City Council adopts budget with little fanfare

Tacoma has a budget. The unanimous vote by the City Council on Tuesday night came after months of forums followed by number crunching, then workshops followed by number crunching then community outreach sessions and more number crunching, followed by some nips and cuts along the way. Councilmember Victoria Woodard defined the budget in two words – “sustainable” and “transparent.”  Outgoing Councilmember Jake Fey called the process “painful,” but a process that needed to be done and vowed to seek legislative fixes on municipal financing when he starts his Senate term in Olympia. The new taxes, fees, charges, program cuts, and sometimes departmental slashes, were needed to fill a projected $63 million budget shortfall that had formed through years of “structural deficit” spending that used one-time revenues for ongoing expenses. The economic downturn dropped sales and property tax revenues and dried up one-time grants and construction-related impact fees. Reserves were largely spent to avoid more rounds of layoffs that started last year, when the city faced a $32 million shortfall.

But savings from those cuts and dollars from reserve accounts didn’t outlast the sluggish economy. That prompted “a back to basics” look at city spending and service levels that are outlined in the 2013-2014 biannual budget. The budget has a general fund of $397 million that flows to general services and programs. About $2.3 billion of city spending comes from dedicated funds for construction and other projects. On the chopping block were some 217 jobs from around the city, most notably a layoff of 29 positions within the police department, 31 within the fire department and 71 in Public Works that will impact pothole repairs and parks maintenance. Police cuts amount to about $7 million, while fire cuts save $11 million. Public Works cuts total $11 million. Most of the city staff cuts were either filled by early retirements or not funding vacant positions. But some 70 employees have been laid off. On the revenue side, the City Council approved a plan to collect $20 on annual vehicle tab renewals to fund $4.1 million in street improvements through the formation of a Transportation Improvement District. The new charge starts in June. The city also axed a business and occupation tax exemption for non-profit hospitals that gross more than $30 million a year. The new revenue is expected to bring in $9.5 million during the two-year budget.

An additional $4.1 million over two years would come from the vehicle license-tab fee. While the budget is done, the battle for dollars continues Dec. 18 with a planned hearing for funding through the city’s Human Services Commission, which slated funding for 54 nonprofits and programs during the next two years. About half of the grant seekers didn’t receive funding. Metro Parks submitted nine funding requests. None were forwarded with a commission recommendation, for example. Metro Parks’ Sparks after-school program in the middle schools is set to end when children return to school after the holiday break unless funding is found to at least pay for a “soft landing” for the program to operate through the end of the year. Parks and school officials are already in talks and there is a full-court press to find city dollars since the program was started as a pet project under then mayor Bill Moss, who asked Metro Parks to do after-school programs. Thus the next round of dollar battles begins as nonprofits and programs seek to state their cases to the full council and avoid being cut off at the end of the year.

In reviewing funding applications, the Human Services Commission and two community experts focused on three strategic priority areas: increasing employability and self-sufficiency for adults, meeting the basic needs of Tacoma residents, and preparing children and youth for success. Within these three strategic priority areas, seven service categories were considered: economic stabilization, self-sufficiency, housing stabilization, access to basic services, youth development, at-risk youth, and gang prevention and intervention. Scores were given based on how well a proposed project addressed a priority need, quality of service proposed, ability to evaluate service outcomes, past project performance and proposed budget. Sparks got a score of just 60 out of a possible 100.


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