City Council tells its budget story, dances around furlough questions
Seattle City Council members held a press briefing today to talk about their almost-final 2010 budget decisions. Summing up their take on their own work, they called the press conference “Making Smart Choices.”
The council cited a number of highlights from their work on budget proposals from Mayor Greg Nickels: saving some $860,000 worth of library hours, avoiding human services cuts and maintaining public safety programs. They also made some reductions in staffing for the mayor’s offices.
Council budget chair Jean Godden said, “I think you heard the mayoral candidates saying during the campaign that they did not want to have as many people. So, we took them at their word.”
Especially in view of what could be another tough budget for 2011, the biggest choice may have been the restoration of $5 million-plus for the city’s rainy day fund. The mayor’s budget had suggested using almost all of the $30 million in the fund to maintain services, which would have left only $5 million for the future. Council members, however, said they asked city departments to go back and propose another round of cuts for themselves, primarily in travel, training and supplies. As a result, the council’s budget will have about $10.5 million left in the fund.
There is considerable concern that, as outgoing Councilmember Richard McIver told the PostGlobe, “The hard year is going to be 2011.” Others are less clear cut about that, but worry the apparent economic recovery won’t have generated enough steam to avoid more cuts.
McIver was the only council member to vote against the council’s tentative budget. “I think there is a lot being invested in the criminal justice system,” he said, suggesting more spending on human services might do more for people.
At the end of the press conference, Godden received several press questions about whether council members and their staff people are voluntarily taking the money-saving furloughs accepted by most city workers as a way to avoid layoffs. After some verbal footwork by Godden and departing Councilmember Jan Drago, council members departed for pre-planned “job shadow” visits with Seattle Public Library staffers without all of the elected officials answering the question.
Godden said she is writing a check to the city for a sum equivalent to the pay she would lose in a 10-day furlough. Pressed on the position of other members, all or most of whom were standing behind her, Godden suggested reporters “ask them individually. I wouldn’t want to put them on the spot.”
Drago then stepped forward to say, “Councilmember McIver and I are not taking furloughs … but I think it it is time to wrap up. What do you think, Jean?” Godden agreed.
McIver said that he isn’t going to write a check out of his retirement, which takes effect with the start of the budget. “You can’t furlough my retirement check,” he joked. But he said, “I think the council should lead the way” with savings from their own salaries.
Councilmember Sally Clark said she will write a check to the city for the equivalent of a furlough and that her staff members are in negotiations with the city’s human services office on how to structure a furlough for themselves. Councilmember Tim Burgess said he is writing a check as well.
Council President Richard Conlin and Councilmember Nick Licata said they are not writing checks or asking their staff members to take furloughs. Conlin said, “I don’t think it is a good idea.” He said the council had already met the targeted 8 percent savings with sharp reductions in such areas as travel and consultants. The use of furloughs, he said, “was not necessary to meet our budget target.”
Two other incumbents will return next year, Tom Rasmussen and Bruce Harrell.
Asked to sum up the council’s budget, Conlin said, “I think the bottom line is that we were actually able to restore a lot of (services) and actually put more money back into the rainy day fund by really careful trimming.” He said that it is possible to cut training, travel and supplies significantly “for a couple years” without harming services. About the possibility of a difficult 2011 budget, Conlin said, “That is what we were worried about, and that is why we worked so hard to put money” back into the rainy day fund.