The City Council had nearly finished its work on the city budget. After restoring a number of Mayor Nickels’ cuts to social services, they were left with the question of how much to cut funding to the mayor’s office. Certainly Nickels’ request for a 36% increase over the prior year was too much.

Last year the council had cited Paul Schell’s extravagant increases in spending as a reason to cut the mayor’s budget of $2.35 million back to its 1997 amount of $1.8 million. This pissed off Greg Nickels, who saw it, at best, as an attempt by the council to hamstring his administration and, at worst, as a direct personal insult. In fact, given the sorry state of the city’s finances, the passage of Tim Eyman’s anti-tax initiatives, and the sinking economy, it was prudent fiscal policy.

When Nickels drafted a new biennial budget earlier this year, he proposed a $1.45 million budget for the mayor’s office, claiming that it was time to restore the funds the council had cut last year. This amount, however, is a 6.5% increase over what Schell spent two years ago, when times were good.

Every other city department was faced with cuts, including the city council’s own administrative office. Nickels’ budget allocated the deepest cuts to arts and social service programs, while he funded a new vanity project: $1.5 million for sidewalk improvements, mostly in Seattle’s north end. Folks who thought they were voting for a Democrat when they voted for Nickels were shocked to find him fiscally to the right of Newt Gingrich.

Fortunately, the City Council has its priorities straight. (Or at least a slim majority of council members do.) Responsive to the voices of their poorer constituents and social service providers who are swamped with clients because of the economic downturn, the council voted to restore many of the cuts made by the mayor. A small list of the most important services saved by the council includes:

–$1.6 million for community health clinics that provide health care for low and no-income folks

–$1 million for smaller human service programs, including Community Voice Mail for homeless folks seeking employment and housing, Solid Ground for Homeless Families, eviction prevention services, and the North Helpline Food Bank (which also serves a lot of working poor and an increasing number of newly laid-off people)

–$500,000 for the Seattle Public Library’s book acquisition program

–$87,000 for childhood literacy programs

–$709,000 for public safety positions, including four crime survivor services positions and six community service officers who deal with everything from helping rape victims find services and support to dealing with minor juvenile offenders

–$75,000 for the Car Recovery Clinic to help low-income car owners whose vehicles have been towed

In addition, the city council transferred $600,000 from the City Light budget to set up a much-needed utility oversight board for the city council, and they voted to restructure some of City Light’s debt to save about $2 million a year in interest payments.

And, finally, the council put the $1.5 million sidewalk improvement program on hold, transferring that money to the social service programs listed above.

Nickels couldn’t prevent his pet project from being cut, but he worked hard to retain the funding to his own office. In recent weeks, social service providers lobbied the council, requesting a reasonable cut of $300,000 from the mayor’s office budget, which would still leave him with a generous 19% increase. Council President Peter Steinbreuck and Budget Chair Jan Drago, however, worked out a deal early last week to cut only $90,000 from the mayor’s budget. But in a meeting that included the whole council last Thursday, Judy Nicastro brought up cuts to the mayor’s budget again, proposing a $200,000 to $300,000 cut. After a vote was taken, Nicastro’s proposal passed 6-3, with Steinbreuck, Drago, and Margaret Pageler voting against it.

Nickels’ deputies were on the scene to witness this vote, and they were quick to take action. Deputy Mayor Tim Ceis passed a note to councilmember Jim Compton. After reading the note, Compton called for a re-vote, saying he had changed his mind. Heidi Wills, in her typical wimpy fashion, also changed her mind. A second vote was taken and Nicastro’s proposal was struck down by 5-4, with Compton and Wills switching sides.

Now, reporters on the scene were naturally interested in finding out what was in that note Ceis passed to Compton. They asked Compton for a copy of it and he refused to release it. After filing a request with the City Clerk, however, they were given the text of the note, which read: “Jim. Because of the council’s vote on the mayor’s office budget, we can’t promise the money for Attack 16 now. Sorry.”

Attack 16 is the name of the fire engine at the Greenlake Fire Station that Compton had worked so hard to scrape together the money to save. When faced with blackmail by the mayor’s deputy, Compton caved in. What’s not clear is why Heidi Wills joined the forces of evil. Wills is not known for taking a strong stand on anything (except when it comes to saving circus elephants). Did the mayor’s office put pressure on her, or did she merely feel the need to vote with the more charismatic men on the council? You decide.

As for Greg Nickels, it’s clear that he isn’t the unassuming “nice guy” that our local political and media pundits had lampooned during his run for mayor against Mark Sidran and Paul Schell. Combine his aggressiveness with an atrocious sense of priorities and a lack of fiscal responsibility (as demonstrated by this farce of a budget and Nickels’ work overseeing Sound Transit when it sank into its financial mire) and Nickels could turn out to be a worse nightmare than Paul Schell.