Special Reports

Brame costs saddle budget

The Tacoma City Council might shift unspent money from the police budget to help cover the costs of the city's soaring legal defense bill in the David Brame case, which is now projected to reach $1.9 million.

That was one option presented to council members Tuesday afternoon during a midterm review of the city's two-year, $341 million operating budget.

At the moment, Tacoma's finances appear to be in good shape. Overall revenue is $1.3 million higher than forecast for this period despite a steep drop in gambling tax revenue, and city spending is at or below budget.

But some substantial, unplanned expenses are looming in 2004, including the cost of defending the city against a lawsuit filed by the family of Crystal Brame, who was killed in April by her husband, then Tacoma's police chief.

The City Council will soon consider signing a $1.7 million contract with its outside legal firm to cover legal costs up to the time of a trial. That's in addition to the $245,000 the council has already approved.

In addition, council members are just beginning to learn the details about the higher-than-anticipated costs of operating the city's new computer system.

A new computer department, known as Business Information Systems, is projected to cost $15 million next year, about $8 million more than expected.

City staff members filled most of the gap through transfers from other areas, but there is still a gap of about $520,000.

Councilman Mike Lonergan expressed dismay that no one predicted the higher costs last year when the city was assembling the budget.

"I want to say to the city manager that something is horribly wrong with this picture," Lonergan said.

And health care costs are also expected to rise substantially next year - as much as 32 percent - though it isn't clear yet how much of those additional costs will be paid for by the city and how much will be borne by employees.

Council members will continue the budget review next week and are expected to vote in December on possible adjustments.

One option council members might consider for offsetting some of the mounting legal expenses would be shifting $1.2 million from the police budget, said budget director Diane Supler.

The money is available because the police department has been operating with several vacancies on the force this year. There are 22 vacancies, though department leaders are working to fill them.

Revenue from property, sales, utility and cellular phone taxes and zoning and building permit fees are all ahead of projections.

Gambling tax revenue is expected to fall $2 million below budget expectations, however, and taxes from natural gas use and fees charged for police responding to false burglar alarms also are expected to decline.

With gambling tax revenue falling short of projections, Lonergan wants to consider reviving plans to raise the city's gambling tax.

The council was poised last year to raise the tax from 11 percent to 15 percent but held off at the request of a business owner who said he planned to reopen the Habana Casino on Sixth Avenue.

The casino hasn't reopened and Lonergan figures the city could generate as much as $600,000 per year with the tax increase.

Jason Hagey: 253-597-8542


SIDEBAR: Council OKs plan to spend tax hike

The Tacoma City Council approved a resolution Tuesday outlining how the city would spend its share of a sales tax increase that voters will decide on Nov. 4.

The plan calls for funding a one-stop center for victims of domestic violence, hiring truancy officers and probation officers, funding a youth assessment center and crime prevention programs, as well as paying for business district security.

It's less specific than a plan Pierce County drafted outlining how it will spend its share of the extra taxes, but council members defended it.

Unlike the county, Tacoma wouldn't spend all of the new money hiring more police officers.

Councilwoman Connie Ladenburg spoke at length in support of the tax plan, saying the extra revenue will help lower the crime rate, attract more business, more jobs and more tourists to Tacoma and possibly result in lower insurance rates for cars and businesses.

Mayor Bill Baarsma responded to criticism that the city hasn't produced a detailed spending plan for its share of the funds, noting that a council subcommittee has considered the issue in detail.

The tax hike, Proposition 1, proposes to raise money for public safety and criminal justice services by raising the sales tax three-tenths of 1 percent.