TOM POTTER The buck stops... where exactly? Chris Ryan
When Tom Potter campaigned to become the city's mayor, he promised to start listening to residents and to open up the decision-making process. True to his word, with the city facing a $19 million budget shortfall over the next two years, the new mayor has opened the floor to dialogue, soliciting ideas not only from bureau directors but also from regular citizens. But the jury remains out on whether this process will please or perturb.

On Monday evening, in the first of two community forums soliciting ideas for budget cuts, about 300 people packed the ballroom in the Kaiser Town Hall along North Interstate.

Over the past two weeks, bureau directors have made several suggestions about programs they could trim from their budgets. The Water Bureau suggested turning off several fountains downtown. Parks and Rec. said they would cut funding for the community gardens. And, the city suggested yanking funding from the needle exchange program managed by the downtown youth organization Outside In. Those suggestions have already triggered far-reaching concern about the direction of the budget cuts--a sentiment that was voiced loudly on Monday evening.

One teenager pointed out that social services are the best way to provide long-term solutions and savings. A young adult stood up and delivered the shortest plea of the evening: "Don't cut the needle exchange," he said, and slumped back into his chair.

But it was difficult to tell exactly how seriously the mayor and city council will take the comments offered Monday evening. Beyond several specific suggestions, the audience, largely middle-aged homeowners, mostly griped about property taxes and rising health care costs. Many provided philosophies about budgets and spending, but no specific suggestions.

"You're not there to protect jobs," one woman said, "you are there to serve the community."

But no one, for example, suggested that Potter bypass his $100,000 annual pension for the next four years as he double dips with a $105,000 salary from the city; that cut alone would be enough to preserve the community gardens.

In spite of the sprawling comments, if a consensus from the audience could be reached it was that the mayor should look to cut jobs--not programs. This suggestion is completely at odds with the budget cuts suggested so far by the bureau heads--a difference in opinion that puts the mayor in a tight spot.

If Potter rebuffs suggestions from the bureau heads, he risks friction with them further down the road, causing a stalemate situation early in his tenure. But if Potter agrees with the cuts from the bureau heads, he will undoubtedly have unhappy citizens when their favorite programs wither.

One prime example of this trade-off is the Office of Neighborhood Involvement which offered to trim its budget by cutting funding to its popular mediation services. The city contracts with Resolutions Northwest to referee pesky arguments between neighbors like fence disputes and barking dogs. One source said the program keeps the city "sane and civil," and helps about 4000 neighbors each year.

But so far, ONI has yet to put any of their own people on the chopping block. Wishing to stay anonymous, several residents pointed out to the Mercury that ONI has added three full-time positions in the last eight months, including a full-time grant writer, who reportedly has been unable to produce any grants. Another position remains budgeted but has been unfilled since the former employee, who was in charge of neighborhood safety, was busted for buying crack in Old Town. The paycheck for that position alone is equal to the cost of the entire mediation program.

"They are cutting neighborhood services," one source said, "while keeping all the downtown fat." This person also claimed that ONI director Jimmy Brown "has been completely unapologetic about not making any cuts from management, and only from services."

A second town hall will be held Thursday, March 31, at Mt Scott Community Center, 5530 SE 72nd, 6-8 pm. The mayor will release a proposed budget on April 7. Anyone wishing to make suggestions on budget cuts or programs to preserve may contact the mayor's office at: 823-4127