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Tacoma: City council prioritizes spending during first step of Broadnax’s budget process

Post by Lewis Kamb / The News Tribune on June 20, 2012 at 11:52 am with No Comments »
June 20, 2012 11:00 pm

As Tacoma grapples to deal with huge budget gaps in the coming years, the City Council generally favors reducing or maintaining some level of resources to existing city programs, but shies away from eliminating or increasing current allocations to most major services.

Or so says the general conclusions drawn from a survey taken by the council to help City Manager T.C. Broadnax formulate a 2013-14 general fund budget amid grim economic forecasts.

Findings of the council’s survey — discussed during a more than 4-1/2-hour study session Tuesday — also indicate the council is willing to somewhat reduce certain allocations to the city’s police and fire departments and cut its own council rainy day contingency fund.

City officials  stressed results from the survey aren’t a directive set in concrete, but merely the first step in what will be a long collaborative journey.

“We will use this as guidance,” Broadnax told the council. “I’m not asking you to solve (the budget) today.”

Broadnax conducted the exercise as a way to help guide him in his task of proposing by October a 2013-14 general fund budget that faces up to a $65 million shortfall under the city’s current revenue and spending trends.  Projections put the gap facing the 2015-16 budget at up to $85 million.

As part of the exercise, the council was asked to prioritize spending $8.50 on eight major city service categories — police, fire, streets, economic development, library, social services, parks and code enforcement. Under the spending exercise’s scenario, the eight services are currently funded at a $10 level, with the amount provided to council members reflecting the lower spending and revenue trends facing the city.

By averaging the nine council members’ responses, the findings showed the council generally favors cuts to all eight service areas.  Police and fire — which now receive the biggest general fund budget allocations – saw the least amount of cuts, 9.4 percent and 12.4 percent respectively.

Code enforcement, streets, library and social services each received cuts ranging from 16 to 25 percent. Economic development and parks services were prioritized for the biggest cuts, 26 percent and 44 percent respectively.

In another exercise. the council rated 39 different city services and programs on a four-point scale, with 1 calling to eliminate the program and 4 calling to increase its funding.  In all, an average of the scores showed the council generally favors reducing spending on 22 services and programs, maintaining spending on 17 others.

Although individual council members did score some programs as 1’s or 4’s, the average council score showed no service or program would be eliminated or increased (individual scoring by council member was not released as part of Tuesday’s presentation).

Some of the services prioritized to receive bigger cuts by the council, such as economic development programs, already receive funding through other city contracts or outside agencies,  council members noted.

“By saying no to (funding) these, it doesn’t mean we don’t want to do them,” Mayor Marilyn Strickland said. “We’re already paying someone to do these.”

While thanking Broadnax for conducting the exercise, Councilman Anders Ibsen noted the council still has a few options to increase outside revenues, such as fully repealing a B&O tax break given to Tacoma’s largest non-profit health care systems, Franciscan and Multicare. (Earlier this year, the council agreed to impose one quarter of a percent of the business tax on the health care organizations, keeping a 75 percent exemption in place.  Ibsen advocates imposing the full tax, which he said would garner about $2.5 million per year.)

“I don’t simply want to confine ourselves to an all-cuts approach,’ Ibsen said. “…We can’t cut our way back to prosperity.”

Ibsen added other general fund budget expenses, such as spending on outside contracts, employee travel and training and managerial redundancy weren’t part of the exercise.  He noted one city department — Public Assembly Facilities — now employs a director, a deputy director, an assistant director and five division managers.

Part of Tuesday’s meeting was devoted to overviews to educate the council on big picture budget projections and costs spent on employee health care and retirement benefits. Directors of several departments that offer front-line services to citizens — police, fire, human services and economic development — also gave budget presentations.

With most general fund expenses — more than 60 percent — going toward employee salaries and benefits, several council members noted any sustainable budget solution must examine new strategies.

“I think voters want to see the city become more efficient,” Councilman Ryan Mello said. “… We are paying essentially 100 percent of (employee) health care costs (while) taking away services to the public.”

Broadnax will next take the budget discussion to the public, with the first in a series of community budget meetings set for next week.

Meantime, the city still awaits word on two federal grants being sought to fund police and fire personnel and help close a still lingering $11 million shortfall in the current 2011-12 budget. Broadnax told the council the decision on the fire grant should come within the next few weeks.

“If we get the grants, that’s great news,” Strickland said. “But we still need to address the long term structural (budget) issues.”

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