The City Council unanimously voted this year to ask residents to raise their sales taxes one-tenth of a percentage point to create a new source of funding to protect police and the prosecutors office from cuts.
Proponents say that if voters dont approve, the city might have to cut 10 police officers, a crimeprevention and volunteer program and the west-side police station. The citys prosecutors office faces cuts, and the city might need to reduce 34 percent of its number of jail beds.
Its critical for our community security, Mayor Stephen Buxbaum said. This helps us with a longerterm fix for our budget, helps us get on track in terms of sustainability in the area of public safety.
Opponents say the City Council is trying to use the prospect of police cuts to scare people into voting for the measure and that the city has overspent, that its salaries and benefits are overly generous and that cuts can be made elsewhere.
Ken McClarty, who helped write a statement against the measure in the countys voter pamphlet, said its part of the councils tax-and-spend record.
Theyre always standing there with their hands out trying to raise taxes, said McClarty, who has lived in Olympia for more than 30 years. If they spent their money properly they wouldnt need the tax increase.
State law requires that 15 percent of the money generated from the tax increase go to the county, and the city gets the rest. One-third of the citys money generated from the increase must be spent on criminal justice, but the city is proposing to spend almost all of it on police and the city prosecutors office. The measure would be specifically targeted at preventing budget cuts to the citys Police Department and perhaps restoring some popular programs that have been cut in recent years, such as a downtown police foot patrol.
Some money also could be spent to keep employing downtown ambassadors, who started this year cleaning the city, giving visitors directions and helping street people find social services.
City Manager Steve Hall said last week that 16 city positions would be cut in his proposed 2013 budget, five of those from the Police Department. Of those, four police officers and one volunteer coordinator would be cut, including a school resource officer program. More police officers could be cut in future years.
The cuts to police will be restored if voters approve the tax increase, supporters say. Of the $1.2 million generated yearly by the tax increase, Hall said, about half would go to preventing cuts and the council could spend the other half on expanding services, such as restoring a police walking patrol and rejoining the Thurston County Narcotics Task Force.
Hall said he will have to cut the budget even if the tax increase passes, because it wouldnt fill all of the citys $2.5 million budget gap.
Hall, who isnt taking a position on the tax measure, said the city has already cut more than 50 employees, cut outside contracts, killed popular programs and reorganized departments. And Hall said the community has taken on many tasks, such as adopt-a-park, graffiti removal, community watches and neighborhood speed watches .
I dont believe we should ask the public for more funding unless we can demonstrate that weve been spending the money wisely that we already have, Hall said. And I think weve spent the past five years doing a lot of work and making sure were an efficient organization.
One of the citys cash cows, its sales tax, has dipped precipitously since pre-recession levels in 2007, from about $17 million to $15 million per year.
At the same time, all our other costs have gone up, Hall said. Power costs have gone up. Fuel costs have gone up. Employee costs have gone up.
Something had to give. The city got rid of employees from the equivalent of 576 in 2008 to 542 in the 2012 budget. But the citys budget actually increased 13 percent in those years, from $9.8 million in 2008 to $111.6 million in 2012. Payroll jumped 4 percent in that period, from $39.4 million to $41.2 million.
Cutting employees isnt all the city did in the past four lean years. Voters approved a measure in 2010 to raise property taxes by 25 cents on every $1,000 of assessed value to pay for 13 new firefighters to work at the citys fourth fire station, which opened last year.
McClarty said the city hasnt cut enough, and has spent recklessly. He points to the City Councils decision this year to sell its Smith Building, valued at $1.8 million, to the Family Support Center for $1 for a homeless shelter. He thinks spending more than $1 million on a roundabout at Boulevard and Log Cabin roads, with decorative wood carvings in the center, was wasteful. And he says the city is dangling the possibility of cutting police to scare voters into approving a tax increase.
Councilwoman Karen Rogers, who said she favors asking voters for a tax increase, said jobs could be spared if unions would forgo raises in their contracts.
I want to protect jobs, she said.
Police officers got 3.8 percent cost-of-living raises and firefighters got 2.3 percent raises in 2010, due to more generous union contracts, while other union and nonunion employees got no costof-living raises. In 2011, no city employees got cost-ofliving raises. And this year, firefighters got a 3 percent raise while everybody else got 1 percent.
Police officers get other benefits, such as bonuses for getting educational degrees. An associate degree earns a bonus of 3 percent of base salary, a bachelors degree 6 percent and a masters degree 8 percent. Officers also get longevity pay ranging from 1 percent to 10 percent of base pay, based on years of service.
Police and firefighter unions got more generous contracts because state collective-bargaining law requires they be compensated similar their counterparts in peer cities, Hall said.
Buxbaum acknowledged that the disparities in employee pay due to the state requirements were problematic. This isnt something that the City Council could just take on by itself or determine by itself, he said.
McClarty said salaries are excessive and that the city is paying too much overtime. The city spent $2 million on overtime last year, up from $1.8 million in 2008. The citys contract with the Olympia Police Guild has generous provisions for overtime, including that any officer called back to work after a shift is entitled to at least three hours of overtime.
A look at the city salaries shows that, with overtime included, 61 employees made more than $100,000 last year. Of those, 35 were police officers. Hall was the citys thirdbest-paid employee at $152,126, topped by two police sergeants Aaron Jelcick at $154,238 and James Partin at $155,121.
But Hall said the city actually is paying below the average wage of its peer cities, according to the citys inhouse salary survey. Cities compared include Lacey, Puyallup, Richland, Bremerton and Walla Walla.
We try and pay within 5 percent of the mean cities of our size, he said, though he acknowledged the study wasnt entirely scientific and no two jobs are exactly alike, which makes comparison difficult.
As for overtime, Hall said that police officers have earned it, and the reason the city is spending so much on it is that officers are covering for vacancies in the department. A number of senior officers have retired.
But it takes about 10 months for an officer to receive training, so the citys hires dont start right away.
Wed have three vacancies wed hire three people, get em started and somebody else (would) retire, get another job, get injured, wed start the hiring process for another, Hall said.
The city has two officers in training, three waiting to go into training and one just out of training who is riding with another officer and is not independent yet.
Once those officers are in place, the city will be fully staffed, but not as well-staffed as in years past. Rogers said the city should be more aggressive in hiring to cut back on overtime.
When someone is injured, especially if theyre going to be out injured for more than a year maybe you should hire a new person, she said.
Hall did not institute furloughs, which state government has instituted.
Its my opinion that those are false exercises in budget cutting, he said. Most people, if we reduce their hours and take away part of their pay, the work doesnt change. We still have the same amount of work.
Hall also said he couldnt furlough many employees, such as police officers.
Employees get a generous benefits package, including the city paying 100 percent of medical costs for employees and 85 percent for dependents, in addition to a guaranteed pension. Hall said that, too, will be cut.
Starting next year, the city will pay 95 percent of medical costs for employees, except for police and fire, which will still be covered at 100 percent.
Matt Batcheldor: 360-704-6869 email@example.com