Illustration by Ryan Alexander-Tanner

THIS WINTER'S bonanza of funding requests from budget-hungry city bureaus and offices—$32.3 million in asks, even after Mayor Charlie Hales told everyone to keep their hands in their pockets—felt a little like those drunken emails to the boss that got sent instead of mercifully deleted.

And who could blame them? There was talk of a surplus, even if that talk only topped out at a little more than $9 million. And the city had just suffered through a $21.5 million budget hole.

That good news went down maybe too easily, and cutting loose probably felt good. Too good. It felt like hope.

And now, like clockwork, here comes the hangover.

The city's budget office issued a memo last week officially confirming that what had once been a $9 million surplus is now forecast at $6 million. And that's if there's any surplus at all. If business license tax collections stay unexpectedly weak, "there is the possibility that there will not be any excess ongoing or one-time resources" this year.

More painful is what the budget office did after it looked over those $32.3 million in requests (many of which were so wishful, they'd never be seriously considered).

It rejected all but $2.1 million, endorsing just five projects, mostly for promised maintenance work and some emergency preparedness programs.

And then there's devising the best way to prioritize that remaining $30.2 million—and deciding whether firefighters and sidewalks are more important than homeless women or earthquake preparedness or traffic cops.

Certainly, all of those are worthy. But there isn't enough money. So the budget office has politely told the council it wouldn't be providing any political cover when it comes to figuring that out.

"Council should discuss their priorities, and, if possible, come to consensus on the criteria that should be used for allocating remaining resources."

Translated, it reads something like this: Hey, you put all those politically charged requests on the table. So you figure out which ones you're taking off.

The budget office's reviews aren't the final word on the city's spending plans—but they're important. Bureaus personally present their requests to city council every spring, and the reviews often serve as fodder for questions and follow-up study.

The mayor then takes all that analysis in before issuing his own first pass at a budget—sparking another round of negotiations with the council.

City sources confirm those conversations are beginning early in city hall—with an eye for cutting down the wish list into something manageable. But it won't be simple.

What one commissioner might see as a moral imperative—Amanda Fritz's plan to convert part-time parks workers to full-time, or Steve Novick's insistence on fixing up the city's Westside disaster response center—might be seen as annoyingly expensive or unnecessary.

And yet, in past budgets, each commissioner would usually get something high on their list as budget negotiations dragged on, even if their colleagues were holding their noses.

That may not be possible this time around. But the conversation should be fascinating.