Weekly Update: 08/02/2020

This Week

Wednesday: come have lunch with me at the Senior Center. Get an EATS voucher!

PSA: Wednesday is also the day that the Des Moines Library opens for curbside pickup!

Thursday: City Council Meeting (Agenda) the annual Budget Retreat. I encourage everyone to watch on Comcast Channel 21 or livestream.

Friday: South King County Area Transportation Board (SCATbd) meeting. Discussion will include the infamous ‘TBD’ fees we all know and love. 😀

That’s it. Nothing else! (Well, nothing else I can talk about here.) So call me! Ask a question. Complain about something. Share some some gossip. That’s kinda what I’m here for: (206) 878-0578. 😀

Last Week

Wednesday: come have lunch with me at the Senior Center. Get an EATS voucher!

Thursday: Meeting with Rep. Tina Orwall and Port Commissioners on a school air quality improvement program. I’ve been vaguely referring to this for a while now and I should probably give at least a few details. There have now been several legit studies which basically find that if you provide filtered (cleaner) air at schools, the children are not only healthier, they also tend to perform better as students. A lot better. Just the 7-8 hours a child is in school makes a significant difference. This is not brand new, by the way: there have been concerns about the problems of indoor air quality for decades. What’s new is that we now seem to be able to actually do something about it.  What we’re trying to study now are the mechanics of making it work with the kinds of pollution unique to aircraft.  Explainer.

And also on a related note: there were a whole bunch of constituent kinds of things involving Port Packages. As always, if you have an ongoing problem with your Port Of Seattle sound insulation or want information on qualifying or you’re just interested in helping to reduce noise and pollution from Sea-Tac Airport, contact these guys: SeatacNoise.Info

 

The Budget

So, this is a big one. The whole enchilada. Le grand fromage. (No other food metaphors come to mind right now.) But since I’ve lived here, the ‘August Retreat’ has always been viewed as highly significant because this is where the City basically puts its cards on the table. Frankly, the public (and the full Council) do not often get a full picture of:

  1. How the City is doing financially.
  2. What the ‘the plan’ is likely to be.

I know this is #581 on the list of things that will make eyes roll, but I gotta be honest: the ‘importance’ of this meeting has always struck me as a bit like a religious ceremony. Part of it is tradition and part of it comes down to the challenges of providing data in any government organisation.

Just in time?

As some of you may know, for part of my career I wrote accounting and customer service software. And during that time the entire landscape of corporate reporting shifted from ‘annual reports’ to ‘quarterly reports’ finally to the point where most companies can now tell you what’s what almost every day of the year. The reverence and speculation (and fear) about an organization’s financial position is now mostly a thing of the past. You hear even large corporations talking about the state of their business daily.

Government financial reporting is a different animal. Much of the data you need to create reports comes from higher up the food chain (County, State) so you’re subject to getting results from them and things like tax data only comes out quarterly. Also, as I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, Des Moines has been hampered for a long time by an antiquated accounting system. (Which is why I am so jazzed we’re getting a new accounting system! My hope is that soon we will be able to get more timely information and reduce the ‘surprise’ factor.)

But with all that, it’s still weird for me to have to wait until August to have a good understanding of where we are in 2020-or to be able to start planning for 2021. And with COVID-19, that curiosity has just that extra soupçon of nerves.

Comparisons are inevitable…

Adding to the suspense is the fact that our sister communities have already provided their reports and forecasts and for some the news ain’t great. This could make one nervous for Des Moines, but I was warned a long time ago that when it comes to budgets: Every city is different. And the more I learn the more I understand it’s true. Burien, SeaTac, Normandy Park, Tukwila, Federal Way, Kent all have very different strengths and weaknesses. Some cities that were doing great until COVID-19 are now struggling and some that were struggling are feeling pretty good (as good as one can) about their ability to weather the storm.

I also don’t think one can judge any City’s economic planning based on how they’re doing right now. As I’ve said many times, we’ve done a pretty good in fighting COVID-19 healthwise. But we haven’t exactly been perfect. At least some of that ‘success’ (if you want to call it that) has been good fortune, not genius. And much the same might be said for our economic state. As with health, no one can say with a straight face that they had a COVID-19 plan.

Local businesses

One important question going forward is going to be, What do we do to mute the ongoing impacts to local business? I am literally stunned almost every day to hear from some residents that they vehemently oppose the City doing anything to support local businesses. The notion is that those businesses that can adapt will and those that cannot will fall away and be replaced by better firms. (One of the ‘charges’ leveled against me by our Mayor back in April was that I am firmly in this camp; that I literally want to see weak businesses ‘die’.) I know I should let that drop but that really pissed me off. And here’s why:

I used to own a small restaurant. And a restaurant (or any locally owned business), even if it’s not exactly a goldmine is a resource to a small City far beyond its tax revenue. At the most basic level, it is hard to replace any storefront in this age. There just aren’t that many people wanting to open new retail spots in places other than where they’ve always been. Investors seem to be more than happy to keep plowing money over and over into the same spots in downtown Seattle, rather than taking a chance on a place like Des Moines.

Demand

As you probably know, the American Economy is consumer demand driven. The worst possible thing for our economic future is to have no places for people to spend their money now. Again, even a marginally successful business keeps some money flowing. When a storefront goes away the only people that make money are auctioneers. In the short term, our City loses, residents lose, employees lose.

So the prevailing economic theory since the mistakes of the Great Depression, has been to keep demand going. Even arch conservatives who find the entire concept of subsidies abhorrent tend to buy into this notion because when we’ve tried to ‘let market forces work’, things get awful, awfully fast.

Just passing on the wisdom…

Where did I get this great passel of wisdom? Why from our own City Manager at the 16 July Economic Development Committee Meeting. 🙂 (It’s a shame that we don’t record  these meetings.) Goosing demand seems to be something the City is taking seriously and it’s a big part of the reasoning behind the CARES Act, which will shortly distribute almost a million dollars to Des Moines. In one sentence: giving consumers opportunities to spend is a high priority until things return to normal.

So, you know where I’m going with all this…

Look, you may not like it, but we’re gonna have to do something to prop up local businesses. In fact, we probably shoulda been doing something significant all along. I was reluctant to be vocal about it because, first of all I kinda expected the Feds (the people who actually have some money) to swing boldly into action. And second of all because we didn’t have numbers and that’s another reason I keep grousing about the lack of current financials. It’s been driving me absolutely nuts.

But now that we see that this pandemic ain’t going away any time soon, we simply cannot allow keep our business district to fall apart as if it’s being pushed by normal winds of supply and demand. Not because every business is perfect, but because the more places people have to spend money, the less our City suffers. We just need to buy time.

Nostalgia for 2006

People seem to forget that before the ‘Great Recession’ (which seems only ‘Medium-Strength Recession’ right now) our downtown was looking pretty good–even before the pandemic. There were more and more varied restaurants, more shops, more everything. It was a pretty normal thing for families to spend a Friday evening having dinner at a restaurant, having dessert at another place, going to the Theater for a movie and maybe down to the Marina for a stroll. Regardless of how nostalgic you are for ‘the good old days’, that sort of thing just hasn’t happened so much after the Medium-Strength Recession.  It’s taken us almost a decade to climb back from the desolation of 2008. And we still weren’t close to that level of activity when the pandemic hit.

My view is that we need to do what we can to keep our businesses (not just downtown, but Pac Highway as well) at least on life support until a properly functioning market can resume. Not just for the businesses, but for us. We have to maintain as much of ‘normal’ as possible until the pandemic is over. That includes everything from mission-critical services like education to more mundane things like having places to spend money. If people just learn to accept getting everything from Amazon and eating frozen dinners, our local economy could take another decade to recover.

Step number one

For all the speechifyin’ this is only Step #1 in the Budget process. No decisions will be made. The goal of this meeting is to have enough information about 2020 to forecast with some authority what will happen in 2021. Based on the comments made at this meeting, the City Manager gets down to work on the actual 2021 document. He brings his proposal back in a few months, then both the Council (and you the public) have two public hearings where you get to weigh in on the intended priorities. And after all that we finally vote on the real deal before Thanksgiving. So the actual vote is usually a formality because both we (and you) have seen several iterations.

Tradition…

Some people would argue that the Budget is the reason a government (especially a small town City Council) exists. And that used to be true, for sure. It was also true that kids needed summer off from school in order to help bring in the harvest. 😀 )

As I said at the top, part of the Budget Retreat’s importance also comes down to ‘tradition’. Since the City Manager runs day to day government, once the Budget was done in autumn, lots of town councils (and our State) used to basically wrap it up for many months of the year. As with summer vacation, that tradition has kind of hung on a bit too long in my opinion. It’s created the image of the ‘average citizen’ City Councilmember–a person who just shows up every couple of weeks for a meeting and… hey it’s all good, fellas! 😀 That’s just not the reality in 2020.

As you’ll see at the meeting, we’re a  $100,000,000 corporation, not a one-horse town with some pretty boats and a parade every summer. So while this meeting is a big deal, and I do hope you’ll watch this Thursday, this is not ‘the big show’. It’s just one of many important events every year. There’s a lot on the line and not a whole lot of opportunities to get a glimpse inside the black box.

So I need your help. Keep watching.

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