Tacoma's budget shortfall grows

The Tacoma City Council got some more bad news regarding Tacoma’s budget at yesterday’s study session, learning the 2003-2004 general fund shortfall has grown from $18 million to over $19 million.

A standing room only crowd heard that city services and 70 full-time jobs could be lost as the city looks for ways to close the budget gap.

“I guess this is the session where the rubber hits the road,” Mayor Bill Baarsma said.

The 70 positions looked at for cuts are spread across several departments, with between 20 percent and 25 percent of those jobs being unfilled or vacant, said budget director Diane Supler.

The fire department could lose up to the equivalent of 26 full-time positions, while the police department could lose up to 16.

“There’s a lot of multiple issues we’re looking at,” Fire Chief Eileen Lewis said.

Police Chief David Brame, who is looking to keep officers on the street through reassignment, said, “It’s people before projects.”

Calling this the most difficult budget he has ever seen during his service to Tacoma, Baarsma attributed the city’s budget woes to a pair of recent tax-cutting initiatives – I-747 and I-695 – and a bad economy that has hit Washington state especially hard.

The recently-passed Initiative 747 limits governments from collecting no more than 1 percent more in property taxes each year.

There was also less new construction than expected, which also contributed to less property taxes collected, Supler said.

Initiative 695, which eliminated the Motor Vehicle Excise Tax in favor of $30 car tabs, was approved by voters in 1999. (The Washington State Supreme Court declared the initiative unconstitutional in 2000, but the state Legislature passed a law essentially reinstating that portion of the initiative.)

Those two initiatives cost the city about $12.5 million, Baarsma said.

City Council members reviewed a series of proposed programmatic cuts of 5.5 percent that would save a total of $15.8 million.

With other proposed cuts – including a controversial $4 million reduction to Metro Parks – the city still ends up $1.1 million short, Supler said.

She presented revenue options to total $2.9 million, including permit fee increases, cancelling reduction of the B&O service tax and the implementation of false alarm fees.

“There’s a lot that needs to be flushed out,” Supler said.

City Council members raised the possibility of considering other money-making operations that have come up in the past, including a utility tax, a gambling tax and an admission tax to nonprofit entertainment centers.

“I hope we’ll take another hard look at those revenue options,” said Councilman Doug Miller.

Councilman Kevin Phelps suggested taking a two-tier approach, “backloading” cuts in the second year of the two-year budget, allowing time to perhaps work out some revenue options with the state Legislature.

City Manager Ray Corpuz wasn’t so sure.

He characterized the city’s budget problems as structural, saying they will only compound over time if not dealt with now.

“I’m not certain we can count on the Legislature,” he added.

The city has some hard decisions to make, he said, with the next two biennium budgets being affected.

“It won’t necessarily be an across-the-board reduction,” Corpuz said of filling Tacoma’s budget hole.

Deputy Mayor Sharon McGavick took a more direct approach.

“I believe we need to face it,” she said. “We need to cut now and we need to cut deep.”

Despite the seriousness of the problem, council members managed to find some humor in the situation.

“I’m willing to give up broadcasting city council meetings – immediately,” Miller said, eliciting laughter from the crowd.

Baarsma said basic services will remain the top priority in budget considerations, but noted there will be a price to pay.

“I think everyone’s going to feel these cuts,” he said.

The City Council will meet weekly to discuss the budget, Baarsma reported.

“The budget is a moving target,” he said.

A budget workshop is tentatively scheduled for Oct. 24, with the City Council voting on the budget in December.