Way back in 2005, then-City Manager Eric Anderson delivered a blunt message to the Tacoma City Council: City government faced a widening crevasse between its income and spending.
Eight years later, a task force of very smart people has just delivered another blunt message: Tacoma is still facing a widening crevasse between income and spending. Its projected spending growth in coming years is at least double its projected revenues.
If the council theoretically did nothing, the disconnect would translate into a deficit as high as $45.2 million in the 2015-2016 biennium and another as high as $72.8 million in the biennium right behind it, according to the task force.
But the council must do something, if only because Washington law forbids deficit spending. Past councils attacked the spending problem, but not seriously enough: They papered over gaps with one-time money grabs and optimistic economic assumptions – tactics that perpetuated the structural chasm and merely postponed the reckoning.
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Because it must balance its budget, Tacoma won’t become another Detroit. The real threat is that it will have to slash services – including police protection – so deeply that the city would become a far less livable place.
Creating the Fiscal Sustainability Task Force last spring was an exceptionally responsible move on the part of Mayor Marilyn Strickland and City Manager T.C. Broadnax. Its members included astute representatives of unions, businesses, citizens and nonprofits. They have given the city an outline of 16 austerity measures that the council – and city employees – should pursue to keep the city solvent. These include:
• Bringing down the cost of health care insurance for city employees. Existing medical benefits are so generous that the city could be penalized $12 million in 2018 for maintaining “Cadillac” plans.
• Persuading unions to settle with raises that don’t exceed increases in the cost of living – and hunting for actual reductions in salaries and benefits.
• Finding cost-saving efficiencies in Tacoma’s expensive fire department.
The burden of the task force’s recommendations would fall largely on employees. In part that’s because past councils have been so generous in accommodating union demands. Mostly it’s because the council now has few other places to go. Salaries and benefits account for nearly 70 percent of the operating fund. The city is already maxed out on most of its taxing authority.
There’s no magic bailout money out there somewhere. To its credit, this City Council has already made unpopular choices on city spending. That’s a beginning; now it has to make more.