Paint by numbers

Seattle Soundings

A city's budget is a painting - in dollars and sense - of the priorities and visions of the document's authors. What we can learn from the proposed 2011 Seattle city budget submitted by the mayor to City Council last week - aside from an uncomfortable reminder that our skewed tax structure makes responsible governance almost impossible - is that Mike McGinn likes cops; really, really hates cars; and doesn't much understand poorer people.
In the largest picture, McGinn must deliver a balanced budget, which means he's charged with erasing a projected $67 million deficit in the city's $888 million budget (down from $905 million in 2010). That shortfall is due to lower tax revenues from the poor economy and declining support from equally strapped state and federal budgets.
I've made this point before, but it's worth repeating: The reason these budgetary boom-and-bust cycles are so pronounced is our state's (and, thus, city's) complete reliance on sales and property taxes to the exclusion of income taxes, which are a more stable source of revenue in economic downturns. That's worth remembering with the Initiative 1098 ballot measure, which would cut property and B&O taxes and replace them with a high earners' income tax. But even if I-1098 passes, it won't be in time to help the City of Seattle for 2011.
This brings us back to McGinn's recommendations for the difficult choices that must be made for the city's budget.

More money for police
McGinn announced as his broad framework plans to cut 1 to 2 percent from police and fire budgets, 4 percent from social services; and 5 percent from everything else. So far, so good.
But if you read the actual line items in the 60-page budget proposal, it appears the police spending actually goes up by nearly 2 percent - despite a new hiring freeze. That includes reassigning 30 cops and putting them on the street.
Given that crime rates are declining and Seattle's average police response time to an emergency call (six minutes) is substantially better than the national average, it's difficult to see this as anything other than a political decision. One never likes to skimp on public safety, but given how much every other city department (and city resident) is being asked to shoulder, it's odd that the Seattle Police Department's spending is going up.
'Value decisions'
More troubling, and politically contentious, are the revenue hikes, which McGinn describes as being guided by what he calls "value decisions": living within the city's means, being effective, considering race and social justice, maintaining public safety and health, sharing prosperity and being environmentally sustainable. But some of these values are clearly held more dearly than others - like, for example, environmental sustainability, which is McGinn-speak for bashing car travel.
The same week that the City Council approved a 2.5-percent increase in commercial parking taxes, McGinn's budget proposed raising parking meter fees by 75 percent downtown and 25 percent elsewhere; and extending meter hours to 8 p.m. daily and all day on Sunday (currently free), meaning 26 percent more overall hours a week.
The rationale behind this disproportionate charge is, per usual for McGinn, to discourage driving and encourage use of public transit. If the revenues were going into an extension of public transit, that would make a lot of sense.
But they're not going into public transit. That's a different agency (or agencies, actually: Sound Transit and Metro, among others). Instead, they're a big chunk of what will help McGinn bridge that $67 million general-fund shortfall. There's no parallel expansion of public transit.

Few other options
Even with dramatically increased in-city bus ridership increases in recent years, most of Metro's route expansions are in outlying county areas. City routes are often standing-room-only, especially during peak hours.
And if you need to travel nights or weekends? A trip that would take 15 to 20 minutes by car can take hours by bus.
Metro also has its own budget issues: It's currently trying to deny its drivers union-negotiated cost-of-living increases).
The cold truths are that people need to use transportation to get to their jobs, their families and all the other necessities of daily life; and that the geography of Seattle, like every other U.S. city, is almost exclusively designed around the assumption of automobile travel. Pricing people out of that option without offering other options - and not everyone is young, spry or unencumbered enough to bicycle everywhere, as McGinn likes to do - runs counter to two of McGinn's other stated values: the "race and social justice" (you'd better believe such a policy has race and class implications), and the bit about "sharing prosperity." Those of us who still have good paying jobs can drive all we want in McGinn's Seattle; the rest of us, apparently, are not so welcome.
That also applies for a lot of other budget measures: the closed wading pools, reduced hours at community centers, utility-rate hikes, increased park fees and so on. Everyone can use these public facilities, but when they go away or become unaffordable, only some of us have other options.
And while some of these changes are unavoidable - any fat disappeared from the city's tightening budgets years ago - any analysis of who actually uses these facilities is likely to show that the people who can least afford to shoulder the burden of the city's fiscal woes are being asked to bear a surprising amount of it.
If, of course, the City Council agrees.
GEOV PARRISH is cofounder of Eat the State! He also reviews news of the week on "Mind Over Matters" on KEXP 90.3 FM.[[In-content Ad]]