The nine members of the Tacoma City Council were strangely serene as they listened to this week’s presentation about how screwed up their finances were.
By strange I don’t mean they’re rarely serene, because they aren’t exactly an excitable bunch – not prone to table thumping or fist shaking or even voice raising.
Instead I mean that it was a strange time to be serene. More cuts to close another $63 million shortfall in a two-year budget of $400 million, and 217 job losses, of which 150 are currently filled with city workers, the rest currently vacant. A bunch of those are the employees who rank highest among both residents and politicians – cops and firefighters.
But this council has finally moved into the final stage of grief. You know, acceptance. Each page of newish City Manager T.C. Broadnax’s PowerPoint presentation included something ugly, some cut that would draw wails and emails. Yet none was unexpected and none brought anger. Union leaders, too, could not deny that the problems are real.
All that already happened a year ago, when this council first seemed to recognize that it wasn’t special, that a recession that was deeper and longer than anyone expected wasn’t skipping over Tacoma.
Some had earlier questioned how their little chunk of the nation was able to survive without deep cuts, without numerous layoffs. But they didn’t question it so much because they doubted it was true. It was more to wonder at the skills of the then-city manager.
Even in the spring of 2009 when the state budget was in shambles, with legislators and their governor already deep into bargaining and depression, then-City Manager Eric Anderson assured his bosses that the city was not in as bad a shape. He even stroked their egos, telling them “there isn’t a city council in the country I’d rather go through a recession with.”
The feeling was surely mutual as late as early 2010, when Anderson said, “I am confident in telling you we will be balanced at the end of 2010.”
Again, councilmembers shook their heads in wonder at their good fortune. Several relayed conversations with state politicians and with Pierce County officials who doubted Tacoma’s immunity from the recession. Again, Anderson explained they were different, that having two-year budget rather than an annual spending plan provided flexibility to ride out the inevitable ups and downs. Again, the council accepted the explanation because, after all, who doesn’t like being told they’re special?
Yet by the next summer, the effects of the recession still lingered and Anderson had lost the confidence of the council. By waiting for better times that hadn’t materialized, cuts would have to be deeper, councilmembers said.
Many councilmembers felt fooled and some tried to put the blame for a head-in-the-sand budget outlook on Anderson’s convincing-but-inaccurate reassurances. But others in the region had much less sympathy for that narrative. Maybe Pierce County Executive Pat McCarthy wasn’t referencing Tacoma last week when she unveiled her own frugality budget. But probably she was.
“We are not relying on grants or bailouts or wishes for better times,” McCarthy said in a statement with “bailout” unquestionably referring to a pair of federal grants aimed at saving some police and fire jobs.
Tacoma’s politicians aren’t apologizing for winning, figuring the county and others could have applied for those grants. Neither are they backing off the comforting conclusion that they were less-than-well-served by Anderson.
That came out Tuesday after Broadnax’s presentation. Mayor Marilyn Strickland said his skill at handling tough budget situations was one reason she voted to hire him last year. And Councilman Jake Fey made a not-so-veiled reference to Anderson when he complimented Broadnax for “the lack of smoke and mirrors in here.”
I have no reason to doubt Broadnax’s facts, especially as they reflect a still-struggling economy and mirror the budget issues facing other governments. Given deep cuts made by the city manager he worked for in San Antonio, Broadnax was well into acceptance well before he arrived in town.Peter Callaghan: 253-597-8657 peter.callaghan@ thenewstribune.com blog.thenewstribune.com/politics @CallaghanPeter