Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels says he's shaving $13.3 million from the city's 2009 budget without making any direct cuts to public safety or human services. But $406,000 that had been allocated this year to provide more public toilets for the homeless is going -- something City Councilmember Nick Licata says he'd like to see restored.
The money was set aside for the city to find facilities at stores or other locations that could be used in place of the five controversial automated public toilets that the city closed last summer downtown. If no new sites were found, Licata said April 20 at a council Budget Committee meeting on the cuts, the money was supposed to go to homeless hygiene facilities like Seattle's Urban Rest Stop.
"That's exactly correct," city Finance Director Dwight Dively told Licata. But, "Frankly, there had been little success at finding alternatives, so we've chosen not to spend that," Dively said.
The council could identify something else to cut, Licata said, and then negotiate with Nickels to fund the toilets or, perhaps, a $100,000 electric trolley study that Licata also identified the mayor had cut. But as Budget Committee Chair Jean Godden pointed out, it's the mayor who decides what to cut at midyear, not the council. Despite that, the council has scheduled a public hearing on the cuts for April 22.
The revenue shortfall in 2009 was projected at $30 million, but budget cuts made by the mayor last fall left the city with a $19 million surplus. To close the remaining gap, Nickels announced April 17 that he'll tap up to $5 million of the city's $30 million rainy day fund in 2009 and is cutting 59 city jobs -- half of which are currently vacant -- for a total of about 30 layoffs.
He's also putting employees of the Seattle Public Library system on an unpaid furlough that will close all 27 library branches for a week, likely at the end of August. That's on top of 26 layoffs already made in the Department of Planning and Development. Another 100 or so city employees will also be taking a week of unpaid furlough days over the course of the year, Dively says.
As a result of the cuts, which will take effect July 1, people might notice that some city services take a little longer, Nickels said. But the Seattle Police Department will still hire 21 new patrol officers this year, so 911 response times shouldn't be affected, he said.
The mayor and his executive staff are also forgoing a 4.5 percent cost-of-living raise in 2009. Nickels said he had written the city a check for just under $5,000 to refund his raise -- on a salary of roughly $160,000 a year.
Megan Cornish, one of a dozen people who testified at the April 20 Budget Committee meeting in which Dively briefed council on the cuts, said that's not enough.
"Instead of cutting COLA raises for only 100 senior managers, roll back salaries throughout the upper levels," said Cornish, a retired City Light worker and member of the Freedom Socialist Party. "If you have to cut jobs, cut the swollen ranks of our ridiculously top-heavy management."
Cornish and two labor representatives who protested the cuts at a City Hall picket earlier on April 20 also called on the city to stop hiring costly consultants and contractors and ditch its plan to build a $226 million jail.
"The last thing I would like to do is build a jail in this city," the mayor said when asked at his press conference about forgoing the facility. But, "During a recession, crime tends to go up," he said.
He added later that the bulk of the new jail's expense won't fall in the 2009 budget, anyway. "That will be out further when hopefully we've seen an economic recovery and we'll be able to do that without making cuts in other areas," Nickels said.
At a time when more jobless are turning to the library for internet and other services, library supporters told councilmembers that a weeklong furlough is too much. "Once that paycheck stops every month, so does the internet connection," said Allie Baker, a patron of the West Seattle library. "The library is the one place where we can help all the people who are feeling the effects of our economic recession."
Those effects could worsen next year, when the city is facing a much bigger shortfall of $38.8 million, Dively told councilmembers -- something that Julia Sterkovsky says she finds shocking.
"Even if we [carry forward] the cuts that are being applied this year," Sterkovsky, the head of the Seattle Human Services Coalition, said after the council's budget briefing, "that still leaves $38.8 million more to cut [in 2010], and that's very worrisome."