Artists, activists and musicians enjoyed a decidedly progressive and liberal landscape in Berlin during the waning days of the Weimar Republic. Then the music stopped. Flash forward to Tacoma last week, when city leaders announcement that the looming $63 million projected deficit would require more cuts to programs and layoffs of hundreds of city workers. The projected deficit is double what it was a year ago since it covers the full biennial budget. The music stopped for city workers during the “black Tuesday” presentation to Tacoma City Council. The music was more of a funeral dirge than a waltz, after all. The budget troubles had been building for years.
More than 200 city workers are set to be cut just to cover the current shortfall, while many budget watchers forecast further cuts for years to come as the city struggles to right itself after years of “structural deficit” budgets that routinely used one-time revenues from new construction project taxes to pay for ongoing expenses. The current budget proposal calls for the elimination of 217 full-time-equivalent positions. The cuts come because current revenue projections forecast $382 millions in taxes and fees flowing into the city coffers and $445 million in expected expenses if no changes were made. Since the projections of money flowing out is $63 million more than what the city is expecting to take in, cuts and higher taxes are in the works. But those issues are up for debate within the council.
“I don’t expect them to approve the budget as is,” City Manager T.C. Broadnax said. “The only expectation I have is the delivery of the budget.” The budget he proposed, Broadnax said, is based on community input, departmental meetings and revenue projections to halt the “structural deficit” spending that caused the shortfall so the city can operate within its means when it comes to services. That is a sentiment echoed by Mayor Marilyn Strickland. “(The proposed budget) is not just a reset of government but also a reset of expectations as well,” she said. “Cuts are always hard because you are dealing with people, but we will survive. Oddly enough, through all of this, I feel optimistic.”
The budget is what it is, and Tacomans are well aware of that. While the shortfall looks ugly, Strickland hopes that they also feel the very public process, department by department, will help soften the sting of cuts as the city rights itself. “It will be a tough road,” she said, noting that the budget picture gets brighter in 2014. “But we will get there. We are going to have a lot of public input and 98 percent of it will be don’t cut, don’t cut, don’t cut. I understand that. It’s human nature. But if you preserve something, you have to cut something else.” A quarter of those staff cuts are already vacant and will simply go unfilled, but some 150 filled positions are set to end in the coming months alongside a handful of merging of departments to save city dollars through increased efficiencies. A $20 vehicle licensing charge and other taxes will add to the city’s revenue in hopes of filling the gap from that end of the ledger. The $20 annual tab charge is projected to bring in $3.7 million during the next two years; while an outright elimination of the business tax exemption to nonprofit health care operations would raise another $5.5 million through 2015.
The city’s police and fire departments, which largely ducked previous budget ax swings, are set to bleed the most this time, with a third of the projected cuts coming from public safety’s ranks. The 29 police cuts would save some $7 million, while the same number of cuts to fire would save $7.3 million. The cuts represent about 10 percent of both departments’ budgets. But union concessions could change those numbers. Concessions and federal grants saved 100 public safety jobs that faced cuts last year. The police department has 381 commissioned officers and 39 civilians to enforce the law within the city limits, while Tacoma Fire Department has roughly 400 firefighters and 35 civilian staffers. The level of cuts to public safety means “minimal staffing” in police patrols that will mean slower response times. Specifics are being worked out on spreadsheets now. Library officials already know their fate. Cuts of about $3 million during the next two years will mean more than a dozen fewer workers as well as cut six-day operations down to five days at the downtown branch. The library’s budget for new materials and subscriptions will take a $1 million hit, about a third of that line item, after four years of previous cuts.
“We have already downsized quite a bit,” Tacoma Public Library Director Susan Odencrantz said. “Our subscriptions are really a shadow of what it was.” Even with the projected cut of 12 percent of its funding, the library had been preparing for deeper cuts, since Broadnax had asked every department to plan for 15 percent cuts. “We took a bigger hit earlier,” Odencrantz said, noting that the cuts will still be tough. “It will be difficult, but these are difficult times. It will be hard conversations to have.”
While library staffers are working out the system’s budget based on the cuts as proposed in the current city budget, the formal library budget will not be adopted until late December since it is dependent on the final budget from the city. The layoffs now come after deep cuts last year and gutting of many reserve accounts and even dipping into retirement pools and liability accounts in efforts to weather out the revenue drops brought by the “Great Recession” that started in 2008. The brains behind that plan was then-City Manager Eric Anderson, who was hired for his budget experience only to be fired a year ago when council members lost faith in his projections. Bill Baarsma served as Tacoma’s mayor in the early months of the recession and raised a red flag about Anderson’s budgeting practices shortly after receiving a grim economics forecast in 2009 by Pierce Transit staffers and optimistic projections from Anderson.
“I was getting a completely different story from them than I was from Eric,” Baarsma said, noting that he saw expenses outpacing revenues that were explained away as “revenue shortfalls,” not deficits. “We were just led down a primrose path so to speak. I don’t know if he was being devious. I just know that he didn’t have a true lay of the land. I think he was delusional. I will say that, he was delusional.” At least some of the blame for the current budget struggles, Baarsma argues, lies in the root of Tacoma’s politics. Tacoma’s charter calls for a city manager form of government that works well for suburban cities, but lacks the strong-mayor oversight needed for more complex municipalities. “Tacoma is an aberration,” he said. “The city council doesn’t have its own staff, nor can it even hire people. The only information they get comes through the city manager. If we had some real money crunchers, it would have been a much different story.” As the recession dawned in late 2007, the city was sitting on a reserve account about $50 million, said Steve Marcotte, Tacoma’s finance director at the time. “The truth is that it was in a better position to manage the recession than many other cities,” he said. “It never should have gotten this bad.” Most cities have about 10 percent of their general fund in savings for downturns and unexpected expenses. Tacoma had 17 percent, which has largely evaporated to avoid deep layoffs in 2008 and 2009.
Fun math with Tacoma’s budget
So what does the impacts mean for Tacomans? Each department is drafting presentations of those impacts between now and when the budget is passed in early December. But with 326.3 positions set to be eliminated under the budget as proposed, that means 649,243 hours and 48 minutes less staff hours working on city business than under the current budget or for paid time off for vacations and sick leave based on the standard municipal three-week vacation package. More of that later. That is, of course, assuming the standard 248-day work year in America, based on a year of 365 days, with 12 legal, nonworking holidays and two-day weekends.
So, 326.3 times 248.7143 (calculation that includes leap years) equals 81,155.47609 fewer city work days. Multiply that by eight to get 649,243.80872 fewer hours. Eight-tenths of an hour is 48 minutes. The total hours worked for the city under the budget (based on a 40-hour work week) comes to 3,545.7 positions times 248.7143 days in a year times eight hours in a work day, equals 7,054,930 hours, 20 minutes and 52 seconds, give or take a few moments here and there. Now, of course we have to figure in vacation and sick leave, which generally starts at 21 days of combined “paid time off.” Calculating the actual loss of “work done by city employees” under the budget comes to: 326.3 proposed cuts times (248.7143 days in a year minus 21 paid leave days) times eight hours in a day equals 594,425.40872 or 594,425 hours, 25 minutes and 52 seconds.
Let the debate on my methodology begin. The 217 proposed budget cuts would mean $48 million over all city departments during the two- year budget cycle. The 109 positions remaining have already been calculated into the budget and therefore create no new “savings.” The service impacts will vary by department and will be addressed in detail during the work sessions between now and the budget adoption slated for Dec. 4.