The city is $24 million in the hole, mainly because city budget planners didn’t do their jobs late last year when they drew up the biennial budget. The main reason for the shortfall is that city budget planners expected revenues to increase by 5% for 2004. Obviously, they believed, along with Wall Street, that the US economy would be zooming ahead full steam by now, although it’s obviously not. Big surprise.

So Mayor Greg Nickels has used this little budget crisis to propose a revised 2004 budget that would shift money around to fund his pet projects at the expense of funding for the Department of Neighborhoods, arts and culture, and our basic utility infrastructure.

To make the budget balance, the city only needs to make about a 1% overall cut in its expenses. Instead of spreading this cut out across all the various departments, Nickels chose to make deep cuts in some departments and shift their funds to other areas.

In the Department of Arts, Culture, and Recreation, the Seattle Center would lose 5% of its funding, while the Office of Arts and Cultural Affairs would lose 8%. Parks and Recreation would lose about 4%. Is it a coincidence that Arts, Culture, Parks, and Recreation are the special province of Councilmember Nick Licata, who has served as the liaison for citizens who can’t get a hearing at City Hall? I don’t think so.

Meanwhile, the Public Safety Department (cops, courts, and fire fighters) takes a tiny cut of less than 1%, which is more in line with what the other departments should have. Obviously, Nickels felt no need to dip into Councilmember Jim Compton’s wallet.

He did, however, take an axe to the Department of Neighborhoods, cutting I by a whopping 17.6%–the largest cut for any line item in the budget. This includes a complete elimination of the Neighborhood Plan Implementation program, loss of all funding for surveying historic assets in city neighborhoods, and the elimination of the Neighborhood Leadership Program, with the smarmy note that the city will “no longer be able to provide leadership training tailored to specific community groups.” This is definitely a nasty payback for the community groups that opposed Nickels’ developer-friendly projects in the University District, Northgate, and South Lake Union.

He also chopped out additional money that citizens could use to get technical information about school construction and neighborhood plans–funds that have shrunk from $1.2 million down to nearly zero. Nickels did manage, however, to reallocate about $177,000 of those funds to “Major Institutions and Project Management,” which is exactly what it sounds like: help for “major institutions” to deal with neighborhood improvements (in other words, a handout for businesses).

Nickels took the opportunity to impose his priorities on another department: Utilities and Transportation. In his budget, City Light loses over $3 million for basic maintenance, including new equipment and materials, tree-trimming, and upgrades that were schedules for the Aurora Avenue Project. City Light will also have to give up some of its repair trucks and will lose $525,000 for dealing with the environmental impact of its various projects and repairs.

Even worse, the city will lose nearly $1 million of desperately needed money for managing sewage overflows that pollute our local waterways–a chronic problem every fall when heavy rains arrive.

Nickels, however, dumps the extra money from all his cuts into the transportation budget to fund his dubious pet projects: $2.7 million in new funds for Sound Transit, $650,000 for his sidewalk upgrade plan, and over $5 million on a brand-new scheme to replace Seattle’s parking meters with “pay station kiosks that control multiple spaces.” Unfortunately, the new kiosks won’t save money in staff time, as you might expect: the $5 million includes 1 new full-time Parking Meter Repair Crew Chief and 1 new full-time Civil Engineering Assistant.

In addition, Nickels shifts $3 million to “complete financing arrangements for the University Ave. Project.” This little line item has no explanation as to why this money is needed now, when the project is already, and quite visibly, completed.

Nickels also allocates $538,000 to fill potholes, but adds a second puzzling line item: $572,000 for new staff and technology which seem to be related to filling those same potholes. Who knew that a few guys with shovels and trowels could be so expensive?

At the same time, Nickels cuts funds to necessary transportation projects by cutting capital spending for specific street improvements by a whopping $17.6 million.

Fortunately, Nickels’ proposed budget is only a draft. The City Council will be picking it apart and making changes in the next 6 weeks. This process will include taking testimony from disgruntled citizens. To find out the schedule for the budget hearings, you can visit the city council’s website at www.ci.seattle.wa.us/council/Budget03_04/Review.htm or call the City Council’s Agenda Information Line at 206-684-8889.

Mayor Nickels’ draft city budget can be found online at www.ci.seattle.wa.us/budget/04proposedbudget/ in case you want to take a peek.