Since the defeat of Prop 1 in April, many assumed that it was merely a formality for the County Council to adopt and implement the cuts to Metro service. But in a surprising and somewhat messy development, the King County Council’s Transportation, Economy, and Environment Committee, led by Chair Rod Dembowski, passed an ordinance yesterday that would implement only the September 2014 cuts, with service levels in “2015 and later…determined in a manner consistent with adopted policies and the King County budget for those years.” Citing the rising economy and the ability to further raise fares, Dembowski’s ordinance reads in part:
“An opportunity exists for the council and executive to work collaboratively with each other, stakeholders and cities throughout the county to identify alternative cost savings, efficiencies and updated estimates of revenue and expenditures that could reduce Metro’s annual budget gap, thereby decreasing the number of transit service hours required to be reduced in 2015.”
The ordinance split the Committee and passed 4-3, Dembowski being joined by suburban Republicans Hague, Lambert, and von Reichbauer. Phillips, Upthegrove, and McDermott opposed, and Dunn and Gossett were absent. If Dunn joins those four councilmembers when the ordinance goes to the full Council next week, and assuming Gossett opposes (neither of which are certain), that would mean a potential 5-4 vote to delay the bulk of the cuts. It would then be subject to a possible veto by Executive Constantine, who has said that the integrity of the public process and the Prop 1 vote requires that service be cut until new revenue materializes.
At first blush, Dembowski’s move seems like a risky punt. His plan seems to be to implement the cuts that cannot be staved off (September), try to further squeeze cash from Metro’s capital programs, defer plans to replenish Metro’s cash reserves, raise fares, and wait for a tax windfall or a generous Seattle electorate. To the extent that the tax windfall, increased fare revenues, or city buybacks fail to materialize, it’s not clear what cuts will happen and when, or what the Council will have gained by not simply executing the cuts as proposed by the executive.
In general, I (and other STB authors) are favorable to anything that improves Metro’s cost and revenue structures in a realistic and sustainable way, and to the extent that Dembowski’s ordinance can achieve that, I am cautiously in favor. I am, however, highly resistant to delaying inevitable pain by spending down more reserves, or looting what’s left of Metro’s capital funds: that is a continuance of the pathological pain-avoidance “leadership” style which the Council has applied to Metro since the beginning of the recession. This has given us an agency that is managed by crisis, where all service planning and public outreach must take place against a background of increasingly precipitous, but uncertain, cuts. It seems to me that the sensible, good government way to approach this problem is to pass a modified cuts plan but allow Metro to add back service (according to their Service Guidelines) every service change if revenue exceeds projections.
We are reaching out to Councilmember Dembowski for further details on his thinking and will have an update in the coming days.