Tough choices: Tacoma faces some big budget cuts

Citizens will feel the economic pinch next year as part of the proposed 2003-2004 City of Tacoma budget that City Manager Ray Corpuz presented to the City Council during Tuesday’s study session.

“This is probably the most difficult fiscal challenge we’ve faced in a decade,” Corpuz said, referring to the struggle to fill a $19 million gap in the city budget’s $334 general fund.

All departments had been asked by Corpuz to prepare for cuts between 5 percent and 8 percent.

With an eye toward maintaining essential public services, some departments were hit harder than others.

Police and fire took the smallest hits in terms of percentage, with a reduction of 2.11 percent and 2.8 percent respectively.

That means the police department is facing two layoffs and leaving two positions vacant.

The fire department faces four layoffs, the loss of eight positions due to attrition and leaving one position vacant.

Percentage-wise, general services took the biggest hit at 11.10 percent, meaning that department would lay off one person and keep two positions vacant.

“Most of it is structural,” Corpuz said of the shortfall, attributing the bulk of the problem to a pair of recent tax-cutting initiatives: I-747 and I-695.

Initiative 747 limits government collection of property taxes each year, while Initiative 695 prompted the lowering of the Motor Vehicle Excise Tax.

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

The cuts would fill in about $15 million of the hole, Corpuz said, with the rest filled by raising various fees.

The preliminary budget presented includes raising prices on construction permit fees, the implementation of a false alarm fee and charging more for when the Tacoma Fire Department has to respond to a medical emergency.

Other ideas tossed around by the council, but not included in the preliminary budget were a gambling tax, an admission tax on nonprofit entertainment centers and cancelling a planned reduction in taxes on service industry businesses.

The latter idea, which would free up about $900,000 was a point of disagreement between Mayor Bill Baarsma and Corpuz.

Baarsma said he liked the idea and indicated he would probably bring it before the council in the next few weeks.

Seeking to maintain Tacoma’s business-friendly environment, Corpuz said not going ahead with the planned reduction would hurt businesses in an already weak economy.

Some council members suggested using that – and other – extra revenue to offset the controversial $4 million cut to Metro Parks, an independent park district.

The city’s total 2003-2004 preliminary budget total is $2,049,620,829.

The general fund, which pays for basic city services, makes up about 16 percent of the total budget.

“We need to keep our eye on the changing dynamics when forming the budget,” said Diane Supler, budget director.

Corpuz put the city’s economic quandary succinctly: “So, we need to live within our means.”

Baarsma pointed out that it’s important to remember this is a preliminary budget and that nothing is final yet.

The first reading of the budget ordinance is scheduled for Nov. 25, with a second reading set for Dec. 10, at which time it is anticipated the council will vote on the 2003-2004 biennial budget.

The law requires the city manager to present a draft-balanced budget by the end of October.