Last year we looked at the King County budget to find out what services King County government really provides to people. The answer was: mostly jails and buses. A similar examination of the City of Seattle’s budget is long overdue.
The City of Seattle sets a new budget every two years when they start a new “budget biennium”. Currently the city is in the middle of the second year of its 1997/1998 budget biennium, and we can see from current numbers exactly what our city’s priorities have been for the last two years.
First of all, the City gets most of its revenue from two sources: taxes ($461 million) and service charges ($822 million). The rest of its income comes from federal and state grants ($111 million), license and permit fees ($28 million), fines ($16 million), donations ($1 million), “Miscellaneous Revenues” ($96 million) and “Other Financing Sources” ($351 million). Total inflows were $1.85 billion dollars for 1997 and projected inflows for 1998 are $1.9 billion.
Expenses are broken down by department, and not all departments are equal, as the budget allocations show. Here’s where the City puts its money:
Utilities and Transportation: $1.1 billion. This department includes City Light, Seattle Public Utilities (water, sewer, drainage, and solid waste), and transportation services paid for by the city, as opposed to those paid for by the county.
Public Safety: $247.4 million. This is for police, fire departments, and the Municipal Court.
Health, Human Services, and Recreation: $242 million. This catch-all category includes Arts, Health, Housing, Libraries, and Parks and Recreation.
Development, Neighborhoods, and Planning: $28.7 million. The bulk of this money goes for construction and land use (80%), neighborhoods (17%), and the Hearing Examiner (2%), with a tiny pittance left over for the Planning Commission (less than 1%). Surprised?
General Government and Administration: $153 million. You can guess what this covers, but I’ll get into that in more detail below.
Other: $127 million. The “Other” category seems to be the waste-bin for ignored budget items, like: Bonds Debt Service ($57 million), emergency reserve funds ($7 million), “Finance General” ($52 million), and the Judgment & Claims Subfund ($9 million). Oddly, it also includes the Low Income Housing Fund ($0), and the Neighborhood Matching Fund ($1.5 million). While the other departments had detailed descriptions of what was included in their figures, the explanation for the “Other” category was mysteriously missing from the city’s budget Web page (at www.pan.ci.seattle.wa.us/budget), so we’re left to guess what “Finance General” means. If it refers to debt payments or principal payments on debt, then the city spends about 5.7% of its income on debt servicing. Unfortunately, the budget gives no figures for what the city owes in debts (how convenient!).
Now, within the city budget for 1998 there are few interesting details. The total budget increase over 1997 is about $80 million, and that increase went to some interesting budget items.
Police: + $5 million. Well, you can guess why: it’s a political decision. People are afraid of crime and nothing gets people (especially well-educated, well-heeled people) to vote for you than promising more money to fight crime. Never mind that serious crime (including murder, rape, robberies, aggravated assaults, burglaries, thefts, and auto thefts) in the Seattle area has fallen steadily since 1987. It’s also interesting to note that, while the budget for the police department has increased, the budget for the “Professional Responsibility Bureau” was cut in half. This special police bureau recruits employees to “fulfill the department’s affirmative action goals.” Here we can see I-200 in action, even before it’s been passed! Some of the money saved from this budget cut undoubtedly went for the new sergeant to train 100 cops to deal with mentally ill folks holed up in their apartments with guns (I’m not kidding) … or to fund a startling increase in overtime hours the police department claimed in 1997.
Utilities and Transportation: + $64 million. Whoa! Here we can see the direct costs of our “booming economy”: water shortages, overflowing sewers, drainage problems, tons of garbage …
Health, Human Services, and Recreation: + $3 million. Priorities, priorities. Most of this increase went to Parks and Recreation, Libraries, and the Seattle Center (+ $6 million), while the Housing and Human Services budget dropped by $3.1 million. That’s the way to solve Seattle’s housing crisis! To be fair, a lot of the money for Housing and Human Services used to come from federal and state grants, but with a reactionary legislature at both levels, the tap is being rapidly shut off, especially for family and youth services. Keep that in mind this November when various local incumbents beg for your vote.
General Government and Administration: + $8 million. The biggest winner here was the Executive’s Office, which has several departments, three of which saw funding increases this year. The Office of The Mayor (which surprisingly still lists Norm Rice as Mayor–oops!) gained $576,000 this year. The Neighborhood Planning Office, which is busy completing 37 neighborhood plans (mostly to benefit local businesses), gained $786,000. The grand prize winner, however, is the Office of Economic Development, which gained $4.2 million over last year. In fact, this office was only supposed to get a total of $2.5 million this year, but when the final figures were approved, it magically received a boost to $6.3 million, probably at the request of our development-happy Mayor, Paul Schell.
I was curious about this magic money shift: just what would those funds be used for? Here’s a partial description of the Office of Economic Development, directly from the city’s budget page: “The office advocates inside City government for improvements to processes, policies, and regulations that impact Seattle business, manufacturing/industrial areas, and other key business districts. It works to help individual businesses needing City government services, provides access to capital for small businesses, and staffs the Mayor’s Small Business Task Force.” In other words, it’s a corporate pork barrel. As if we need more businesses, more growth, more people, more cars, etc.
Here’s another detail from the list of services provided by the Office of Economic Development: “The office will help the Downtown Seattle Association establish a Downtown Umbrella Business Improvement Association”–just one of many ways that Paul Schell can pay back his biggest supporters and largest campaign contributors.
So that’s where the City puts its money: utilities, cops, construction, parks, and pork barrel. Are you feeling well-served?