It may well be that hell would freeze over before this speech was given, with delta flights of porcines gracing the skies, but nonetheless...
A year ago, I was elected and brought passion and enthusiasm to the office of Mayor, with a vision of where I believed we as a city wanted to go. Then I was briefed on the budget.
I had been aware that the economy was in a recession, and that the city was affected. I was not, and do not believe anyone not immersed in the City Hall morass, fully aware of how badly we were affected, nor why.
Even before my predecessors eight long years of petty vindictiveness, interdepartmental infighting, and actual encouragement of empire-building within city departments and organizations, Seattle was a high risk city, financially.
Not through any inherent malice or evil, but worse in some ways, through excesses of kindness and optimism. Our elected officials in the last few decades and we, as citizens of Seattle, fell prey to the belief that we could fix anything if we just threw enough regulation, funding, and counseling at a problem. That our City departments under their various names over the decades knew better where folks wanted to live, work, and how folks could best get get around far better than the folks themselves.
Times were good. The economy was booming and it seemed there was nothing our city couldn't do or weather. We thought it would last forever. We bought more government, services, and hand-holding than we could afford in normal economic times, let alone during a recession.
Then Greg Nickels, with a punishing recession as a chaser, hit.
We still enjoy that recession, and despite any spin to the contrary, I have seen no signs of any alleged recovery - on the best days, it seems that things aren't getting any worse. I treasure those days.
Regrettably, as leaders, we've leaped from one trap into another. Last year we were able to juggle and save most city services and jobs. We used up our margin with a near hiring freeze and other measures, and now, facing a 70 million dollar deficit even with last years cuts in place as we begin the 2011 budget process, only cuts remain an option.
Police, Fire, and EMT Services. Street repair. A functioning Sewage system and a Water system. And, perhaps, the continued provision of electricity via Seattle City Light. These are the core services of a city. A second tier, where things like a Building Department live (to ensure that proposed structures and renovations/improvements don't blow up, burn down, fall over, flood out, or turn to cheese), a Parks Department, and a Facilities division (to keep city buildings sanitary and from falling over) seems prudent.
The trap we've jumped into is that of trying to bully already stressed voters into raising taxes yet again using a policy of "cut core services first and with great lamentation" while leaving various pet programs and sacred cattle largely undisturbed. After all, it's always worked in the past - if we scared you enough, you'd give us pretty much whatever we asked for.
The time for using fear as a bludgeon is past, as is that for most other game-playing. I have asked the Police Chief to review all non-commissioned positions using the standard "would the department stop functioning or crime significantly increase without them" - and whenever the answer is "no", recommend that position to me for termination. I have made similar requests of the leaders of the Fire Department, Seattle Transit Department, Seattle City Light, Seattle Public Utilities, Planning, Parks, and Facilities.
It is my hope that we can achieve, through layoffs and use of volunteers such as reviving the long-abandoned Police and Fire reserve programs, savings of up to 20% without loss of core function. In other areas, I will be questioning whether we can afford entire areas of city endeavor - laying off entire departments is an option clearly on the table outside of core functionality. I formally placed my office this morning on a personnel spending freeze - for each new position hired, a similar number of budget dollars must be cut from other positions via either termination or reductions in hours. If someone leaves, I will be actively questioning if we need to fill their position or if we can somehow limp along with that desk unfilled. I urge Council members to do the same.
As of today, I am also donating 10% of my salary back to the city and encourage other city employees and elected officials to do the same for the duration of this recession or until we have two non-deficit budget years in a row, whichever comes first.
My goal is simple. To cut deeply enough that in 2012 that Seattle enters the budget process at break-even or running a small surplus that I would suggest be used to start refilling our rainy day fund.
I urge those who want to save or support programs to begin raising money for them - as the City doesn't have it now, and looks to have it even less in the near future if the last two cycles are any indicator. I would appeal to organizations such as the Gates Foundation and faith organizations to step forward and resume their rightful role in society, taking up again the tasks that in our zeal to do good, we usurped to our own destruction and if someone doesn't pick up these tasks we can no longer perform, to the injury of many.
I ask the Council to join me in easing the regulatory burden on business in Seattle, all business, not just green businesses. Our citizens need jobs, and we can't hire them all to work for the city, particularly when our revenues are imploding. We need business growth, not business flight to the suburbs. In some cases, we will be best served by suspending some regulations for a period of years, and in others abolishing them all together. We need to give our business community back the room to breathe, make money, and hire workers - and allow new businesses to sprout.
The time for interventionism and micromanagement is past. Now, largely, is the time for us to step out of the way of the people of Seattle and let their native geniuses run free to create wealth and entrepreneurial success..
In other words for us to give up the dream of "making it all better" as government officials, and seize the thorny reality that the most we can hope for is to restrain some of the more egregious abuses and to assist the defeated and injured until they can rejoin the fray.
I'm seizing upon reality. I invite you to join me.