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Tacoma leaders grapple with $40 million shortfall in city budget

The view down 11th Street from Pacific Avenue in downtown Tacoma on March 15, 2020.
Tom Collins
The view down 11th Street from Pacific Avenue in downtown Tacoma on March 15, 2020.

Washington cities are spending a lot of money to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, and reduced business activity is putting a damper on tax revenue. In Tacoma, leaders are looking at a $40 million shortfall in the general fund.

More than 200 city employees already have been furloughed or laid off. Ina Friday briefing, city staff told the council that departments are being asked to cut spending by 15 percent in the upcoming budget cycle. 

Social distancing also has thrown a wrench in the council's budget process. In March and April, the city would normally conduct outreach and begin working on policy priorities. But most of those meetings and events were canceled.

"To say that it's essential for us to make these proposals and decisions without having those conversations I think is not a good idea," Council member Catherine Ushka told her colleagues Friday.

Still, council members' initial proposals are expected in mid-June. City staff say any proposals to add or restore spending should come with cost cuts elsewhere in the budget.

Several council members questioned the 15 percent figure, citing desires not to cut crucial public safety and infrastructure spending. But Mayor Victoria Woodards cautioned that any cuts could ripple through the city.

"If we wiped out entire departments, it wouldn't be enough to satisfy the deficit that we're in," Woodards said. "There are other ways to make cuts in public safety that do not take out frontline officers and firefighters."

Woodards talked with KNKX Morning Edition host Kirsten Kendrick about the city's budget problems. Listen to their conversation above or read the transcript below. Both have been edited for length and clarity. 

Victoria Woodards, Mayor of Tacoma: I hate to say everything's on the table. I will say this: Our initial look at cuts has everything to do with contracts, and we're trying to stay away from cutting services. Staff thinks that we can get through this first blush, this $40 million, by just making some cuts in our contracts and in some of the projects that we haven't started yet. 

There's a hold on hiring all positions, any open position we have right now. So the goal is to make the cuts within the organization and not make cuts to any services  not first responders, not refuge. The things that citizens will see and feel, we're hoping that we're not having to make any of those cuts right now.

Kirsten Kendrick, KNKX: You said this may impact projects that haven't started yet. Any big things that folks might be aware of or know about that may have to be delayed?

Woodards: Not at this time. They're still kind of pulling that list together. But I'd be more than happy to come back and talk about everything that's on the table.

KNKX: You were first elected to the (Tacoma) City Council a decade ago, when we were in the middle of the last economic recession. Are there any lessons that you learned then that are relevant to you now as mayor?

Woodards: Absolutely. But what I'll also say is the economic downturn and the decisions we had to make then are nothing like what we're going through now. Those were cuts that we could make over time and try to build back up. These are cuts that we have to make right now because we're feeling the pain right now.

But I think the lesson I learned is that we can be really innovative in what we cut — things like our furloughs as opposed to full layoffs. That is something we have in the time of COVID. But I think just being really smart about what services are really important. I know we ended up cutting police and fire in that last budget cycle because we had to find ongoing savings, not just one-time savings. And we see from some of those decisions we made what the outcome has been over the years.

KNKX: So what were some of the things that you saw on the council during the last economic recession?

Woodards: So there were a couple of things. We made cuts to our human services department, so that meant less funding went out the door to our human services partners, to our nonprofit partners. And we saw the toll that took on their ability to deliver services to those who needed it the most.

I would also say we took some big cuts in our public safety. We took some big cuts in our fire department and in our police department. You know, we continue to have these conversations around getting back to pre-recession levels with both our police and fire departments, and that is weighing heavily on our ability to respond.

Let me be very clear: We can respond to every 911 call, but we've not had the ability to respond to car break-ins or car prowls. There are a lot of things that we haven't been able to respond to in the way that we used to. You can still call, you can still file a report, but we don't send an officer out to every break-in and we can't send an officer out to every car accident when it's minor. So we've seen some of those direct effects of budget cuts.

All we talk about is how do we get back to where we were before the recession, and then the COVID pandemic hits. So I think we have to look at what effect some of those cuts had on us before as we start to make these cuts now.

News TacomaVictoria WoodardsCoronavirus Coverage
A Seattle native and former KNKX intern, Simone Alicea spent four years as a producer and reporter at KNKX. She earned her Bachelor's of Journalism from Northwestern University and covered breaking news for the Chicago Sun-Times. During her undergraduate career, she spent time in Cape Town, South Africa, covering metro news for the Cape Times.