Budget cuts: The true test for elected officials | Bob Roegner

"Money makes the world go around, the world go around.” So sings Joel Grey in the movie "Cabaret," set in 1930s Berlin. Eight decades later, it is still true, but in today's governmental parlance, it's the "budget" that makes the world go around.

“Money makes the world go around, the world go around.” So sings Joel Grey in the movie “Cabaret,” set in 1930s Berlin. Eight decades later, it is still true, but in today’s governmental parlance, it’s the “budget” that makes the world go around.

State, county and city budgets are in their third year of cuts, and it appears that could be the norm for at least two more years. With revenue tied primarily to property tax and sales tax, the economic downturn has severely hampered government’s ability to provide services that the public expects. It has always been easy to say cut out the “fat.” But if there were any fat, it was probably cut out two budget cycles ago. Most governments are simply running out of things to eliminate and are now cutting core services.

King County is looking at a shortfall of $60 million that could result in significant reductions in services to the poor and infirm, while also reducing the sheriff’s office by 71 positions from its current staffing of 721. State government is again facing reductions. This time, the governor is cutting the 2011-2013 budget by 8 to 10 percent. Even tiny Poulsbo, with only 3,400 residents, is reducing its workforce by 12 percent and is in a battle with its police union. Island County has laid off 60 employees in the past two years and could be facing more. Renton, Auburn and other nearby cities are facing similar challenges. In most jurisdictions, public safety makes up over 60 percent of the budget. As a result, many of the layoffs will include police and sheriff officers because other positions that the public isn’t so protective of were eliminated in previous years’ budgets.

Is the public willing to accept reductions in public safety?

Federal Way City Manager Brian Wilson has proposed a budget that could eliminate more than 40 positions, out of a workforce of 301, over two years. Of those positions, 18 would come from the police department. With 64 percent of the budget attributed to public safety, Wilson felt he had no choice. He and other governmental leaders could face negative public reaction to these cuts, but the alternative of increased taxes is even less desirable to the public, and officials that have to face re-election.

However, Wilson’s role is even more interesting. Because his permanent city position is police chief, he is positioned to accomplish budget cuts that could have less political turmoil than in most jurisdictions where the police chief or sheriff would be opposing the cuts. Secondly, crime has been down 10 of the past 13 years. In Wilson’s professional judgement, if he thought cutting police positions would leave the city unsafe, he wouldn’t recommend it. An additional benefit of Wilson’s position is that he provides “political cover” for Federal Way City Council members to approve the cuts with a minimum of political repercussions. Few elected officials can stand up to public safety unions, and even fewer get this kind of unique timing that Wilson’s dual position provides.

With the recent defeat of Prop. 1 for South King Fire and Rescue, the public demonstrated that even public safety shouldn’t be spared from belt tightening. Council members, some of whom are up for election next year, seem determined to avoid police cuts at all costs. The majority seem to favor taking one-time money from funds intended for other uses to avoid police cuts. However, this may only delay the problem for another year and saddle the new mayor with the same Hobson’s choice. Would the new Federal Way mayor really take on the police union with police cuts in his first year? Will the two candidates for mayor answer this challenge now while there are more options available, or allow themselves to be boxed into a political corner a year from now if the city council defers the hard choice? And will the city council deviate from its current apparent direction? If the hard decisions aren’t made now, we could find that in a few years, the only department left in city government is the police department. How would that affect our quality of life and our ability to attract new business? This is one of those moments when elected officials are tested. It will be interesting to see how, or if, our leaders actually lead.