Opinion: Now’s not the time for an expanded Civic Center

By Leonard French

The same folks who cheerfully distribute a steady confection of platitudes in favor of the $25 million Civic Center ballot measure are also accusing anyone with a different view of spreading misinformation. If you aren’t persuaded, you must be misinformed. If you are still voting your pocketbook, you missed that the City needs that money worse than you do.

Non-misinformation upon which voters are making their decisions includes the continuing economic downturn characterized by decreased incomes, diminished housing values and generally lowered expectations for the future.

All of these are reinforced by what we hear government officials telling the media. Governor Gregoire has recently lambasted college professors and others in state government for not recognizing that everyone must contribute to the continuing “shared sacrifice.”  In mid-May, elected county officials advised against asking voters county-wide for a tax increase for criminal justice.  Snohomish County Prosecutor Mark Roe said in part, “That doesn’t sound like a public that’s ready to vote for a brand-new tax, no matter how justified I think it would be.”

A timely article at this site on June 25 finally made clear that economic reality also applies here in MLT.  Under the heading Budget times will get tougher for MLT, city manager tells council, we learn that “Our most difficult years are probably ahead of us” and that “Most of our operating revenues continue to fall short of projections no matter how low we go.”

This isn’t newfound wisdom either. On The Economy page in the city’s 2011-2012 Biennial Budget, there isn’t a single optimistic assessment. Lowlights include the “Most difficult years (perhaps next decade) may still be ahead”; a “Continued slowdown in consumer spending”; and the potential for “Service reductions.”  Nearly two years ago, the City knew well that economic reality could constrain our capacity to maintain fundamental commitments.  Not a single press release followed.

Foretelling one of the June 25 observations, a budget graph shows forecasted revenues through 2016 decreased by a cumulative $12.5 million in just the two forecasting periods between 2008 and 2010. Continuing to spend, we have burned through over $6 million in reserves from 2006-2012.

Another graph emphasizes that our most basic taxes had until 2007 covered police and fire. The gap between them is now well over $1 million and is projected to be over $2 million by 2016.

If the economy’s impact on basic city operations was not a serious concern at city hall, these unprecedented messages would not have filled a budget published in 2010 and been restated last month. Whatever public face is put on these truths in press releases and campaign statements, the potential solutions outlined in that budget tell a different story, one of caution and looming cutbacks.

City hall isn’t out of touch with the prevailing economic uncertainty. They understand, as do leaders at all levels of government that asking for more taxes goes against the grain of an economic downturn. They just don’t want a wider discussion of potential threats to current services while recommending a tax increase for new structures. We’ll get around to discussing all that at greater length once this election is over.

I wouldn’t call that misinformation, but, at a minimum, it isn’t forthcoming.  All voters deserve to have a full picture of city finances before they decide whether raising taxes so much for a Civic Center is a wise choice.

The full picture is that revenues to support basic services are uncertain while paying rent also takes money. Using one room’s ceiling collapse as a pretext to demolish an otherwise serviceable building after a historic recession had begun and without replacement financing in place put us where we are.  At city hall that may seem like a predicament, but citizens aren’t in a spending mood and they have the last say.

A synopsis of the solution I hear from many is “If the City Hall is what we lost, why not build just that first and do the rest later when times are better?”  That sounds like a reasonable question.




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