News Column

Tacoma short by millions in six-year budget outlook

June 10, 2014

By Kate Martin, The News Tribune (Tacoma, Wash.)

June 10--What's black and white and red all over?

The city of Tacoma's six-year financial forecast.

Tuesday the Tacoma City Council heard an unflinching report from the finance department. If the city continues spending as it has into the future, it will spend more than it earns from taxes and fees.

The only good news in the forecast came early in the presentation. By the end of this year the city of Tacoma's budget will be $14.2 million in the black. This is because, as city Budget Officer Tadd Wille said, the city council has cut spending and the city has earned more money than expected.

In the past few months the council has heard better and better news about the 2015-2016 two-year budget cycle. Last year the city council convened a task force to help it solve its budget woes. The task force learned then that the city had a $26 million budget deficit for 2015-16.

Wille told the council in May that the budget gap had shrunk to $8 million to $12 million. He told the council that number for the 2015-16 budget has shrunk again: to $6.4 million.

The gap grows in future years:

--$13.2 million in 2017-18

--$19.5 million in 2019-20

One big caveat: None of these figures include deferred maintenance. The city skimped on replacing old vehicles and maintaining buildings as a way to save money.

--Vehicle replacement

--Building maintenance

--Information technology maintenance and upgrades

--Street maintenance

The Tacoma Dome's seats are 31 years old. The fire department's buildings alone require $10.4 million in maintenance and repairs. The city's IT department wants to relocate its data servers.

And let's not forget about our crumbling streets:

Wille's presentation shows half of the city's residential streets are either failed or poor (compared to 44 percent of the arterial streets). Meanwhile, the city's budget for street maintenance has dropped from $15.6 million in 2008-08 to $7.5 million in this budget season. When including deferred maintenance and upgrades to the city's already sizable budget gaps:

--$33 million in 2015-16

--$38 million in 2017-18

--$41 million in 2019-20

Looking forward, Wille said the city is tracking the increases to salaries and benefits. The finance department is also asking each council member to fill out a survey on priorities. Questions include whether a particular service, such as crime prevention, street repairs and pedestrian infrastructure exceeds, meets or does not meet community expectations. The worksheet also asks whether the item is most important, important or less important.

Community members could also fill out similar surveys during public budget workshops, held in July and August. Formal budget hearings will be held in October and November, with the council adopting the 2015-16 budget in December.


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Source: News Tribune (Tacoma, WA)

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