Mayor's budget gives way to special interests

City Hall

Last week, Mayor Mike McGinn presented his first budget to Seattle City Council. These are tough economic times, and the mayor needed to make up for a $67 million drop in local tax revenues that normally would have supported programs covered by the general fund, plus significant shortfalls in non-general-fund sources such as user fees, utility rates, state and federal revenue sources.
The mayor addressed these challenges by proposing a general-fund budget $13 million less than last year. Only police and fire departments avoided deep cuts in city services and staffing. We'll also face steep rate increases for water, solid waste, electricity and parking. (Hats off to the mayor, though, for minimizing cuts to human services)
But here are some things especially troubling to us. For starters, the parks department really took it in the shorts. On top of a 5-percent reduction to its maintenance budget earlier this year, the mayor called for another $8.1 million in cuts for 2011, which means layoffs of more than 100 employees and accompanying drastic reductions in park programs and increased user fees.
Our city is in the ironic position of adding parks, playfields and open space due to passage of the 2008 Parks and Open Space levy while lacking funds for basic maintenance. The mayor's cuts worsen this situation and give fodder to special interests seeking to privatize our parks system (e.g. leasing parks space and buildings to trinket and food vendors, profit-producing weekend concerts or Dale Chihuly's glorified ashtray displays.)

More for Paul Allen
While the mayor argues that his proposed utility-rate increases are necessary to fund the basics, that claim is undermined by a host of new and ongoing programs that siphon off millions - all to accommodate private redevelopment in one neighborhood.
In South Lake Union, his budget includes a new "bioswale" drainage system, "networking" and undergrounding the wiring, expanding the Broad Street electrical substation and monies for a new "North Downtown Substation." Through 2016, these costs exceed $300 million.
There never seems to be a shortage of dollars for Paul Allen.
The mayor also committed millions next year and in future years to complete Mercer Phase II (Mercer West), a project now estimated at $100 million, in addition to the $200 million already committed for Phase I (Mercer East). As we've reported before, this is nothing more than a redevelopment scheme designed to redirect traffic away from Paul Allen's properties facing Lake Union and does nothing to reduce traffic congestion.

Wrong kind of road work
What has drawn the most attention and criticism, though, is the mayor's plan to raise parking rates, extend meter hours until 8 p.m., increase the commercial parking tax and eliminate "free" parking on Sundays. This would raise about $13 million over two years and $40 million through 2016, which McGinn would use to pay for his controversial "road diets" that replace car lanes around town with bike lanes.
We love our bikes, too, but how is it that we can find dollars for more bike lanes and still more projects for South Lake Union, yet neither the mayor nor City Council can seem to scrape up the funds for repairing a huge and growing backlog of ailing bridge and road infrastructure in our neighborhoods?
A recent public-disclosure request we made to the city reveals that, currently, 59 of the city's 115 bridges are either "functionally obsolete," "functionally deficient" or in poor structural condition. The current price tag for making the needed repairs is estimated at more than half a billion dollars. Only a small fraction of these bridges will get any funding at all from now through 2016 in the mayor's five-year capital plan.
A new state law allows cities to create special transportation-benefit districts and authorize increases in car-tab fees; three weeks ago, the City Council did both.
The council also authorized an advisory committee to create another Bridging the Gap transportation package to bring before voters as soon as next year. This ballot measure would raise our property-tax rates and allow use of other financing mechanisms (such as tolling) to pay for the list of transportation projects identified by the advisory committee. No doubt some of that backlog of bridges in need of repair will appear in this package.

Special interests to ballot
To top it off, our elected officials - without a vote of approval from the public - are jacking up user fees, parking rates and utility charges that would not be needed at all if they chose to cut projects out of the current budget serving special interests or have those special interests foot the bill themselves (through use of developer-impact fees).
We've got a better idea. Let's use our existing revenues to keep our bridges safe and meet other real needs in our community. Then if our electeds still want to tax us for things like the city's share of the downtown tunnel (including perhaps millions in cost overruns), road diets, the Mercer corridor and more South Lake Union giveaways, let's put those items on a special ballot so voters can decide.
The City Council now is holding hearings on McGinn's budget. You need to get involved.
JOHN V. FOX AND CAROLEE COLTER are coordinators for the Seattle Displacement Coalition (, a low-income housing organization.[[In-content Ad]]