Urban Politics #96: The City Budget

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By City Councilmember Nick Licata.

Urban Politics (UP) blends my insights and information on current public policy developments and personal experiences with the intent of helping citizens shape Seattle’s future.



  • The City Budget
  • City Property Tax
  • Programs Funded
  • Licata Sponsored Legislation

The City Budget

Two weeks ago the City Council passed the new biennium budget (years 2001 and 2002) for the City of Seattle. The City’s total proposed budget, which includes state, federal and other outside funds totals approximately $2.41 billion for 2001 and $2.48 billion in 2002. The City’s general fund, which excludes utility revenues, all outside grants and many other sources, amounts to $606 million for 2001 and $628 for 2002. By state law the City must have a balanced budget so our expenditures cannot exceed our revenues.

These are the budget figures as they are presented to the City Council by the Mayor in the fall. The City Council then must approve a final budget by November 30th. Since the Mayor’s budget accounts for all known revenue if the Council wishes to fund any programs other than what the Mayor has proposed then they must either cut a program funded by the Mayor or find a new source of revenue that was not accounted for in his budget. Consequently, the Council’s adjustments to the final budget generally amounts far less than 1% of the general fund. This year the Council found approximately an additional $1 million in revenue for the 2001 budget and $1.3 million for 2002’s budget.

The Council for the 2001 budget also moved approximately $2.8 million out of programs or funds from the Mayor’s budget into ones that it preferred. For the 2002 budget Council moved $1.3 million out of the Mayor’s budget.

City Property Tax

The Mayor’s original budget was based on a 6.1% increase in the City’s share of the property tax. After the passage of I-722 (which is currently being challenged in the courts) the budget had to reflect a 2% increase which left a $6.2 million revenue shortfall in 2001 and $13 million in 2002. The City Council passed a budget with a 4.1% increase based on the increase in labor and health costs generated by our current labor contracts. The difference between 4.1% and 2% amounted to $3.2 million in 2001 and $3.4 million in 2002. The collection of this revenue is to be placed in a special account and to be only release upon the courts final determination on the applicability of I-722 on the City.

If I-722 is overturned by the courts then the funds will be released for specifically marked purposes: street paving, sidewalk construction, emergency shelter and transitional housing. These funds, however, cannot be appropriated until the final legal determination of I-722 ‘s obligations are made.

The issue of whether to collect a 4.1% or a 2% increase in property tax was a subject of discussion among the Council Members. On the final vote two Council Members (McIver & Pageler) voted for the 2% increase, this would have amounted to a little over $3 million decrease in each budget year as noted above. They did not suggest which programs or funds or staff positions should be cut to total $3 million. I would have supported just a 2% increase as well but since no cuts were suggested I did not think it was responsible to support a budget that did not balance. It would have been easy to favor funding all of our programs and then also propose cutting the revenue that funds those very programs. Such an approach may look good but I do not think it makes for good governance.

Programs Funded

The Council funded 20 new programs or increased funding to current ones in 2001 budget for a total of $822,000. I will not repeat the entire list but I will identify some of them and their primary sponsors. These are not listed with any reference to size or importance but listed to just give readers a sense of the type of programs that are funded.

With the exception of one dissenting vote (McIver) for providing $25,000 for a Youth Music Violence Project, all 20 received unanimous support from the Council. Margaret Pageler did not sponsor any of the 20 so she is not listed below.

$82,000 for funding an additional DCLU housing inspector – Nicastro

$70,000 for a Survey of Historic Resources – Steinbrueck

$45,000 for funding a volunteer coordinator for the Office of Senior Citizens – Conlin

$55,000 for funding King County Drug Court – Drago

$90,000 for adding a case manager for African American Elders Project – McIver

$125,000 for funding sexual assault services – Compton

$125,00 for funding domestic and sexual violence prevention – Wills/Conlin

$150,000 for funding a 1 year car recovery clinic providing legal services – Licata

In addition to the 20, there were 2 others in 2001 whose funding was moved directly from a specific program or fund in the Mayor’s budget to a new one. The $250,000 for Renters Assistance was entirely shifted from the proposed Wage Equity Fund and the $320,000 for Safe Harbors came entirely from the sale of the Odessa Brown Clinic. And lastly the $700,000 earmarked for the acquisition of Hitts Hill (which was not included in the 20) located near Columbia Park in Rainier Valley is to be entirely reimbursed to the General Fund in 2002 from other funding sources.

CM Peter Steinbrueck had also proposed spending $12 million for a Homeless Strategic Response in the biennium budget. I and CM Judy Nicastro strongly supported this effort. In the end Emergency Shelter received $1 million and Transitional Housing received about $1,750,000 million. In addition the Council passed a resolution (7-2, Pageler, Compton) in support of providing an additional $ 2 million for affordable housing, including transitional housing, should the courts decide that I-722 would not reduce the city’s budget to the extent that this money would be made available.

Licata Sponsored Legislation

Below are the details of two particular budget items (Jefferson Park Trail and theCar Recovery Program) that I sponsored. The final item is a description of legislation concerning the disposition of funds for the arts. Budget legislation not only consists of adding and subtracting programs from the City’s budget, but it also contains directives to city departments on how funds should be collected or deposited for future expenditure. The final piece on the Arts Admissions Tax is such an example.

Car Recovery Program —

The City Council approved $150,000 in funding to begin a Car Recovery Clinic that will work with owners of cars impounded under Seattle’s “Operation Impound.” Some background is helpful in understanding this item.

In 1998 the City began “Operation Impound.” This program authorized the impoundment of vehicles driven by drivers with a suspended or revoked driver’s license. By May 31 this year nearly 7,600 autos had been impounded under Operation Impound and 2,600 autos had been auctioned because of the owner’s inability to pay for the tickets. Last summer a coalition of groups, including the Central Area Motivational Program (CAMP), the Labor Employment Law Office (LELO), and the Office of Public Defense formed the Drive to Survive Committee. Drive to Survive focused upon the law’s disproportionate affect on communities of color and the working class poor who rely on their vehicles to get to work. Together, Councilmembers Licata, Steinbrueck, and McIver sponsored legislation that would limit the City’s ability to impound vehicles to those drivers who were considered by the Department of Motor Vehicles to be dangerous drivers. This legislation would have exempted those safe drivers! who had a suspended license because they were unable to pay for their ticket. The proposal was defeated by the City Council with a 5-4 vote.

After the defeat of this proposal, the Drive to Survive Committee approached Councilmember Licata to ask for his support of a “Right to Legal Counsel” proposal. Their belief was that if the City was going to confiscate the cars of poor people through a civil process they’d better pay for legal counsel so that these people would have the support needed to challenge these impounds in Court. Indeed, when the Office of Public Defense takes these cases to Court they often find many impounds to be unlawful for reasons as varied as illegal stop by the police (profiling), the failure of the DMV to notify the driver of a suspended license, and the absence of any suspended license at all! It is easier for citizens to access the courts to make these kinds of legal defenses if they have an attorney representing them.

The result of the 2001-2002 budget process was that although the City Council could not agree to establish a statutory right to legal counsel in these cases, they did agree to funding a one year pilot program. The proposal that gained the unanimous support of the City Council was to provide funding for legal support services for low income people seeking recovery of their vehicles impounded for DWLS under Operation Impound as a demonstration project for one year. The City Budget Office will design and issue a request for proposal (RFP) to create a “Car Recovery Clinic.” This RFP will encourage the use of law student interns and paralegals. The RFP will specify that the program can fund the use of attorneys in cases that meet certain criteria.

I believe this law clearly has the most negative impact on the working poor and communities of color. Hopefully a car recovery clinic will correct this injustice and help those people hardest hit.

An earlier edition of UP has additional information about the impound ordinance at http://www.seattle.gov/leg/licata/up86.htm .

Jefferson Park Trail —

The 2001-2 budget includes $51,000 for a trail on the northern perimeter of Jefferson Park along Spokane Street. My proposal to fund the project passed unanimously.

The $51,000 provides enough funding to construct a soft-surface path in two sections: from 16th Avenue South to Beacon Avenue South, to the north of the Seattle Public Utilities Beacon reservoir; and from Beacon Avenue South to 24th Avenue South, to the north of the Jefferson Park 18-hole golf course. The fences to both properties are currently in the process of being moved back, providing additional open space.

If park advocates want a more fully developed trail, with plantings, irrigation, benches, or other amenities, other City sources are available. For example, there is a $10 million Opportunity Fund included in the Parks levy, as well as the Neighborhood Matching Fund, Neighborhood Street Fund, and others. The $51,000 was obtained by reallocating money in the Department of Parks & Recreation budget.

The trail will enhance safety; with the fences moved in, especially to the north of the golf course, more people will walk in this area, with no visible pathway. The trail will also complement the significant progress made by the Beacon Hill community and the City in accomplishing key goals of the neighborhood plan in Jefferson Park.

Arts Funding —

As part of the budget process, I proposed an ordinance to formalize the arts funding mechanism put forth by Mayor Schell earlier this year. The Mayor’s resolution, passed by the Council in September, called for diverting 20% of the City’s unrestricted admissions tax revenues to the Seattle Arts Commission. As a resolution, it was a statement of City policy; however, it did not carry legal force, and could be ignored by elected officials in the future.

My ordinance formalizes the 20% of unrestricted admissions tax revenues into a dedicated funding mechanism, because ordinances carry the force of law. This ensures future budgets will include this funding mechanism, unless the ordinance is repealed. The ordinance creates a special account for the 20% of the City’s unrestricted admissions tax revenues, with revenues dedicated to the Seattle Arts Commission.

The ordinance passed by an 8-1 (McIver) vote.

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