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Tacoma: City Council unanimously passes “painful” budget, slashing jobs, services

Post by Lewis Kamb / The News Tribune on Dec. 4, 2012 at 7:44 pm |
December 4, 2012 7:54 pm

It came after a journey that included grim projections, hard truths and a seemingly ever-changing cast of characters, but the City of Tacoma arrived at a new budget destination Tuesday – a place with far fewer employees and scaled-back public services where Tacoma will plant its flag for at least the next two years.

After two months spent dissecting a proposed 2013-14 general fund budget that had been several more months in the making, Tacoma’s City Council unanimously adopted City Manager T.C. Broadnax’s $397 million spending plan Tuesday.

“The word I would use to describe this budget situation is `painful,’” said Councilman Jake Fey. “…It’s based on realistic revenue assumptions and necessary but painful reductions.”

The formal approval means about 217 filled and vacant city positions will be axed, Tacoma’s only fire station in the port will close, operating hours will be sliced at Tacoma’s main library and thousands of potholes and other non-essential street repairs will go unfixed.

It also means Tacoma’s drivers will pay $20 more annually for vehicle license tabs and the city’s two nonprofit hospital systems will lose a decades-old break from paying business taxes.

The adopted budget represents Tacoma’s resetting to a new fiscal reality – one that’s less reliant on one-time grants, rainy day reserves, overly optimistic forecasts and other unsustainable funding sources, Broadnax said.

It is also reflects the primary mission council members had charged Broadnax with when they selected him as Tacoma’s new city manager a year ago. Council members roundly lauded Broadnax Tuesday for fulfilling that task through a communal process that involved the public, city employees and council members alike.

“When you started, you didn’t know what you might find here,” Councilwoman Victoria Woodards told Broadnax. “But you came in and put your whole heart into it and you did our city proud.”

Broadnax was forced to build his first city budget on a bleak framework: Closing a $63 million gap projected for the next two years while dealing with an added $16 million shortfall discovered in Tacoma’s streets fund.

The dire economic realities took shape even as the city was still finishing making $32 million in cuts to the current budget. During the budgeting process, the city’s budget officer died unexpectedly, its finance director was fired and an interim finance director accepted a job in another city.

“It was a very challenging and difficult process, particularly with me only being here for nine months,” said Broadnax, who started in February. He replaced Eric Anderson, the former manager often blamed for the city’s budget crisis.

To deal with the next budget, Broadnax sought an across-the-board cut of 15 percent from every city department. He also pushed for a new city vehicle license tab fee and to end B&O tax breaks for the MultiCare and Franciscan health systems to collectively raise about $9.5 million in new revenues.

The citywide cuts translate into fewer employees and public services. Under the next budget, about 100 city workers will retire, about 70 will be laid off and nearly 50 now vacant positions will vanish.

“I wish we had another route,” Councilman Joe Lonergan said. “We don’t.”

Hardest hit of any department is public works. Facing $104 million in cuts, the department will lose about 80 of its 250-member work force, repair about 6,000 fewer potholes and cutback street resurfacing, snow removal and other services.

The fire department, staring down nearly $11 million in cuts, will trim 29 positions, mostly through retirements. It will also close Station No. 6 in the port area, decommission three fire engines and cut staff and services at stations in the Proctor district and on the East Side.

About 29 fewer police positions will mean Tacoma’s police force will patrol in a far less proactive way under a department that’s $7 million slimmer.

About $3 million in cuts from the library will mean reducing operating hours at the main branch downtown from 54 hours per week to 45, cutting 16 staff members and buying far fewer books, periodicals and other materials.

The coming budget will restore a 4.6 percent pay cut to about 200 non-represented workers and 9.6 percent pay cuts to department heads, taken during the current budget. It also incorporates the bulk of some $20 million in pay raises scheduled over the next two years for various unionized general government employees.

As part of the budget, the city also has approved three major department reorganizations, creating the new Environmental Services, Neighborhood and Community Services and Planning and Development Services departments.

Broadnax, who said he has spent nearly every work day since coming to Tacoma on budget issues, noted the city still faces budget challenges ahead. The city forecasts a $20 million shortfall for 2015-16 and Tacoma’s bonding capacity is maxed out.

“Our problems are not over,” he said. “… We’ve got to get at it. We won’t rest that long.”

But he added: “I, too, know that we will have better days in the future.”

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