Money Talks

City Hall budget season is my favorite time of year. This is when Seattle's nine city council members do the toilsome yet fundamental work that they're elected to do--setting spending priorities for the city. No, it's not that I'm a fetishist and enjoy watching Peter Steinbrueck and Margaret Pageler slave over balance sheets, it's that as a city hall reporter, this is when I get to glimpse two key aspects of the main characters on my beat: What do the council members really want, and how good are they at getting it? That is, can they line up the five-to-four majority vote they need to push their personal budget adds through?

On the morning of Thursday, October 18 the council held a budget retreat at the Garfield Community Center to unveil suggested budget adds. Council members also got some bad news: The 2002 budget--originally $654 million--has to be cut by $27 million. The ominous cuts will make it that much harder for council members to get their five votes.

Some 20-plus budget adds were proposed last week. They include everything from Heidi Wills' valiant annual drive for $1 million in sidewalk funding to Richard McIver's questionable bid for $2 million in light-rail funding.

As the meeting ended and staffers swarmed the snack table for cookies, sandwiches, and apple cider, budget chair Jan Drago left council members with specific instructions: Choose your top four priorities by next week. When all is said and done, we'll know a lot about our city council members based on how they prioritize. Until then, here are a few noteworthy clues:

· Council Member Peter Steinbrueck is an incorrigible liberal. Steinbrueck brought the most budget adds to the table, looking to fund everything from homeless shelters to food banks to a senior volunteer program. Wisely, while Steinbrueck didn't bring many suggested cuts to the table to cover his bleeding-heart wish list, he did pitch a revenue source: impose a parking tax on downtown lofts.

· Council Member Judy Nicastro is ready to do some cutting. While Nicastro suggested some noble adds (domestic violence services for South Asian immigrants), she clearly had her red pen out, too. Nicastro wanted to review overtime pay policy at SPD (which could save $900,000), and she identified cuts in things she saw as yuppie line items: the city employee Flexcar program (worth $75,000) and a neighborhood leadership development program ($70,000). Earlier this year, Nicastro had criticized a car emission mitigation program ($677,000) as a luxury expenditure, but after getting walloped by enviros she backed off.

· Council Member Richard Conlin has the coolest add: $120,000 for the Vera Project, the youth center dedicated to putting on all-ages music shows.

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