Being the bearer of bad news is never fun. But it has to be done. Such is the case with the latest round of community budget talks working their way around Tacoma, which are the city’s effort to “touch bases” with residents after a previous round of talks this summer that helped direct municipal spending and cuts as Tacoma officials work to fill a $63 million projected gap over the next two years. “The second round of community budget input meetings will provide an opportunity for the community to see how their initial input (from this past summer) was incorporated into the budget,” said City Manager T.C. Broadnax. “I want to hear their thoughts on any adjustments they feel are necessary so that the city council can consider those during their review of the proposed budget.”
City staff keeps notes on the meetings to summarize residents’ comments into specific themes. The Oct. 22 meeting at Gray Middle School, for example, had 26 attendees and eight speakers. Of those, one supported the police department’s community liaison officers, six worried about the deteriorating streets, three complained that taxes are already too high and oppose the $20 vehicle tab proposal and advocated for the selling of naming rights for the Tacoma Dome. One speaker suggested the Puyallup River bridge between Tacoma and Fife become a toll bridge. The Oct. 24 meeting at Wheelock Library had 24 attendees and eight speakers, who talked about police cuts translating into more overtime pay and negating any savings, fear of more street maintenance cuts and increased sales taxes. The community meetings include a video about the 2013-14 biennial budget as well as well as short presentations by city staff and community questions answered by department officials on what the cuts will mean for city services. While it is not all rainbows, flowers, glitter and unicorns, city staff felt the meetings were necessary to show members of the public that they were heard during the previous forums this summer rather than a call for new ideas.
“I attended eight of the 10, and I must say that I believe that city manager has done a damn good job of listening at those meetings and developing a budget based on the community input he received from the forums,” City Councilmember David Boe said. “So now that he is going back out, I think it is more of a back check of what he heard this summer now in a budget format, and thus is should be more of a tweaking than a change in direction for me personally.” And, of course, there is the politics of new fees to work into the mix. The city budget proposal, for example, calls for a $20 vehicle licensing fee that would fund a yet-to-be-formed Transportation Improvement District. The fee would bring in about $4 million to fund much-needed street repairs. Many cities are considering similar fees and are pondering the political question of adding a fee that wouldn’t solve their street issues. Tacoma has an $800 million roster of needed road work, so the projected $4 million over two years wouldn’t make a dent in the backlog. But it would be something and buy time to find other dollars to fill that hole, which could mean higher property or sales taxes or other fees. The political question is to enact a new fee only to seek a more comprehensive, voter-approved tax down the line or hold off and lump everything in an “all or nothing” ballot item.
“Voters are completely counterintuitive about taxes,” Councilmember Anders Ibsen said. “Meaning, that when deficits are large and government needs the money the most, voters are less likely to support a tax measure. The reason being that in those situations, people mistrust the government and blame elected officials for what appears to be mismanagement. People’s direct experiences inform their take on reality. And service cuts and deficits equals government isn't working, so why should I trust it? Conversely, when everything is running smoothly and government isn't hemorrhaging money, people are content with tax measures. That's why Seattle almost always passes school levies. They've got boatloads of cash. So logically, a $20 car tab increases our chances of a levy being successful in the future. Because the people will see more work being done. Or at least they won't see as much cut.” While the meetings so far have been largely lightly attended by a dozen or more residents, comments are flowing in to city council members. “I find it helpful to hear where people have concerns,” Councilmember Marty Campbell said. “I have heard from people different points of view that help us to see the whole picture. While the proposed budget is well drafted, we need to make sure all the parts are working in unison. Many times, it the overlooked small things that can swell into larger problems in the future.”
One item Campbell wanted tweaked was the proposed reductions to storm and snow response crews. While the proposed budget calls for a cut from nine to five snow trucks, for example, Campbell wanted details on the cost of delaying those cuts until after the snow season rather than making the cut in January, right as the cold season dawns. I have also received emails thanking us for our unprecedented level of transparency and information,” Campbell said. While residents might have been seeing details, a union representing city workers is claiming otherwise. Teamsters Local 117, which represents about 250 city workers, has filed a lawsuit in Pierce County Superior Court against the city of Tacoma, saying the proposed budget violates their labor contracts. Some 217 positions are set to end under the budget as presented through cuts in funding or in Broadnax’s reorganization plan to merge departments. The Human Rights and Human Services Department are set to now include code enforcement, which was under Public Works, and Community Based Services is to become the new Neighborhood and Human Services Department under the planned shuffle. The Planning Division and Building and Land Use Services would be removed from their current home in the Community and Economic Development and become a new Planning and Development Services Department. The city’s Utilities Department would move from Public Works to a new Environmental Services Department. Of the jobs targeted for elimination in the cutbacks and reorganization, 64 are vacant positions. Those employees who will remain will have no cost of living adjustments if they are non-union members although the budget would restore pay cuts made this year, and eligible employees would see step increases. Salaries for union members would fall under their labor contracts.
Dates to watch
Here is a schedule of upcoming budget workshops and community forums:
Mon., Nov. 5, there will be a community budget forum between 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. at Center at Norpoint, 4818 Nassau Ave. NE.
Tues., Nov. 6 at 12 p.m. — the Fire Department budget will be discussed in the Council Chambers on the first floor of the Tacoma Municipal Building, 747 Market St.
Tues., Nov. 13 at 12 p.m. — Municipal Court; Information Technology Services; Public Assembly Facilities; and Non-Departmental budgets will be discussed as well as a budget wrap-up in the Council Chambers on the first floor of the Tacoma Municipal Building, 747 Market St. A public hearing on the budget is also set for 5:30 p.m.
Tues., Nov. 20 at 12 p.m. — the Council will hold a budget workshop in the Council Chambers on the first floor of the Tacoma Municipal Building, 747 Market St.
Tues., Nov. 27 at 12 p.m. — the Council will hold a budget workshop in the Council Chambers on the first floor of the Tacoma Municipal Building, 747 Market St.
Nov. 30, is the deadline for comments to City Hall is through its online community budget input box at cityoftacoma.org.
Tues., Dec. 4 at 12 p.m. — the Council will hold a budget workshop in the Council Chambers on the first floor of the Tacoma Municipal Building, 747 Market St.
Budget presentations, documents, streaming video and archived videos are available online at http://www.cityoftacoma.org.