We took our preliminary 2011-2012 budget votes last Friday. Final passage is scheduled for next Monday at 2 p.m. just before our Thanksgiving break.
Here's a quick summary of the key decisions, along with a few observations. If you’d prefer, you can read the press release issued last Friday here.
The City's total expense budget for 2011 is $3.9 billion! Of that amount, $893 million is the City’s general fund, a reduction of $20 million from the approved 2010 budget. (You can watch and listen to a short historical overview of the budget here.)
Unfortunately, but prudently, our decisions eliminate nearly 300 city employee positions. This was perhaps the hardest part of our discussions because these workers face pretty bleak prospects in trying to find another job. The City will provide out-placing services for these individuals.
Priorities: Public Safety and Human Services
The Council once again prioritized public safety and human services in our budget deliberations. While hiring of new police officers has been put on hold, the budget shifts 30 officers onto the streets to increase the number of patrol officers.
The Council restored full funding for the police department's victim advocates, a small group of professionals who assist victims and witnesses of major felony crimes, including homicide, sexual assault, robbery and domestic violence. These advocates provide a vital service to victims and witnesses by walking with them through the criminal justice process, an often difficult and emotionally painful experience. Police, prosecutors and victims themselves urged the Council to restore the funding. (You can listen to the Council testimony of the surviving partner of the July 2009 South Park murder victim here.)
The Council also directed the police department to add malicious harassment—the state's hate crime law—to the list of felony crimes that victim advocates are assigned.
For the most part we worked simply to avoid cuts, but we managed to find additional funding for emergency shelter services. We restored funding for domestic violence intervention programs and added new funding for DV safe haven visitation facilities and special help for DV victims who are homeless.
We directed our Human Services Department to review contracting procedures and policies with the idea of streamlining and creating greater efficiencies and effectiveness. The department's new director has already started this work. It's all part of the Council's desire to set measurable outcomes and manage City investments so those outcomes will be achieved.
The Council "embargoed" funds the Mayor put in the budget for "immigrant and refugee youth" programs until we see a specific plan for how these funds will be used. This decision is the one area where I disagreed with my colleagues and voted "no." The Mayor proposed $300,000 for this important work over the two year budget period; the Council reduced it to $150,000. I favored holding the entire $300,000 until we see the plan of action. We face significant challenges with immigrant youth—education, public safety, employment—and I believe we should be addressing these needs aggressively. Simply put, pay now or pay much more later.
The Council added back "drop-in" hours for five community centers that the Mayor's budget proposal cut. And we prevented some space at community centers from being converted to office space, choosing instead to keep these spaces available for community use. We also ordered a review of the financial viability and sustainability of our community centers. Our intention is to identify long-term funding options, including a review of how other cities fund and operate similar facilities, so the centers are not susceptible to future cuts.
Some Park use fees—for example, field rental fees for sports teams—were increased slightly.
A New Parking Policy
For the first time, the Council adopted a specific and measurable policy outcome for on-street parking management. Our desire is to ensure that one or two open spaces are available on each block face in neighborhood parking areas, including downtown. We directed City transportation planners to divide current areas of the city where paid meters are used into smaller, more distinct areas so parking meter rates can be tailored to local occupancy and retail business patterns. This is a major shift in policy, moving us away from strictly a revenue orientation in favor of a specific outcome that is designed to help local businesses by better managing parking turnover. SDOT is conducting a citywide study of occupancy rates now and will report the new neighborhood parking area boundaries and meter rates in January. You can read more about this approach here.
We added 9 parking enforcement officers and approved a new Scofflaw measure that will allow for the booting (immobilizing) of vehicles that have four or more past due and outstanding parking infractions even if the vehicle is legally parked when discovered. Under current city law, these Scofflaw vehicles can be impounded only if illegally parked. Approximately 25,000 vehicles are listed on the Scofflaw list. The owners of these vehicles take advantage of on-street parking with complete disregard for the rules, actions that harm the rest of us when we try to find parking. The City will give notice to these violators before the new rules go into effect.
Given the current economic climate, the Council upheld its commitment, expressed to the Mayor last August, to reject the Mayor’s proposed commercial parking tax increase from 12.5% to 17.5%. Even without this additional revenue source, we have given the Seattle Department of Transportation the resources it needs to maintain vital transportation infrastructure and invest in freight, pedestrian and bicycle projects. Over the next two years the department will see an additional $6 million for items such as the South Park Bridge replacement, Neighborhood Projects and the Transit Master Plan.
Some have complained that we have short-changed our transportation budget and not met the expectations of pedestrian and bicycle advocates. A little perspective will be helpful here. Yes, we have unmet transportation needs, including pedestrian and bicycle improvements. But that's why the Council increased the commercial parking tax rate by 25% (from 10% to 12.5%) effective in January. That's why the Council created a Transportation Benefit District in August and levied a $20 vehicle license fee in October to begin collection next spring. And that's why the Council approved the new parking meter rate policies that I've already described above.
City Light Rates
We raised City Light electricity rates by 4.3% in 2011 and another 3.2% in 2012 and we removed the 4.5% surcharge that has been in effect since last May. The typical residential ratepayer will see very little change in their 2011 bills and approximately a $1.63 increase per month in 2012. Even with these changes, the cost of electricity in Seattle will remain very competitive, approximately 7.30 cents per kilowatt-hour in 2012. Estimated 2012 cents per kilowatt-hour rates in neighboring cities include 6.37 in Tacoma, 9.46 in Bellevue and 9.25 in Portland. (You can download a two-page summary of City Light rates here.)
City Light rate changes often provoke opposition from local businesses, primarily because business owners feel there is no predictability or consistency in rate policy. I've heard these complaints since joining the Council in January, 2008. At one level, the complaints are valid. Here's why: City Light charges customers a discounted rate for electricity and then relies on the sale of surplus power on the wholesale market to make up the difference. In good years, when we have lots of surplus power to sell and the market rate of that power is strong, we do well and cover the discount, allowing City Light to fund maintenance and capital improvements.
In recent years, however, the low cost of natural gas has pushed wholesale electricity rates very low. The result creates an imbalance that then leads to City Light raising rates to cover the deficit. I've asked whether we should change this approach and bill customers the actual cost of electricity, then use any surplus power revenue to issue refunds or fund capital investments. It's a tricky topic because City Light lacks a strategic plan or even an asset management plan to guide decisions and investments. (These plans are in development.)
We have a lot of work to do here, but we can thank our City leaders who chose to invest heavily in hydropower dams in our state a century ago, creating one of the best publically-owned utilities in the country.
Other Items of Interest
We raised fire permit fees and ordered a review of how these fees might be adjusted so actual costs of inspections are recovered without harming businesses that need special permission to conduct their work.
We restored funding to the City's Office of Civil Rights for administration and oversight of various citizen commissions related to human rights, LGBT issues, people with disabilities and women's issues.
We awarded the Wing Luke Museum a one-time grant of $50,000 as they transition away from City support. This museum is a local treasure, named after former City Councilmember Wing Luke, the first Asian American elected to the City Council in 1962.
The Council followed the Mayor's recommendation and defunded SCAN-TV, the group that operates the city's public access television channel, saving about $550,000 annually. Instead, the City will use about $100,000 to create an alternative public access channel, following the trend in other cities to sharply reduce public funding. The Seattle Channel is unaffected by this decision.
The Council trimmed our own budget by 9.5% in 2011 and 2012 through position cuts, not filling a couple of unfilled positions, and reducing miscellaneous administrative costs.
And sorry cat lovers, we raised annual cat licensing fees by $5, creating an additional $85,000 a year in revenue for our Finance and Administrative Services department.