Tough choices ahead as Tacoma projects $67M budget shortfall

The City of Tacoma will have some tough financial decisions to make as officials are projecting a $67 million deficit for the 2021-2022 budget.

The city is looking for public input on how to close the massive gap caused by the impacts of COVID-19.

"We can’t just use property taxes to fund services. We have to use things like sales taxes and business taxes. And unfortunately, those are very responsive to sudden changes in the economy," said Katie Johnston, budget officer for the City of Tacoma.

"So, when we saw closures of really basic services on our community and some of these really essential businesses that we have, they immediately start having an impact on our ability to collect revenue to them provide essential services back to our residents," Johnston stated. 

The city created a new online budget simulator called Balancing Act, which enables community members an in-dept look at the budget shortfall the city manager and city council members are reviewing. The tool explains all the revenues the city receives, like property and sales tax.

“This is so cool. I can actually see where my money is going. I feel better about what’s being taken out of my paycheck and I feel better about how my community is being supported by my local government,” said Brandon Maine, a Tacoma resident.

The simulator also gives community members a shot at balancing the budget themselves. They can see a detailed breakdown of each city service that receives tax dollars and how much money each department gets. People can then use the tool to determine where the cuts should be made and the amount.

Some people are scaling back the amount of money the Tacoma Police Department and Tacoma Fire Department receives.

The city said those two agencies get the most funding from the budget.

“Defunding one portion or another is going to critically impact the community in ways that we may not foresee right now. And I’m really afraid of that,” said Maine.

Feedback from the simulator is then used at City Hall as leaders prepare to make some tough financial decisions.

“Where did people decide to maintain services? Where did they see that needed to reduce service levels? And where did they see that they actually said, despite that $67 million gap, we actually think we need to increase services in this area—potentially given the COVID response and different changes we’re seeing in our community,” said Johnston.

Residents like Maine said they appreciate the transparency the tool offers.

“It’s better communication with the public. It instills better trust because they can see where the money is going. And it can assist in other ways—before we hit a deficit, we can better balance the budget,” said Maine.

“It’s a lot of trust with our community that we want to hear back from them. And so, that’s a two-way street. To get good feedback we need to be transparent about everything that we know about the situation, the impact we’re seeing, how we’re making decisions, what decisions we need to make. And then we can hear from our community and they can give us really real feedback from their position as community members about what’s most important to them, what services do they see as most valuable and impactful,” said Johnston.

Community collaboration is the goal of the online tool, as the public and local government work together towards an affordable, reasonable solution.

“If we all share that burden and responsibility, we can see a better budget that still provides most of the services we currently benefit from,” said Maine.

The budget simulator is available online through July 23rd. The city also has six surveys available to open more conversations about services. The city will summarize that feedback during a community town hall the evening of July 23rd.