My sincerest apologies: Due to a recent obsession with the monorail vote, I've been delinquent in my duties as a city hall columnist. This column is supposed to be about city hall. It's even called Five to Four--a reference to a split city hall vote.

Luckily for you (and me), while I've been monorail-focused, council bureaucrats have been doing their jobs and focusing on the business at hand: Mayor Nickels' proposed 2003 budget. And they're not letting the mayor get away with anything.

For example, at the behest of budget chair Jan Drago, one smart council legislative staffer was able to call bullshit on Nickels' "sidewalks over social services" fakeout. The mayor argued that federal restrictions meant that the $1.5 million he'd slated for sidewalks couldn't be spent on social services. The diligent staffer debunked Nickels' claim. Doing some calculations, the staffer found $2.4 million by simply swapping general-fund money for federal money. Meanwhile, another alert staffer found the mayor was setting aside money for 677 city positions that are vacant in the 2003 budget! That pencils out to at least $35 million.

My favorite find is the extra $300 million in capital-project spending: moolah dedicated to stuff like the new civic center, the Seattle Center performance hall, and fixes at Benaroya Hall.

When the mayor unveiled his budget on September 23, he had a nifty way of talking about the cuts (the 25-percent cut in public health, the eight-percent cut in human services): We're just going back to pre-boom levels of 1995, Nickels said. It's a catchy sound bite. However, it unwittingly highlights exactly what's been wrong with--and is still wrong with--the priorities at city hall. The current budget features an 8.33-percent increase in debt service on the aforementioned capital projects--projects that we committed to in the boom years. Clearly, we're not going back to pre-boom levels on those babies, even though they haunt us now.

More important, as council member Nick Licata's staff explained at an October 25 budget briefing: The mayor has increased the Capital Improvement Program (CIP budget) by a whopping 7.5 percent--about a $40 million add. Since the mayor required all departments to find between five- and 18-percent across-the-board cuts, Licata's office had a question: "Given what we know about the increase over last year's adopted CIP... can the council direct the [mayor] to reduce the 2003 CIP by X percent?"

It's a fair question, and it gets to the heart of our city's skewed priorities. The lopsided, glamour-project focus becomes all the more relevant when you consider what else Licata's office found. The 2002 CIP budget went from a proposed $568 million to a revised $861 million. The increase came from a $300 million carryover of unspent dollars in the 2001 CIP budget.

With a $60 million deficit, why not mine the fat in Seattle's capital-projects budget; projects--dreamed up during the boom--that are haunting us now?