After months of development and community outreach, the Tacoma City Council unanimously approved its two-year budget Tuesday night. The vote came after a full agenda that included about 60 people speaking on a variety of topics that included the budget and tenant rights, which also rode Tuesday’s agenda.
The 2019-20 Biennial Budget of $3.5 billion covers everything from roads and infrastructure projects to the city’s $514.6 million General Fund that covers government services that range from library operations to public safety programs. The budget adds police and fire services while expanding affordable housing and homelessness programs. It does these fund increases while also setting out a plan to fund the city’s long-deferred maintenance needs. The city is also increasing its cash reserves to 16.7 percent of its budget, which is about two months of operating expenses. The current budget came in above revenue projections and below expenses, so the savings will flow into that reserve account. The General Fund costs are also tied to recurring taxes and revenues.
“Thanks to careful, ongoing reviews of expenses along with targeted reductions, the city will maintain or expand existing core service levels in the 2019-20 proposed Biennial Budget,” said City Manager Elizabeth Pauli. “The 2019-20 proposed Biennial Budget reflects the city’s ongoing commitment to meeting its goals in a fiscally responsible way.”
The Tacoma Police Department’s $175.5 million slice of the General Fund includes dollars for added patrols and $1 million for five new officers to join the 340 uniformed officers on the force. The department will also get $500,000 to increase its investigations division, add a digital evidence-tracking system and buy new crime-scene mapping tools. A new sergeant’s position will supervise the recruiting and hiring of minority officers as part of the department’s goal of increasing under-represented hires within the ranks by 20 percent. Another $500,000 goes to implement the community recommendations on police reforms borne from the Project PEACE initiative.
Changes to the Tacoma Fire Department include dollars to provide a 24-hour engine response out of the North End’s Station 13, $1.2 million to replace two fire engines and $1 million to develop a long-term strategy for the entire stock of fire department facilities. The plan is needed because the department has 24 facilities that largely date back to the middle of the last century. One new fire station will be added to the list with $1.7 million set for the construction of a new facility on the Tideflats, for example. The city’s funding joins $4.5 million from Puget Sound Energy, which was a key part of its development agreement for the controversial liquefied natural gas plant. The department’s total budget will be $125.2 million.
Some other highlights in the budget include $1.2 million to create an Affordable Housing Trust Fund for Tacoma to help construct affordable housing developments as well as hire two people to run the city’s housing programs. There is also $221,000 for a Neighborhood Planning Program to improve engagement about issues involving residential and commercial growth as the city continues to experience a building boom that can provide jobs but also lead to property increases that can price residents out of the city.
To aid in that effort, the budget also sets aside $200,000 to assist low-income tenants with covering relocation costs into other affordable housing options when their rents rise faster than their incomes. The budget also includes $2.3 million to continue operation of the city’s Stability Site on Puyallup Avenue for at least another year, which provides shelter to more than 80 people each night. The site was created 18 months ago, after the council declared that the number of makeshift homeless camps around the city had created a public health emergency.
Many members of the public spoke up about the need for a full library on the Hilltop rather than just the planned “micro library” at the People’s Community Center as well as on the Eastside for $200,000 that is part of the budget.
Councilmember Keith Blocker said the “micro library,” also called a kiosk, on the Hilltop was not included in the budget as a long-term fix.
“That was never our intent,” he said, noting that it was included as a first step toward a full branch of the Tacoma Public Library. That process will take millions of dollars and several years. A limited library now, he argued, was better than nothing. “The Hilltop community has spoken to me loud and clear.”
He then talked about growing up in Philadelphia, where he moved 25 times as a youth and attended five elementary schools. He values libraries not only as civil anchors of their community but also for the roles they play in personal education and entertainment, a fact he experienced when borrowing books to momentarily escape the struggles of being a homeless child. He noted that many of his books never made it back to the library.
Blocker, however, noted that he opted to spend more money on the immediate need of the homelessness crisis.
Mayor Victoria Woodards praised Blocker for his commitment to the Hilltop neighborhood and echoed his comments about the temporary micro library that it will be more than a vending machine for books. The plan will include wifi access and computers and programs the community will be able to help develop. It is also a first step toward something more substantial.
“It will take years to build a library even if we found a site tomorrow,” she said. “I hope we don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.”
The drafting of the 600-page budget came as part of a revenue and expenditures review that culminated in October with Pauli resenting her proposed budget, followed by a series of department-by-department presentations during study sessions and four public comment meetings and public hearings.
The detailed information about the ins and outs of the budget is available at cityoftacoma.org/budget.