When last picking executives, Seattle voters were enthused about putting people with no management experience into executive positions. As a result, Seattle's current mayor, an environmental evangelist, is at the helm during the city's worst economic crisis in at least 40 years.
Mayor McGinn says that a $10 million budget deficit this year and a $50 million shortfall for the next is a serious situation but is not dire. Tim Gallagher, departing Parks director, cited a budget in "dire straits" as well as his inability to get a hearing from the mayor's office for his ideas as his reasons for leaving.
Director Gallagher's dilemma was created in part by the expiring 2000 Parks levy and City Council's shaping of the 2008 Parks and Green Spaces Levy. The earlier levy, totaling $200 million in new taxes, authorized the City to spend $26 million on land acquisition for new parks and greenbelts. Influenced by citizen input, it set aside $60 million for maintenance of the new parks and facilities. The idea was to provide for maintenance over the life of the levy, giving the Parks Department flexibility to incorporate the increased costs into its regular budget.
With the 2000 levy expiring, the City Council went to work. It devised the 2008 Parks and Green Spaces Levy and sold it as a continuation of the earlier Parks tax package. City Council demanded that not a penny for maintenance be included.
Since 2000 the city has established 42 new parks, acquired 130 acres for greenbelts and other uses and has built additional community centers. Each new park and community center, staffed by city workers, requires money for operations and maintenance. Now, with tax revenue falling, the Parks Department has workload going up and a budget going down.
Don Harper, chair of the Queen Anne Community Council's Parks Committee and a member of the Parks and Green Spaces Levy Oversight Committee, points out that Parks is the only city department that has fewer managers on staff now than in 2002.
According to Carol Everson, Seattle Parks finance director, operation and maintenance of parks and facilities originating in the 2008 levy will cost an additional $2 million a year. With other costs increasing, including a $1.2 million raise for Parks employees this year, the money is not available.
Some have suggested selling City Light and using the income to establish a trust fund for Park's operations. Others, including former Director Gallagher, favor creating a Park District with its own taxing authority. While that may create stability in Parks funding, it allows the mayor and City Council to continue unsustainable budget practices in every other department.
The budget crisis caused Parks to make maintenance a more important factor in deciding which new projects to support. That is a long overdue change and one that should be applied in every department. Anyone bouncing through potholes can appreciate that our city council members would rather be naked on bicycles riding through Fremont than budgeting for infrastructure maintenance.
While sustainability is a popular theme for environmentalists, City Hall does not seem to grasp the concept of financial sustainability. This deep recession and the turmoil it brings to City Hall could motivate the mayor and council to establish priorities and scale back programs that cannot be sustained without boom-time taxes. More likely they will do damage across all the departments and wait for tax revenues to recover. Then it will be party time at City Hall once again.[[In-content Ad]]