Collaboration in Civic Spheres

Archive for the ‘Budget’ Category

Public Data Ferret On KOMO 1000: Rising U.S. Debt Dicey

by Matt Rosenberg August 27th, 2010

In this week’s regular live KOMO-AM 1000 radio segment featuring the work of our Public Data Ferret government transparency project, I talked with co-anchor Nancy Barrick and guest anchor Bill Rice about some sobering news on U.S. government debt. Here’s the original Ferret write-up and here’s the audio. The transcript follows.

Nancy Barrick: “A recent report by the Congressional Budget Office offers a serious warning to the feds: stop spending all that money. And on the KOMO news line we have Matt Rosenberg of, and Matt, what did this report have to say about our national debt?”

Matt Rosenberg: “We’re highlighting this report called “Federal Debt And The Risk Of A Fiscal Crisis” at our Public Data Ferret government transparency hub, and it says that the U.S. government’s public debt – that’s what’s owed to investors in the financial markets – is now higher than ever, except for in the years right after World War Two. Our U.S. public debt reached $8 trillion, or about 54 percent of projected year-end gross domestic product for 2010, and it’s going to go higher by the end of the year to about 62 percent of GDP, so the prescription is stiff medicine, at least from the Congressional Budget Office. They’re saying we’ve got to cut spending and look at increasing revenues, and it’s not going to be pretty no matter how you slice it.”

Bill Rice: “Yeah, and apparently it just gets worse unless something is done now. How bad does the debt get by, say, 2035?”

Matt Rosenberg: “Well, they’ve got a couple of different scenarios. One is called the ‘extended baseline scenario,’ which sees a continuation of current law and no big changes, and even then, the public debt is going to reach about 80 percent of GDP, considerably higher than now, and that’s thanks to an aging population and increasing health care costs. But if there are changes made, under the ‘alternative fiscal scenario’ that the CBO outlines, it could be much, much worse, and the public debt could reach as much as 180 percent of GDP by 2035. So they’re saying we’ve got to get on it right now and cut spending equal to at least one percent of GDP under the ‘okay’ scenario and up to (five) percent under the ‘recipe for trouble’ scenario.”

Nancy Barrick: “And Matt, the thing I like is you always sift through these sorts of technical reports. As you were looking through this, is this something the general public can get ahold of, or is it pretty technical?”

Matt Rosenberg: “Well, no, you can make good sense out of it, and at our Public Data Ferret site we link also to some of the sources that we use. Actually that’s in the blogroll section of our blog. So, yeah, you can go right to a lot of these government sites, find recent reports written in plain English, sometimes it takes a little translation, and that’s part of what we’re here for, but you know, if I were to summarize what these guys are saying here, it’s that the federal government has been gorging on public debt like Little Debbie snack cakes, and it’s time for the fresh grapefruit and Meusli, instead.”

Bill Rice: “Matt Rosenberg of For a link to Matt’s Web site, go to and click on “Nine 2 Noon.”

Nancy Barrick: “That was very well put.”

With Tax Vote Looming, King County Looking To Labor Unions To Forgo Planned Salary Hikes

by Matt Rosenberg August 17th, 2010

Facing a $60 million 2011 deficit in its general fund, and with a .2 percent sales tax hike coming before voters in November, King County is trying to get its labor force to forgo cost-of-living (COLA) salary hikes of two to six percent that have been a mainstay in previous collective bargaining agreements. Yesterday, King County Executive Dow Constantine and the leader of the Washington State Council of County and City Employees (WSCCC), Chris Dugovich, announced that union’s King County unit would skip its COLA hike for 2011, saving the county $500,000 to $600,000. As the Seattle Times reports, if all 63 of the county’s 73 employee bargaining units that have expiring COLA provisions were to forgo any COLA hikes in 2011, the county could save $9.4 million, almost one-sixth of the general fund deficit. The general fund is a collection of so-called “discretionary” funds, including law enforcement and criminal justice, which comprises about 12.5 percent of the total county budget; the rest is in so-called “dedicated funds” which are mainly paid for by user fees, special tax levies and other dedicated revenues. (More: King County Budget Basics).

The WSCCC’s King County bargaining unit represents juvenile court supervisors and counselors, custodians and hazardous waste workers. Members will actually vote on August 27 whether to forego their 2011 COLA wage hike.

Seattle Times editorial and opinion column writer Joni Balter in a blog post today, writes:

The trend toward no COLAS is what has to happen in the new – read, lousy – economy.

As the Daily Weekly blog of the Seattle Weekly notes, a big catch in Constantine’s quest would be the 4,000-plus-member Amalgamated Transit Union, representing some 2,800 Metro bus drivers and other Metro personnel. So too are the King County Sheriff’s Police, who as Constantine recently told Burien city officials, are so far resisting his entreaties to consider giving back their negotiated COLA for the upcoming year. The Highline Times reported:

Public Data Ferret On KOMO 1000: Seattle City Employees Retirement Plan $1 Billion In The Hole

by Matt Rosenberg July 21st, 2010

Today during my regular weekly segment on KOMO 1000 Seattle’s “Nine2Noon” show with co-anchors Brian Calvert and Nancy Barrick, I talked about the latest featured item for our Public Data Ferret project. Here’s the original Ferret write-up on fiscal challenges facing the Seattle City Employees Retirement System, and here’s the audio of the segment. A transcript follows.

Brian Calvert: “What if the retirement plan you were counting on, ends up going broke? Matt Rosenberg of – where you can use their feature The Public Data Ferret – joins us. Matt, you recently looked at a report on the Seattle City Employees Retirement System. According to the study, that plan has a billion (dollars) more in liabilities than its current market value….It sounds like pretty bad news.”

Matt Rosenberg: “Well, it is. The value of the funds always fluctuates because of the nature of the investments, but you kind of have to plan for that, and it appears that due diligence has gone somewhat missing, unfortunately. The liabilities – the amount that will have to be paid out over the next 30 years – have…doubled since 1999 and assets have grown, but not nearly as much, partly because of the economy and the stock market. The city and employees pay in, but there’s going to have to be a big rate hike. The report says the city is going to have to pay most of it because of contracts that cap the added amount of employee contributions.”

Nancy Barrick: “And from what I’ve heard, it’s not just the city facing this problem. We’re looking at it at the county level, also the state level.”

Matt Rosenberg: “Ah, it’s a problem that exists widely. (King) County employees are part of the state pension system, which is doing okay but could be doing better, according to a recent report. There are real issues here, and part of it is limiting future liabilities and getting under the hood. Part of the problem with the city plan, Nancy, is that employees are guaranteed a 7.75 percent annual rate of return and their share of increases, if any are needed, is strictly capped. So, you know, one guy down in California who’s attacking this issue says that it’s kind of like going to Las Vegas with your brother-in-law’s paycheck, when governments guarantee a high rate of return. We don’t get that, necessarily, in the private sector. And so in the future, maybe we need to see new employees not having their retirement funds planned by the city, but doing it on their own, while they (the city) still meet obligations to current employees (and retirees).”

Nancy Barrick: “Alright. Interesting topic. Matt Rosenberg of, and you can check them out, with the Public Data Ferret.”

King County Must Revise Cost-Of-Living Pay Policy

by Administrator July 7th, 2010

By Seattle Times editorial board

Two Metropolitan King County Council members propose new labor policies that would end the county’s long-standing and anachronistic automatic cost-of-living pay increases. The council would be wise to adopt either or a combination of both plans.

County employees have been living in an altered state, pretending the county has enough money to award employees 2 to 6 percent annual cost-of-living increases even if that cost dropped as it did last year. That makes no sense.

Council Chairman Bob Ferguson and Councilmember Kathy Lambert offer different proposals to accomplish similar goals: to change de facto policy that institutionalizes cost-of-living increases. Lambert has been working this issue almost two years and deserves considerable kudos for bringing the matter to the forefront.

Lambert and Ferguson should join forces to combine and refine proposals and rally enough votes to support the new approach. By doing so, the council would send a powerful message to labor that the economic realities of the 21st century require new rules.


Seattle City Council Member Tim Burgess: Police Need To Implement Real-Time Crime Reporting, Online

by Matt Rosenberg June 14th, 2010

Other Improvements Urged By Former Cop

Seattle City Council Member Tim Burgess is a former radio reporter and former Seattle policeman who started an international communications and marketing firm he sold several years ago. He almost ran for Mayor in 2009 against incumbent Greg Nickels, but having just been elected to Council a year prior, declined. However he is seen as a rival of new Mayor Mike McGinn and Seattle political junkies expect Burgess is very likely planning a run against McGinn in 2013. So if you like, take a grain of salt along with what Burgess says about the city’s needs for improved policing at a crucial point just before the Mayor decides whom to hire as the city’s new police chief. And please know that we take no sides here politically, choosing not to endorse any candidate or any side in any election. All that said, in an opinion article published in the online news journal Crosscut, Burgess makes important points about the need for Seattle Police to develop better online crime reporting capabilities.

The department’s persistent failure to keep pace with technology is a good example of a lost opportunity. Hardly any other city in the country surpasses Seattle’s software engineering capabilities and yet our police department doesn’t use real-time crime reporting, can’t quickly provide crime trend or hotspot analysis, doesn’t enable crime victims to report online, and doesn’t share detailed crime statistics with the public by precinct, zip code or census track. This is an internal management problem for the department in terms of strategies and officer deployment. In addition, the lack of full disclosure of crime stats breeds suspicion and mistrust in the community. Community leaders often complain to me about their inability to get solid information on what’s happening in their neighborhood.

Seattle has a new public data hub, which is in the early stages, but holds promise. The idea, as in other cities and counties around the nation, is that software developers can build on rich government data sets to create handy applications for the public. The city is also planning to unveil new tools this summer for its public Web sites, allowing creation of customizable “dashboards” to create a more user-friendly and efficient experience. The city also provides a variety of online services for constituents and businesses, and supports several very useful online databases which we’ve written about and discussed on the radio for our Public Data Ferret project, such as the Department of Planning and Development’s Permit Activity Locator, and the health department’s Restaurant Inspections Online. So it’s not as though the city government is clueless about the potential of interactive and timely online tools for constituents.

Nonetheless, Burgess is spot on about the need for real-time and highly localized crime reporting online by Seattle Police; for systematic and very public trend and hotspot analysis online by police; and online crime reporting tools for citizens. It’s 2010, already. Violent assaults on the city’s streets, and residential burglaries and attempted burglaries continue at a pace that causes concern. Safety and security of residents, employees and visitors is a thick thread in the social fabric of any city Seattle’s size, or larger. The need for better and more timely information on crime in the city and more collaboration between communities and the police to deter crime, is pressing. It will be worth watching to see if the city council and mayor can summon the leadership and resources to bring the Seattle Police Department more fully into the Information Age.

UPDATE: This Seattle P-I blog post links to some neat visualizations done by a talented software developer working with City of San Francisco crime data. You see a lot of “hey, look what some guy did” articles like this on “civic apps,” but despite the valuable modeling, it’s not necessarily a sustainable approach. Hire the guy maybe, but you have to budget for it, and keep the effort going, ad infinitum. The building and maintenance of online communications infrastructure for better city crime reporting has to be owned by city government.