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Originally published Tuesday, September 26, 2006 at 12:00 AM

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Seattle Center, environment, the homeless in budget plan

After several bleak budgets, a growing economy means the city can finally start writing checks, Mayor Greg Nickels said Monday. In his 2007-2008 budget...

Seattle Times staff reporter

After several bleak budgets, a growing economy means the city can finally start writing checks, Mayor Greg Nickels said Monday.

In his 2007-2008 budget, the mayor recommended spending new money on Seattle Center, the environment, the homeless and a new park-rangers program to patrol downtown parks.

The city predicts the economy will slow down in the next two years but continue to grow. In the proposal, the general fund, the discretionary part of the budget that pays for most services, will increase 9.5 percent from $769 million in 2006 to $842 million in 2007. In 2008, general-fund spending would remain about level at $849 million.

Monday's proposal was a turnaround from the 2005-2006 biennial budget, when the city eliminated 191 jobs and faced a $25 million gap between projected revenues and the cost of maintaining services.

The only dark cloud now looms in 2008, when a state law takes effect that could cut $20 million in business-and-occupation-tax revenue to the city.

In his address to the City Council, the mayor said, "A wise person once told me, 'Plan ahead. It wasn't raining when Noah built the ark.'

"When we have the resources to invest in our future, we must invest them wisely."

His major spending priorities included:

• $12.9 million for Seattle Center, which includes $4.5 million to rehabilitate the monorail, $1 million each year for nine maintenance positions, $1.2 million to put together a 20-year Center plan. The city would also move $2.6 million in annual debt service from the Center's books to the general fund.

• $18.5 million — including $13.3 million from the city's transportation initiative that goes on the November ballot — to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, plant trees, improve waterways.

• $4 million in new funding to libraries to pay for staffing costs for the new branches, including $500,000 to buy books.

• $3.7 million on the homeless, which would create 40 units of supported housing and maintain the number of shelter beds.

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• $2.8 million to hire more staff to speed up the building-permit process.

• $2.5 million for downtown parks and hiring of five park rangers to patrol parks and issue citations.

• $2.4 million for a program to remove graffiti on public property within 48 hours.

The proposed budget relies on several optimistic scenarios. Nickels wrote his budget assuming that the Legislature will repeal a tax law it passed in 2003, which freed Seattle-based businesses, such as accounting and law firms, from paying business-and-occupation taxes for work done outside of the city.

If the law stays on the books, the city will have to cut $20 million from the 2008 budget. Nickels says he also will be forced to raise the business-and-occupation tax by 3.5 percent to 0.223 percent to make up for lost revenue.

The budget also assumes passage of a nine-year $361 million transportation levy, which would add about $155 in property taxes in its first year for the owner of a $400,000 home, or 38 cents for every $1,000 of assessed value. The levy will go to the voters Nov. 7.

The City Council will now hold hearings and expects to pass a final budget by the end of November.

"It's not that he's presented a bad budget; it's just that there are some holes in the budget that council members will want to fill," said Council President Nick Licata. Licata is particularly concerned about public safety and the need for more community-services officers and schools officers.

Nickels has proposed funding for six patrol positions that were previously paid for by Sound Transit. He also wants to buy 10 new patrol cars and put video cameras in all police cars.

Sharon Pian Chan: 206-464-2958 or schan@seattletimes.com

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