Far fewer potholes filled. Big cuts to snow and ice removal operations. Much slower response times to replace downed street signs and dead streetlights.
Tacoma is facing dramatic cutbacks to its public works services, with across-the-board reductions planned for a range of streets and grounds maintenance programs amid the city’s grim budget reality.
“We’ve got some significant reductions,” Tacoma Public Works Director Dick McKinley told the City Council last week. “ If you have $30 million less in the streets fund, you’re going to have some impacts.”
The painful truth about how City Manager T.C. Broadnax’s proposed 2013-14 budget proposal would affect streets services came into clearer focus last week, when McKinley detailed for the council what the cuts would look like.
Overall, Public Works is poised to take the biggest hit of any city department. It’s facing cuts of nearly $104 million from a $231 million budget adopted two years ago. The 45 percent decrease would translate into lopping what had been a staff of about 250 by more than 80 positions.
Most of the targeted jobs – about 71 in all – consist of engineering and street operations staff covered by the city’s streets fund, where city officials recently identified a $16 million shortfall heading into the next budget cycle.
That’s a city deficit separate and in addition to the overall $63 million shortfall forecast for Tacoma’s general fund over the next two years, Broadnax said.
How did it happen? Largely, by relying on one-time funding sources that have since vanished to pay for ongoing costs.
Known as a special revenue fund, Tacoma’s streets fund is a complex, hybrid account made up of various revenue sources that pays for both capital projects and operating expenses. Among the money passing into the fund is federal grants, the city’s cut of state gas taxes, local real estate excise taxes and a generous subsidy from Tacoma’s general fund.
Different revenues in the streets fund are earmarked for big public works projects – such as the Murray Morgan Bridge rehabilitation – as well as more generally, for street repairs and upkeep.
From the outside, the fund appeared healthy – a $148 million budget adopted two years ago, with about $77 million of that paying for various streets- and grounds-related operations and projects. But when Broadnax and his budget team pulled the fund apart, they say they found an account badly out of balance and unsustainable.
During former City Manager Eric Anderson’s tenure, the fund relied on grants, bond proceeds, cash reserves and other one-time revenue sources to cover continuing expenses, city officials said. At the same time, other recurring funds – namely tax revenues – had dropped amid the dour economy.
“The one-time nature of many of the revenues that went in to create the fund are no longer there,” Broadnax said. “So, there had to be significant reductions in that area short of passing those costs on to other general fund areas.”
Broadnax looked at potentially spreading the streets fund’s impacts across all city departments as a way to blunt the pain. But he didn’t like what he saw.
When combined with the existing budget gap facing the general fund, the streets fund’s added spending deficits would have pushed across-the-board cuts to all city departments to 18 percent – up from the 15 percent target Broadnax requested from all departments.
It also would have meant another $8 million in proposed cuts to the city’s two biggest departments – police and fire. Already, both public safety departments are facing more than $7 million apiece in reductions, with each expected to trim 29 positions from their books.
“At the point in time when we began to look at the deficits in the streets fund, I had made the determination that there were no more cuts that I felt would be suitable for police and fire, given the importance of those areas,” Broadnax said.
Instead, publics works would have to take the hit – or, as Broadnax put it, “the expenditure reductions were borne quite heavily in the streets fund itself.”
The proposed streets fund budget for 2013-14 comes in at $47.6 million – about $30 million less than the last one. About $18 million of the proposed fund – or 38 percent – would be subsidized by the general fund.
In terms of job cutbacks, the slashed fund means more than 20 vacancies, and nearly 50 slots now filled are on the chopping block.
In terms of service cutbacks, it means a long list of unpleasant truths.
Grounds crews would mow and clean city-maintained parks every other week instead of every week. Medians, traffic islands and roundabouts would be mowed two to three times per year instead of three to four times per year.
The city will end its “hanging basket program,” in which street crews put up and maintained some 92 baskets throughout downtown to make the city look nicer.
Non-essential street signs that go missing or fall down likely would take three weeks to replace, instead of the week it usually takes now.
Burned-out street lamp bulbs that typically take three days to replace instead would take five to seven days.
And some services that are routinely done now – painting curbs and crosswalks, for instance – would only be done if the city receives requests.
As for street repairs and maintenance, expect far less of that, too.
“We’ll do significantly less pothole patching,” McKinley said.
The number of temporary pothole repairs would drop from the roughly 67,000 patches done throughout Tacoma over the past two years to about 3,000 over the next two. Permanent pothole repairs would fall from 11,500 during the past budget cycle to about 5,500 during the next one.
Chip-sealing and crack-sealing work on major arterial streets – essentially, laying down a rock-oil resurfacing mix or a liquid sealant to protect against water damage – would be cut in half. Overlays on residential streets – pavement resurfacing done to smooth over rough roads – would drop from about 120 to 160 blocks covered in 2011-12 to 60 to 80 blocks in 2013-14.
“Unfortunately, if people in Tacoma think our roads are bad now, they are only going to get worse,” Councilman Ryan Mello said Tuesday. “It’s not because they are not a priority. It’s because of a revenue shortfall.”
The one piece of good news for streets, McKinley said, is that the city expects to increase sealing work for residential streets – from about 10 blocks to 75 blocks in the next budget. Such road maintenance work is cheaper than pavement overlays, but can also extend a street’s life, he said.
The city’s snow and ice removal operations also would take a hit, dropping from 19 trucks in service for major roads and secondary arterials to nine trucks focused primarily on main arterials.
The cutbacks come at a time when Tacoma already faces some $800 million in deferred road maintenance costs the city can’t afford.
For months, city officials have examined strategies to find sustainable funding solutions for its basic streets infrastructure needs. Among the ideas, council members will consider imposing a $20 city car tab fee to create a recurring revenue stream dedicated for street maintenance, including about $3.8 million projected to be raised for Broadnax’s 2013-14 budget plan.
Broadnax already plans to include such car tab fee revenues in his streets fund proposal. To meet his plan, council members would have to approve the fee by year’s end. If they don’t, the city likely would have to make even more cuts to the streets fund – and to public works services – to make up the difference.
“That funding is a significant chunk toward being able to do the chip seals and cap seals on residential and arterials,” McKinley said.
But even with that new revenue stream, the city’s basic roadway infrastructure problems are likely to only worsen over the next budget cycle, given the dramatic service cutbacks.
“The public is not going to see some drastic deterioration, (but) a continuation of what they’ve seen for the last 35 years,” McKinley said. “It’s not going to get better; it probably will get a little worse.”
Given the deep service cuts, Tacoma officials plan an outreach campaign to let citizens know how they can help maximize the city’s dwindling public works resources. It would involve simple but important messages, city officials said, such as asking citizens to avoid driving over potholes and not littering.
“This is not a flip of the switch,” McKinley said. “It will be a long-term conversation with the community about how to do this and to help it work better.”email@example.com