A bump in Seattle City Council staffing is a part of an “all-of-the-above” approach to fiscal management, writes columnist Jonathan Martin.
Switching to a Seattle City Council elected by districts was supposed to put the council in closer touch with the real wants and needs of the voters.
Nowhere on that list of asks, I’m sure, is a sudden $500,000 bump in the council’s own staffing budget.
But we seem to now be getting an out-of-touch financial decision by the supposedly in-touch council.
Top on almost everyone’s list of head-scratchers is the $6.3 million bailout of the failed Pronto bike share. Owning the little-used fleet of slow, expensive rental bikes also puts Seattle on the hook to cover a $1.4 million annual budget if ads, fees and sponsorships don’t materialize.
Now we can add a gold-plated City Council. On Tuesday, the council gave itself authority to hire nine new legislative aides — adding a fourth position to each council member’s office — and to rent office space outside of City Hall.
Those perks put Seattle in elite company. Like-minded cities with council members elected by district — Boston, Austin, Denver or San Francisco — have no more than three staffers per council member. None pay for district offices. Seattle now allows four staffers per council member, and council members can rent a second office.
Those figures come from a review the Seattle City Council asked for a few years ago. In case any of the new council members missed it, veteran Councilmember Tim Burgess brought up the uncomfortable comparisons before he was the only “no” in the 8-1 vote.
The argument for adding staff is, ironically, that representing a 87,000-person district is more demanding than representing the city as a whole.”
“Is this the highest and best use of these funds? I’m not at all confident that our constituents would answer that question with a yes,” he said diplomatically.
The argument for adding staff is, ironically, that representing a 87,000-person district is more demanding than representing the city as a whole — as council members did until last year’s elections.
Councilmember Lisa Herbold, who spent 17 years as a council staffer to Nick Licata, acknowledged the seeming contradiction. But her office is expected to have expertise in a range of issues and to help constituents navigate and get satisfaction from city agencies. “There’s just a lot more work under district elections,” said Herbold.
But the council already has an unusually large central office of 20 very smart, policy-wonk staffers who can fill in those gaps in expertise. Boston spends $811,000 on its policy services. San Francisco spends $2 million. Seattle spends $3.4 million.
So why did the council prioritize itself? Actually, it’s part of a pattern of “all-of-the-above” governance in a boom time. With real-estate excise taxes being delivered in proverbial dump trucks, and a series of specialty property-tax levies (transportation, transit, parks, libraries) that allow the council to offload general-budget obligations, Seattle’s budget has ballooned by $158 million since 2013, topping $1.1 billion last year.
Among the new spending is a 44 percent expansion of the Mayor’s Office staff, and 86 new positions in the city transportation department in just the last two years. So what’s a few more council staffers?
In fact, there is a big problem coming. Voters likely know about the looming $50 billion Sound Transit 3 measure and a doubling of the city’s low-income housing levy, both likely on the ballot later this year.
But the monster tax increase that no one is talking about is the likely massive property-tax jump needed to comply with the state Supreme Court’s education-funding McCleary decision. Under some scenarios proposed in Olympia, the average Seattle homeowner would pay something in the range of $500 a year. Drip, drip, drip.
For now, the bill for Seattle’s gold-plated City Council will be deferred until the city writes its new budget later this year. Tuesday’s council meeting put the cost at $500,000, which basically underfunds the nine new staff positions. Come budget time, I expect that cost to rise to at least $900,000, and maybe $1 million if more council members rent district office space.
But, really, what’s an extra $1 million when it buys a more in-touch council?