. (Nice teleprompters!)

This week brought two major budget announcements, one from the City of Seattle and one from King County. They both outlined a new era, one in which years of dysfunction and timidity in Olympia coupled with Tim Eyman's self-serving anti-government initiatives mean that even in a place with a healthy local economy, we're still struggling to solve basic problems like health care and homelessness and transportation. Seattle, doing economically better all the time, has opportunities to innovate but is still left filling in funding gaps that shouldn't exist, while King County is basically chopping off its own limbs in hope of saving its vital organs.

Gross, sorry about that metaphor. Anyway, here's a roundup of these two budgets, in case you didn't see 'em this week. (We've been busy around here with weeping and drinking and having SECB meetings, so sorry this is late.)

First up: Seattle Mayor Ed Murray announced on Monday a $4.8 billion proposed city budget with a $1.05 billion general fund. That's a pretty big add to the overall budget, which was only $4.4 billion last year, but a minor general fund increase of only about $25 million. You've seen some of this already, but a few highlights:

• Murray wants to create new city offices and departments—an office focused on the enforcement of labor laws (like the new city minimum wage), an education department (including early learning, as the city has a proposal for public pre-K on the fall ballot), and the reinstatement of a domestic violence and sexual assault prevention office.

• He's set a goal of adding 100 new police officers over the next four years and budgeted accordingly, though for various reasons, the precise number of added officers in 2015 isn't clear yet.

• Murray also plans to completely rework the way the city does its budgeting process, including buying a totally new accounting system (the city needs to do that anyway) and trying out some zero-based budgeting—where instead of simply accounting for an increase or decrease over the previous year's budget, you create and submit an entire budget top-to-bottom each year.

• New projects at the city will create 189 brand-new full-time equivalent positions, with especially big staffing adds to the new education department and the parks department, since we created a Metropolitan Parks District earlier this year.

• There's new funding for homeless services ($1.5 million), an allocation to support a new Priority Hire program ($750,000), double the budget for a Neighborhood Park and Street Fund (it'll get $2 million), an add to the city's fund aimed at mitigating construction impacts, and dozens of other investments.

Missing from the budget:

• The whole $20 million needed to adequately fund the Bicycle Master Plan. Murray's budget offers $5.5 million specifically for BMP implementation and another nearly $8 million for various "bicycle project investments."

• Any money set aside to implement better family-friendly workplace policies, including a much-needed parental leave program, at the city. (This is part of the city's work to end their gender pay gap.) Staffers that have been hired with money McGinn had set aside in his last budget will continue work on the issue, but there's no dollar figure for implementation once the let's-study-it-more phase is complete.

Also missing: An answer to the revenue paradox that Murray spoke passionately about from the dais. "The fact is," he said to the crowd in city council chambers, "Seattle today faces a paradox. We are now the fasting-growing city in America. And yet, the city budget is not keeping pace with existing demand for services. Even as the local economy has recovered, we have not seen a strong rebound in city revenues." He went on to note that the local economy is growing but sales tax revenues are not increasing accordingly, that real-estate values are rising but property tax growth is "constrained by state law to grow at less than inflation." Not only that, but other governments we rely on are slowly starving as well—state, county, federal. "The city is being asked to fund critical services that were once the responsibility of others," Murray continued, name-checking King County's brutal Public Health cuts and the upcoming cuts to Metro's bus system, both of which Seattle is going to help mitigate.

King County Archives

A lot of people drunk on red wine at dinner parties would start yelling about Reagan right about now. So this seems appropriate: Here he is, visiting Seattle in 1984, probably laughing about how his small-government dreams would grow to be our nightmares.

And Murray's right. Council budget chair Nick Licata agreed, saying the mayor had "really hit the nail on the head" with his comments about that "paradox." But what the hell do we do about it? Murray's office stressed repeatedly that while there is a problematic lack of revenue, he will definitely not be proposing any new sources of revenue to fix that. (Licata says any new revenue sources would be up to council to consider.) So while some of his budget approach is innovative, he did not seem able to address his own central argument.

In King County, though, they are going to try something new. The same day Murray proposed his budget, King County Executive Dow "Silver Fox" Constantine proposed a county budget that looked like a slasher film. And he has no other fucking choice. Making do with the revenue they have and the legal obligations for services they must provide—mostly courts, cops, and jails—means a budget that cuts transit service by 11 percent countywide, Public Health cuts that include entirely closing two of the 10 Public Health centers and eliminating vital services like family planning at other ones, a road maintenance funding gap up to $300 million a year, and more. Check it out over here. Like I said, a bloodbath.

Ansel Herz

Sorry, we can't really afford all these anymore.

Except Constantine has a plan. A long-term plan, sure. And no, it won't fix the problem of much-needed revenue to stave off these cuts in the short term. But he's certainly trying something refreshing. Along with his new biennial budget, he also announced a potential proposal for a new county tax levy, called "Best Starts for Kids," that would focus on the kinds of research-supported early intervention programs that could prevent us from having to spend so much goddamn money incarcerating and treating people down the line. A long-term savings plan, if you will, so that someday the county's budget won't be 73 percent criminal justice.

And by early, he means as early as possible. According to the basic outline shared with the public, with this levy the county would aim resources heavily at children's first 1,000 days of life. "We know from research at the UW," said Executive Constantine by phone after his speech, "that environmental factors dramatically affect brain development during the first 1,000 days, and in many ways chart the course [for the rest of kids' lives]." We also know, he added, that "healthy moms give birth to healthy babies and families who are able to provide enrichment to their children ultimately help those children's brains develop in ways that... allow them to succeed."

"There are investments that change trajectory of a person's life from birth, but we're not making many of those investments," he lamented. "Most of our investments are in dealing with bad outcomes. Nearly three-quarters of our general fund budget is in the justice system."

If they can design and pass a good levy next fall—and most of the specifics are up in the air—it would fund programs like maternity and neonatal care, quick interventions when schoolchildren falter due to physical or behavioral health issues (so their whole education doesn't get knocked off track), and even some investments in "healthy communities" outside of that narrow focus on kids and families. What all that would look like will be up to the county and the people they'd work with to develop these levy-supported programs. But it could mean that, as Constantine put it, "long after I'm gone, it'll be the kind of investment that helps balance the budget."

In a desolate wasteland of underfunded county services, that's a bright spot.

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