A week after Seattle’s nine City Council members voted to boost their own staffs by 33 percent, they learned the city is facing red ink, and everyone else is being asked to cut back.
Remember a few weeks back when the Seattle City Council voted to beef up its own office staff — though we’ve already got one of the most staff-heavy cities around for our size?
Well, there was an eye-opening meeting a week after that down at City Hall. It went by unnoticed because it had the scheduling misfortune of happening the same day the council voted down an NBA sports arena.
Some budgeting and accounting wonks sat before the council and told them two things:
One, the Seattle boom is fading.
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And two: What were you people thinking?
OK, they didn’t say that second part. That must have been the voice grousing in my head. But it turns out that the week after the council voted to boost its own staff by 33 percent, adding nine new aides, it was told the city is facing enough red ink that departments are being asked to cut back.
Words the city’s budget director Ben Noble and his assistants really did use: Peaked. Plateaued. Slowdown. Substantial drop. Decline. Unsustainable.
“We are not in a terrible position,” Noble told the council. “But it is one where we don’t have any loose change lying around. So we’re not looking to find new expenditures.”
Also: “We are in a hole. We need to dig out.”
A hole? Seattleites approve every tax increase — and then flock to public meetings to beg to pay more — yet still we’re in need of a shovel.
Of course the boom was bound to quiet. The city projects that the tax bonanza due to our real-estate frenzy will drop by 23 percent this year alone.
Then there is this state’s Eyman-capped tax system, which increasingly forces cities to rely on special levies.
But some of this must be that the city has been on an epic hiring spree. Since 2013 (the final year Mike McGinn was mayor), city government has added 685 new workers, to top 12,000 for the first time.
Now that Mayor Ed Murray wants to hire more police, which we clearly need, it all means the city of glittering riches suddenly is talking about scrounging for loose change.
To pay for the police, Murray proposed raising Seattle business taxes to the maximum rates allowed by state law, as well as doubling to quadrupling the annual business-license fee. But the budget wonks dryly noted that even if all those taxes get approved, the city would still be in the red by $20 million in 2018, and $34 million the year after that.
“This is the reason I voted against the council staff additions, and also voted against bailing out the Pronto bike share,” Councilmember Tim Burgess, the budget chairman, told me. “We can’t afford this stuff.”
Why is that? Just leafing through the budget book, I see that Seattle administrative spending has gone from $122 million in 2013 to $163 million today. That’s up 34 percent.
Given all this, it’s worrying that this Wednesday, the council is expected to pass a quarterly budget that adds another 25 employees to the rolls. That doesn’t include the new council staffers.
Burgess said that armed with the new economic warnings, he intends to again fight the council-staff bloat. Councils in cities like Boston and Denver get by fine with two or three aides each. How can Seattle council members justify each needing four?
“But I expect to lose on this issue — again,” he said.
At the end of the meeting, it was noted that city departments have been asked to prepare for 2 to 4 percent budget cuts next year. Not one council member, other than Burgess, noted the red numbers on the screen and said, “Hmm, we’re raising taxes and expecting cutbacks from others. So maybe we don’t each need new aides after all?”
They get another chance to connect the obvious dots on Wednesday.