In today’s TNT, I covered the latest city budget briefing, presented Tuesday to the Tacoma City Council by City Manager Eric Anderson and Finance Director Bob Biles.
Stagnant revenue collections in the last quarter of 2009, combined with shortfalls carried over from the previous three quarters, left the city facing a $12 million budget gap heading into 2010, the second year of the city’s biannual budget cycle.
On Tuesday, Biles and Anderson detailed for City Council members the latest round of $12 million in budget “revisions” to get the General Fund flush heading into the New Year. The bulk of the latest adjustments came from reducing surplus contributions to police and firefighter pension funds by $8.6 million.
When added to adjustments made during the first three quarters of 2009, the latest round of trims brings the total of downward adjustments made so far to the $443 million 09-10 budget to $42.8 million.
“We do not believe these cuts reduce services to the community,” Anderson told me yesterday.
If that’s the case, does that mean the city’s budget was $43 million fatter than it needed to be?
Anderson wouldn’t go that far. But, he noted: “When you have a situation like this one — a crisis, an emergency — you take advantage of it and try to make meaningful decisions.”
Part of the way Anderson and his budget hawks so far have managed to keep the budget on pace through the recession is by nipping and tucking, tweaking and trimming across all city departments. He has shifted salaries for some staff positions from the General Fund to be funded under federal grant programs. He’s deferred hiring open positions, delayed certain contracts and cut some funding that didn’t go to specific programs. He has also tapped into city reserves.
If the city operated under an annual budget cycle, such as Pierce County does, Tacoma’s budget cuts likely would be draconian, Anderson said. He estimated about 200 city staffers would have been laid off by now. The added year in the municipal budget cycle, along with the city reserves, has largely helped the city to stave off the kind of severe cuts felt by citizens in the way of services, he said.
Depending on what happens with the economy this year, Anderson added, more budget trims could be in the offing. But it’s becoming more difficult to adjust to “temporary revenue losses,” he said, as the recession wears on. That could mean that tough decisions about city personnel — by far Tacoma’s largest expenditure — “cannot be left out of our considerations” in the future, Anderson said.
Still, some city council members are beginning to question how after making $43 million of trims, there hasn’t been some impact.
Councilman Jake Fey raised concerns that some of the biggest revisions made so far, such as ramping down the pension contributions, are one-time budget band aids that provide but temporary fixes (Anderson agreed, saying that’s how budget adjustments work amidst a recession).
Fey, who noted police officials worry that department personnel are overburdened because 12 police spots have gone unfilled, added that $981,000 in recent budget revisions come from not replacing some aging police vehicles due for replacement. These cars will still need to be replaced, he said (Anderson said the 12 police vacancies represent a normal attrition rate for the department, and suggested that, if the council has concerns, it should come up with a plan to hire more officers).
Noting $377,000 in trims to various Human Rights and Human Services expenditures, funds and contracts under the latest budget revisions, Councilwoman Lauren Walker said such cuts make her “want to do a primal scream” at the potential impacts.
“So with all the cuts, I wonder what kind of impact this is having,” she said.
Aside from those already mentioned, where have the $42.8 million in Anderson’s budget adjustments come from?
Here’s a quarter-by-quarter break-down: