Critiquing McGinn's Budget-Cutting Plan

By Erica C. Barnett September 16, 2009


Mayoral candidate Mike McGinn released a proposal earlier this week to tackle an estimated $72 million revenue shortfall at the city. Riding on the train back from his light-rail press conference yesterday, I had an opportunity to talk to McGinn at length about his proposal, which I had quite a few questions about. What follows is a point-by-point look at McGinn's proposal.

1.Roll back the "politicization" of city government by cutting strategic advisor positions.

The first point in McGinn's budget-cutting plan is to cut in half the number of "strategic advisors" at the city. In his plan, he described these workers as "political appointees," and suggested rolling their number back to 2001 levels, a reduction of about 200 jobs.

However, I pointed out, "strategic advisor" is one of the most generic job titles in the city. It refers not just to mayoral appointees, but to civil engineers, public outreach and media relations staff, and every person who works for the city council's central staff. Is McGinn really proposing the elimination of those positions, many of which are crucial to the functioning of city government?

"No, which is why we're reducing [the number] by half" instead of just eliminating the classification, McGinn says. "There is a role for the strategic advisor job classification and there’s a purpose for it, but I believe there was a pattern of expanding that classification in the Nickels administration ... developing a category of employees who reported to the mayor" directly.

However, many strategic advisor positions are paid for from other sources (like the 2006 Bridging the Gap levy) outside the general fund, meaning that cutting them wouldn't make a dent in the $72.5 million shortfall.

[caption id="attachment_14253" align="alignright" width="350" caption="Mike McGinn"]Mike McGinn[/caption]

2. Consolidate functions that are duplicated in various agencies, such as personnel.

McGinn's second proposal was to "consolidate functions" that are duplicated by people in various departments, reducing the number of IT, human resources, and public information staff; rolling public information officers into the neighborhoods department; and finding new efficiencies (i.e. cuts) at City Light and Seattle Public Utilities.

My questions about that part of his proposal, I told McGinn, are fourfold: How much efficiency will he get out of cutting positions, like IT, that keep essential city functions (like the computer system) going? How does he plan to cut human resources staff, given that that would require buy-in from powerful city unions?  Why would he move public outreach and media relations into the neighborhoods department, given that public information and media officials have expertise on particular departments, and nothing to do with Neighborhoods? And: How will cuts in City Light and SPU help the general fund, when neither agency is funded by the general fund?

McGinn's response: It doesn't make sense to have both centralized and decentralized positions, because it means some people are doing the same job. Whether it makes more sense to decentralize positions that are currently under the mayor's control or centralize positions that are currently spread through the departments is an open question.

As for the city's powerful unions, McGinn says, "We will work with the unions to find efficiencies"—an optimistic position, given that the unions are one reason the city's personnel policies are so arcane.

McGinn also told me that in spite of what his press release said, he has no intention of moving public information officers (as opposed to community relations staff) into the Department of Neighborhoods.

And he didn't address the issue of City Light and SPU, saying only, "This isn't a budget plan [to get rid of the entire $72 million shortfall]. It's pointing out ways we can get some efficiencies.

3. Reform contracting and procurement by getting rid of no-bid contracts and prohibiting former employees from being rehired at higher salaries after they retire.

The third part of McGinn's plan— a promise to eliminate no-bid contracts (which the city allows for projects under $260,000) and prohibit city employees from retiring and then being rehired at higher salaries—would produce only marginal savings, since both proposals deal with relatively low-dollar programs.

4. Farm out forecasting on major budget assumptions, such as revenue and inflation forecasts, to an independent forecaster.

Finally, I told McGinn that I thought his last proposal—requiring independent forecasting of all key budget assumptions, including revenue and inflation forecasts—would actually cost more than the current operating procedure, under which finance director Dwight Dively provides budget information to both the  mayor and the city council. Given that independent forecasting wouldn't save money, and given that Dively has a good relationship with both the mayor and the council, was there a good reason for contracting that job out? Did McGinn simply not trust Dively?

"It's not a criticism of the current forecasting; I think Dwight's doing a good job," McGinn said. "I just think it's more appropriate for that forecasting function not to be directly under the mayor's control, for the benefit of the council, for the mayor, and for the citizens."

Today's Morning Fizz is brought to you by Washington Conservation Voters.


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