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Sacrificing cities is the wrong answer to state’s budget woes | Guest column
When it comes to cutting the state’s $1 billion budget deficit, legislators are faced with a lot of unpleasant choices. Much like household budgeting, though, some cuts are more responsible than others.
Some state legislators are forgetting that budget cuts need to reflect societal priorities. The House budget proposal released Feb. 21 calls for reducing revenues to Washington’s 281 cities by $86 million. That would represent a 33 percent cut in state revenues to cities, a proposal that will hit local law enforcement hard and make many communities less safe.
The Senate budget, to be released Tuesday, is expected to offer less drastic reductions to cities, rumored to be around $50 million. Even at this lower level, most cities are still struggling with dwindling revenues and cannot make up the state cuts.
For several years running, cities like Federal Way have been cutting their spending by reducing staff and finding less costly ways to provide services through “frugal innovation.” City budgets have little room left to give, and balancing the state’s budget with a disproportionate share of cuts to cities will unavoidably harm public safety.
Washington’s cities employ 63 percent of the law enforcement and fire personnel in the state. In a recent survey of cities, 86 percent responded that cuts at the state level would negatively impact the local criminal justice system and the ability to keep communities safe.
The fact is that most of Washington’s cities have been cutting their own budget for several years as they’ve struggled to deal with the recession. Since 2009, Washington cities have reduced personnel by 5.7 percent, while utilizing furloughs and other cost-cutting measures.
Many cities have cut deeper already. In Federal Way, we have had to reduce staff by 50 — that’s 15 percent of our workforce — since 2008. Renton has decreased staff 9 percent, while Kent has reduced its work force by 11 percent in the previous two years.
It’s unknown just how many police officers statewide would lose their jobs under the proposals being floated. With cuts in the range of $50 million to $86 million, however, it is certain to be in the hundreds. The impact on public safety will be staggering. It’s just bad public policy to so radically weaken public safety, especially at a time when communities are already struggling.
The House budget proposal would cost the City of Federal Way approximately $850,000 annually. Federal Way had to turn down a federal grant, which would have funded three police officers, because of the uncertainty created by the House budget proposal.
Some in the Legislature have suggested that providing an option for cities to raise taxes locally would soften the impact of the cuts. That would be chasing bad policy with even more bad policy.
While some wealthier cities might have the appetite to pass local tax measures to support public safety or community services like libraries, most cities would not feel they could pass that burden on to their community. Federal Way and other cities have avoided raising taxes because of the damage it would do to citizens and businesses who are trying to keep their heads above water, as it is.
In fact, in Federal Way we have even reduced taxes to keep some businesses running and their employees working. The state must look to reduce its costs further, and avoid cuts that directly impact the cities and public safety.
As the Legislature wrestles with the budget deficit, they should keep in mind that cities are the last stop in the budget food chain. When federal and state governments cut their budgets, they pass those cuts to lower levels of government. When the cuts hit the city budgets, there’s no other government to pass it on to. The pain lands squarely in the local communities served by those cities. When city budgets reduce police on the street, the citizens are directly affected. When cities shutter or reduce operation of parks, community centers, senior centers and libraries, the community feels those cuts in the form of reduced quality of life.
My city council colleagues and I understand all too well the difficult challenge state legislators face in balancing the budget. While we accept that local revenues will be reduced to some extent, disproportionate cuts would recklessly endanger local communities.
Dini Duclos is a member of the Federal Way City Council and former CEO of the Multi-Service Center. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.