A perfect storm

Blaming three City Council members for the city’s budget woes is unfair

Those who want to blame three current City Council members for the city’s budget deficits are ignoring reality: The problems have been developing for many years and have many causes, some of them far beyond the control of local officials. No individuals bear particular responsibility.

If previous city councils, liberal and conservative alike, had not agreed to overly generous pay and benefits packages for city employees, the deficits and debts would be smaller. And if a mid-1990s City Council, dominated by conservatives, had not dramatically reduced development fees, the private development fund would be in much healthier condition than it is.

Just as nobody could have foretold the Great Recession, and the subsequent loss of sales- and property-tax revenues, nobody knew the state was going to reclaim all of the city’s redevelopment and vehicle-license-fee funds. Nor did anyone know voters would fail to approve the cell-phone tax measure last November, causing the annual loss of nearly a million dollars in revenue.

While all this was happening, of course, residents were insisting that no services be cut—especially fire and police. So city administrators, with the backing of the council, allowed most of the reductions to take place elsewhere—in the planning, housing and general-services departments, for example. Altogether, city staff has been trimmed by close to 20 percent.

Blaming three council members for this mess is not only unfair, it’s also a distraction. The city spends most of its general-fund money on salaries and benefits, and the largest chunk of that—75 percent—goes to police and fire. How is the council going to fill a projected $4.8 million annual deficit without making significant cuts in public safety? That’s the question before us, not who’s responsible for creating the perfect storm that laid waste to city finances.