NEW BONUS MEETING: Also concerned about the proposed “Upzone on Steroids” proposed for our U District and surrounding neighborhoods? Attend public hearing Wed, Nov 16 at 5:30 p.m. at Hotel Deca, 4507 Brooklyn Ave NE, Seattle, WA 98105.
MEETING to CONNECT: Remember when Northeast Seattle’s Rob Johnson and other Councilmembers were criticized for bailing out the failed Pronto bike scheme with millions of your tax dollars? Now our City Council is going to decide how to spend BILLIONS of your tax dollars. So this season’s Meeting to Connect is the CITY BUDGET CALENDAR. (see below)
All meetings are inconveniently located downtown at City Hall when most of us are busy at work. While this means mostly lobbyists and interest groups “paid to be in the room” can attend, we hope you can attend at least one meeting to have your voice heard. For directions on schlepping yourself down to City Hall, CLICK HERE.
To have the most influence, get into your time machine back to March when the city’s executive departments were putting together their initial budgets. To have the most influence today (when earnest City Council staffers are running around like their hair is on fire only to change less than 5% of the budget), attend these meetings at City Hall:
- Mon, Oct 17: 10:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m.
- Tues, Oct 18 & Wed, Oct 19: 9:30 a.m.
- Mon, Oct 24: 10:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m.
- Mon, Oct 31: Revenue “update” (a.k.a. Mayor reveals more money from under the city couch cushions so that City Council can sprinkle it onto the squeaky wheels or additional pet projects).
- Wed, Nov 2, Wed Nov 9, and Thurs, Nov 10: 9:30 a.m.
For the entire budget calendar, CLICK HERE. For the Seattle Time article covering the Mayor’s initial budget presentation from Sept 26, CLICK HERE.
When attending these meetings or scheduling individual meetings with Councilmembers, join the call for these 5 budget reforms:
1. Performance Measures
2. Real Equity
3. Impact Fees
5. Expert Analysis
Let’s ask City Hall to have some P.R.I.D.E. in the democratic document that should reflect our values as a city.
1. Performance Measures: When you spend someone else’s money, you show respect and care by measuring results. But the $5 billion city budget fails. Here’s what the budget should include on each program. If not, City Council should freeze spending on the program until the city department provides it:
- Quantify Needs: Based on reliable data, what are the specific needs to be addressed? Not a sob story or sales pitch, but actual data. (Example: # of Seattle residents who are un-sheltered and # of homeless traveling to Seattle from outside the State).
- Quantify Goals (Outcomes): What are the positive outcomes we seek to accomplish to meet those needs? Not inputs (# of intake forms filled out) or outputs (# of shelter beds filled), but outcomes (# of formerly un-sheltered King County residents now in permanent homes).
- Track Progress: How will you measure progress toward those goals? By spending $50 million each year, we anticipate achieving __% of the outcome each year.
- Use Only Evidence-Based Strategies: What’s the plan and what’s the evidence it should succeed? Don’t talk in circles about un-tested schemes that sound sweet when you can implement what other cities have proven to be effective. (Example: “Housing First” strategy. For more, CLICK HERE.)
2. Real Equity: “Equity” is a word spouted constantly by city officials these days. “Equity” means fairness. Equity is different from “equality” because we do not all start from the same “starting line” in terms of income, education, and opportunity. Collecting, allocating, and spending our tax dollars should be done equitably. This is why it is maddening that the State government does not tax even the highest incomes while the city government fails to measure results (see above) or charge developer Impact Fees (see below). Then there is how City Hall chooses to spend our money.
The proposed $151 million to build a line of streetcars downtown is a glaring example of in-equity. The so-called “Center City Connector” streetcar is on track to be next “Police Bunker” budget boondoggle because it is:
- Unfair: it benefits only downtown.
- Costly: $150 million, including $50 million of your city tax dollars.
- Redundant: buses, light rail, and taxis already saturate downtown.
City Council should cancel this “Streetcar Named Quagmire” and invest the funds in real priorities that advance equity, such as reducing homelessness. Why spend $150 million on a streetcar when people are sleeping in the streets?
For a recent article that interviews a national transit expert on the pitfalls of streetcars, CLICK HERE. For an article on another major way City Hall could advance real equity — by reforming its rich pension benefits — CLICK HERE.
3. Impact Fees. Speaking of inequity…while much of our city budget is spent to make our city better, the developers and land speculators who profit from our great city do not pay their fair share as they do in cities across the state and nation.
Impact Fees are one-time fees that developers / investors of new building projects pay to a city to help offset increased infrastructure costs caused by the new developments and their new occupants. Impact fees are used to pay for public schools and fire stations (two things needed as more people move into the City). Instead, City leaders have consistently goaded current homeowners and renters to pay for larger tax levies rather than charging the developers a dime. (See Sound Transit tax vote.)
If the City had started charging Impact Fees 10 years ago, it would have generated enough money to build at least 5 new elementary schools. Having the courage and common sense to implement Impact Fees would have helped to prevent the overcrowded classrooms that kids, parents, and teachers suffer through every day in Seattle.
For a local poll showing overwhelming support for Impact Fees, CLICK HERE. For the Municipal Research Services Center website on Impact Fees in Washington State, CLICK HERE. For the website on Impact Fees throughout the U.S., CLICK HERE.
4. Details. The city budget has lots of words and lots of pages, but it is missing what matters: details. The money is divided into huge buckets (“Budget Control Levels” or BCLs) that the Mayor and his Departments can drive a truck through. (See page 10 of budget, by CLICKING HERE).
Once each vague “BCL” is approved, the Departments can do whatever the heck they want within that huge bucket. When exercising its check-and-balance powers to review the budget, the City Council spends half of its time trying to figure out which program is in which bucket (BCL). Can you imagine your family budget having a huge, vague line item called “Stuff.” Here is just one example:
“Business Services Program“: $15 million proposed for 2017-18. The budget document is obnoxiously vague: “to provide direct services to businesses and to support a healthy business environment that empowers businesses to develop, grow, and succeed.” Well, that’s just swell. (page 266 of the budget). The efforts might be highly effective, but what are the individual programs? Where are the performance measures? What if City Council instead wants to invest these funds to prevent more small neighborhood businesses from being displaced by high-priced real estate development? The budget needs details to enable decisions.
City Council should require the executive branch to scrap the vague “BCL” method of budgeting which is unique to Seattle, and budget by individual programs and line items with performance measures.
5. Expert Analysis of Expensive Projects and Pensions.
When interest groups lobby the Mayor and City Council for large projects, there is no standard analysis of costs or benefits. There is no required verification of “Sources & Uses” to determine when (or if) city funds are needed. Remember the infamous North Precinct Police Station whose costs ballooned to the most expensive such project in the nation. The sticker shock literally had people in the streets demanding city leaders to “block the bunker” and re-focus their spending priorities on the homeless.
With so little time to review the $5 billion budget and with no financial experts on hand to help, City Council practically ignores four massive cost areas:
- the Capital Budget (a.k.a. Capital Improvement Program) which builds stuff like the Police Precinct;
- City Light (your electric bills);
- Seattle Public Utilities (your bills for water and trash/recycling); and
- Retirement Benefits for city government employees.
The City Council should expand its budget review muscle by temporariliy engaging financial experts to develop standard and detailed analyses of capital projects with a goal of finding savings rather than being at the mercy of the executive departments or interest groups that have been thinking all year about how to spend more of your tax dollars for themselves.