Published October 24, 2012
A yes vote for public safety levy vital
City of Olympia voters must pass this falls public safety levy to avoid draconian cuts to the citys police force. The city has already trimmed 11½ full-time equivalent positions from the Olympia Police Department since 2007. The downtown walking patrol is gone, along with participation in the regional narcotics task force. Without voter approval for a one-tenth of a percent increase in the citys sales tax rate, it will be forced to eliminate another four officers, the west-side station, support for special events held in the city and a number of popular programs, such as the Harbor Patrol, Explorer Program and Block Watch. Cities and counties all over the state are digging deep for savings as the slow economy lingers. Olympias finances are additionally affected by projected further declines in the state budget next session, which always dampen the local economy. In a letter to the Olympia council, City Manager Steve Hall said the communitys local economy is continuing to decline, making the citys budget unsustainable. He envisions cuts to core services to public safety and basic maintenance over the next several years. Even this 2012 ballot measure wont be enough over the long haul. The city manager projects another tax increase next year. Without them, he says, Olympias budget deficit could bloom to more than $7 million by 2017. The city has shown restraint in asking for a modest increase, and placing a burden on itself to spend public funds wisely and keep its focus on long-term financial sustainability. It is also politically wise. Reaching for more on the revenue side could endanger jobs in the citys many small businesses and even the businesses themselves. That would be counter-productive. The small sales tax hike strikes the right balance. The city must now address the larger issue: how to restructure city government for the long term. The citys plan includes lessons already learned in the private sector. It will pursue changes in benefit costs to employees, which means addressing state collective bargaining rules, and looking for ways to consolidate operations with other jurisdictions. The cities of Olympia, Lacey and Tumwater, along with Thurston County, already work together on several regionalization programs. They must find more, perhaps even considering the highly controversial concept of regional administration. In the short term, Olympia will certainly be offering residents increased opportunities for volunteerism and finding exit strategies for city programs that overlap the activities of nonprofits or other organizations. Making major policy changes in how city government operates is a difficult but necessary task brought on by our economic conditions. Growth in the local economy may someday solve todays pressing problems. But that day looks too far down the road to avoid the need for short-term tax increases. Unless voters are prepared to take significant cuts in public safety, the only choice is to approve Olympias public safety levy on Nov. 6.