Morning Fizz: Treading Water
Caffeinated News & Gossip featuring: mysterious leaves of absence, unanticipated expenses, permanent property taxes, K-12 funding, funny voice mails, and more.
1. Early in April, Fizz had the news that Mayor Ed Murray's top policy staffer on police reform, former City Council member Tina Podlodowski, was suddenly on leave for health reasons.
Asked about her current status, Murray's office says Podlodowski is still on leave, is still on the payroll, and—when asked if they were replacing her (Deputy Mayor Hyeok Kim and new chief of staff Chris Gregorich are currently filling in for on the mayor's supposed top priority)—said only that "Tina will be back in some capacity."
Podlodowski did not return our email.
2. The revenue forecast for Mayor Ed Murray's first term is way less of a bummer than the one his predecessor Mike McGinn had to preside over (short version: $40 million gap in 2009; midyear budget cuts; massive layoffs; finger-pointing all around), but it isn't exactly rosy, either.
"We're in much more of a treading water place," city budget director Ben Noble says. "There's no money dropping from heaven. There's no way to add except by cutting."
According to the forecast released by the city budget office yesterday, revenues are indeed growing again, thanks in large part to lots of major construction projects and a more than healthy tech sector.
The problem is that costs are growing even faster, with expenditures on things like retirement and health care exceeding revenues by about $25 million a year for the next three years. The city has enough money in its reserves to make up the difference in the short run, but in the longer term, the gap between money in and money out means that city departments are going to have to "underspend" to avoid making the kind of cuts we saw during the recession.
Put in more specific terms: The city ended 2013 with $14 million more than anticipated in its general fund, but that money can't be spent on new programs or employees. Instead, half of it goes into the rainy day fund, and half into "unanticipated expenses" in 2014, and to pay for "ongoing budget challenges for 2015 and 2016," according to a presentation by the budget office.
Bottom line: Murray won't be able to propose any shiny new programs unless he also proposes cutting some dull old ones. But he doesn't have it nearly as bad as McGinn did. Compared to McGinn's first term, "we're in much more of a treading water place," city budget director Ben Noble says. "There's no money dropping from heaven. There's no way to add except by cutting."
3. The city, facing a $265 million maintenance backlog, still needs money to fund parks, though.
And yesterday, with a unanimous 8-0 vote, the council approved a new mechanism (proposed by Murray) to fund them: A permanent property tax as opposed to the current levy that voters are asked to approve every six years. The current levy, which was up this year, raises about $24 million annually from a property tax.
The new permanent "Parks District," which would impose a higher property tax—37 cents per $1,000 of assessed value, or about $148 a year for the owner of a $400,000 house, compared to the current $76—would raise about $48 million a year. The levy authorizes the parks district to impose a tax of up to 75 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value.
The measure will be on the ballot in August.
4. Speaking of funding: With the Washington State Supreme Court's April 30 deadline looming on the state legislature to present a K-12 funding plan (the court said in January that the state had fallen short on meeting the McCleary decision to fully fund schools by 2018), a bipartisan legislative task force will issue a report today.
No word on if it will be a bipartisan or divided report (UPDATE: It will be a bipartisan report); Republicans, pushing more reforms, and Democrats pushing $200 million in addition K-12 funding next biennium by closing tax breaks, diverged on K-12 funding this year. They ended up putting about $58 million more in K-12 funding this biennium (they'd already put in an extra $1 billion), still leaving them about $400 million short of the Court's 2013-15 biennium total goal.
With $1.5 billion in teacher salary costs factored in, the legislature still needs to find $5 billion in additional revenue over the next two biennium to meet the Court's McCleary mandate, including $2.3 billion extra next biennium.
5. State Rep. Gerry Pollet (D-46, N. Seattle)—whose legislation to require notice for small-lot developments we wrote about yesterday—has Fizz's favorite outgoing voice mail:
"Hi. This is Gerry Pollet. Thanks for calling. Please leave your name, message, and all that personal identifying information that the NSA already has just because you called me, and I'll get back to you as soon as possible."
Who said the art of the funny voice mail message was dead?
6. The latest installment of Josh's Urban Upgrade column for the magazine is out, and it includes this philosophical opening line about urban planning: "Urban planners and musicians have the same goal: They want things to last."
And it closes with this bit of futurism: "One day the only thing musicians may need to bring to a club is a thumb drive."