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The Broadnax budget: Pain inherited from follies past

Post by TNT Editorial Board / The News Tribune on Oct. 3, 2012 at 3:31 pm |
October 3, 2012 3:31 pm

This editorial will appear in Thursday’s print edition.

After eight months of poking at Tacoma’s fiscal foundations, Tacoma City Manager T.C. Broadnax has come up with bad news: termites.

The financial species – the kind that gnaw at city budgets from the inside out.

On Tuesday, Broadnax gave the City Council an outline of his proposed spending plan for the 2013-2014 biennium. He gave The News Tribune’s editorial board a similar briefing the same day. It was a refreshingly blunt and brutal assessment of the City of Tacoma’s financial troubles.

Credit him with candor. Tacoma has been on a glide path toward a mountainside for years. Somebody has to pull up the nose, but that requires acknowledging the magnitude of the problem.

Over the next two years, Broadnax said, the city faces a $63 million shortfall in its general fund, which supports most day-to-day public services. It expects $382 million in revenue and – with no change in trajectory – $445 million in expenses.

Bringing expenses in line with revenue is going to be agonizing – especially if the city unions aren’t willing to surrender any wages or benefits.

Balancing the budget, Broadnax figures, will require the elimination of 217 city positions. Sixty of them are already empty, and more might be eliminated by encouraging retirements, but a wave of layoffs is inevitable.

This isn’t just a matter of fewer bodies at City Hall. The police and fire departments account for 60 percent of the general fund, Broadnax said, and they can’t be held harmless. He’s anticipating the loss of 58 positions from those departments. Citizens are likely to see less public safety.

They’re also likely to see more taxes, a $20 auto license fee among them. Broadnax said that Tacomans are going to have to reset their expectations: “Pay the same or a bit more, and get less.”

The impact is so great because some city leaders tried to pretend the problem away in years past. The City of Tacoma ran an expensive, high-overhead government with generous pay and benefits – and that was before the council started handing out millions of dollars in pay increases as the recession tightened its grip.

Preemptive economies back then would have averted meat-ax cuts now. Two years ago, former City Manager Eric Anderson served up a big plate of denial and the council wolfed it down. The last biennial budget was based on assumptions that the city unions wouldn’t insist on pay raises and that sales taxes would surge. Both assumptions were leaps of faith – into a pit, as it turned out.

Labor concessions could soften the blow. Broadnax’s budget doesn’t assume that the city’s unions will part with a nickel they’ve been promised, so it includes $20 million worth of pay increases and 12 percent annual increases in health benefits.

That kind of money could save a lot of jobs and public services. But Broadnax isn’t banking on union generosity – more evidence that he’s trading in fiscal realities, not hopes.

 

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