Seattle city government spending has been outpacing population growth. Mayor Jenny Durkan needs to turn that equation around.
Seattle is a rapidly growing city with increasing needs for government services, but the surge in city spending of about 39 percent between 2011 and 2016 has far outpaced Seattle’s 11 percent population growth.
Mayor Jenny Durkan must fulfill her promise to look closely at all city operations and rein in government spending wherever possible.
A Times Watchdog report by Daniel Gilbert and Daniel Beekman found spending in every city department grew in the five years ending in 2016, including a doubling of transportation expenses to $276.9 million. The city payroll totaled $1.1 billion last year, with nearly half of full-time workers making at least $100,000, according to a Seattle Times examination of payroll records, budget documents and financial statements.
That’s a dizzying pace, even in a city where voters seem to have an unending willingness to pay new taxes.
In August 2016, Seattle voters agreed to double the amount of property taxes they are paying to support efforts to help the homeless and provide affordable housing and support low-income housing in the city. That’s just one tax on a long list of increases voters have approved in recent years.
City voters have also approved tax increases to maintain parks, provide high-quality preschool, improve Seattle transportation options, keep libraries open, build more schools, and maintain and operate Seattle Public Schools. Most would agree these are all worthwhile reasons to pay taxes, but the well of taxpayer generosity is not unlimited.
Even with these new taxes, city revenues are not growing as fast as spending is increasing. Something will have to give as the economy cools, as is expected.
All future spending proposals must be examined with this economic slowing in mind, and current spending should be subject to the same careful analysis. Accountability matters here.
For example, Seattle’s $5.6 billion budget for 2018 includes $63 million for homelessness programs, up from $39 million in 2014. Some of the increase is necessary to make up for cuts in federal dollars. Some covers an increase in the homeless population. But the rest of the money is being spent on emergency housing that should become less necessary as the city implements new homeless services. Seattle is now focused on finding people permanent places to live and the services they need to stay housed. This work is expensive, but it should lead to savings in emergency housing.
In addition to taking care of its other pressing concerns — traffic and public safety — Seattle has taken on a number of new multimillion-dollar projects during the past five years. In 2012, the city created the Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs. That office’s budget has ballooned to $3 million. Seattle’s education department — separate from the school district — has a budget of nearly $80 million for 2018.
Voter generosity may not continue forever. It may even halt as soon as Seattle homeowners get a better idea of how much the state’s school funding reform will boost their state property taxes in 2018.
The mayor and the City Council need to put the city on a spending diet before a slowing economy forces more austerity. Shrewd budget cutting will ensure that the city’s values and goals are supported in its budget for many years to come.