Digging Into Durkan’s Boom-Year Budget

Mayor Jenny Durkan released a boom-economy budget last week that defies the signs of a coming economic downturn (while acknowledging, in the included revenue forecast, that the good times can’t last forever), relying heavily on one-time revenues, along with money from a proposed tax on ride-hailing companies, to fund large new investments in bike and pedestrian infrastructure, housing, and a new downtown streetcar.

Many details of Durkan’s budget have already been announced. The plan, for example, contemplates spending some of the $143.5 million the city grossed from the sale of the Mercer Megablock properties to expand the city’s Equitable Development Initiative, spur affordable homeownership opportunities through a community land trust, subsidize backyard cottages and mother-in-law apartments for homeowners at risk of displacement, and fund bike lanes, sidewalks, and curb ramps that were originally supposed to be funded by the Move Seattle levy.

It also assumes about $125 million in revenues over the next five years from a new tax on ride-hailing companies, ongoing funds from the recently approved library levy and families and education levy, and excess funding from the voter-approved Seattle Transportation Benefit District, which will pay for new bus lanes, transit shelters, and shuttles to connect riders to transit lines (so-called “first mile-last mile” service.)

I’ve covered some of the mayor’s proposals already, and will be paying close attention to the upcoming council budget deliberation and bringing you details. Those discussions start this afternoon, so in the meantime, here’s a short (and by no means exhaustive) list of some line items I found interesting when perusing the 677-page budget document:

• Durkan’s budget does not expend the Navigation Team, a group of police officers and Human Services Department staffers who remove encampments and inform their displaced residents about available services and shelter. Durkan’s last budget added funding to permanently fund several Navigation Team positions that had been funded with one-time dollars, sparking a debate in which Durkan characterized any decision not to add funding for the Navigation Team as a “cut.” (Council member Teresa Mosqueda had proposed not expanding the team permanently and instead spending the money on raises for city-contracted human service workers). This year’s budget avoids that debate, holding the size of the team steady for now and (as I reported back in August) giving contracted workers a 2.6 percent bump over the 2 percent “inflationary” cost of living adjustment they received last year.

Your annual reminder that discretionary dollars—what the mayor and council can change—make up a tiny fraction of the overall city budget

• The proposal makes permanent a pilot project in which the city’s transportation department (SDOT) loaned the funding equivalent of six full-time staffers to the Department of Neighborhoods to do outreach and engagement for SDOT’s projects. It also suggests that DON will soon take over outreach work for at least six more large city departments: Finance and Administrative Services, the Office of Sustainability and the Environment, Human Services, Seattle Information Technology, Seattle City Light, and Seattle Public Utilities.

The idea, as I understand it, is that Neighborhoods is better positioned to do outreach than the departments themselves. How this will work in practice, and at such a large scale, remains to be seen. At a DON-led outreach event about planned cuts to bike lanes in Southeast Seattle earlier this year, DON staffers told worried residents that they had no authority to talk about specifics and would take residents’ concerns back to SDOT and the mayor. Mayoral spokeswoman Chelsea Kellogg says the actual agreements will be negotiated later this year or by early 2020 at the latest.

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• The Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections, whose budget relies heavily on permitting fees (and thus tends to fluctuate widely depending on how much development is happening across the city), includes a number of interesting line items. There’s $401,465 for 140 laptops, which works out to $2,868 per laptop, as well as $352,800 for parking costs, which, according to the budget, “rose from approximately $85/month per space to $300/month per space” and were “not previously budgeted in SDCI.” (Meanwhile, in another section of the budget, the city’s total spending on transit benefits for all departments is increasing by $500,000, to $7.1 million.)

One number that didn’t budge is the number of staffers assigned to inspect rental housing properties, investigate complaints, and enforce Seattle’s Rental Registration and Inspection Ordinance. That number, which peaked at the equivalent of 15.5 full-time employees in 2016, has held steady at 13 inspectors even as Seattle’s population has grown by more than 100,000 residents since the law was passed.

• The budget would expand the city’s Child Care Advantage Program, which provides child-care vouchers to low- and moderate-income workers, to add another 600 children. The CCAP program was one of several programs that had been funded through the city’s general fund until Durkan started using proceeds from the sweetened beverage tax to pay for them, freeing up general fund dollars for other purposes; earlier this year, the council passed legislation requiring the city to spend SBT revenues on new or expanded healthy-food or early childhood education programs, beating back a Durkan veto and forcing the mayor to create a special soda-tax fund in this year’s budget. The expansion, according to mayoral spokeswoman Kellogg, adheres to the letter and spirit of the law, which explicitly refers to “child care assistance.”

• In addition to the police, fire, and “prolific offender” spending the mayor’s office announced earlier this month, Durkan’s budget proposal adds six new community service officers (non-commissioned police officers who serve as liaisons between community and SPD) and adds $850,000 to continue SPD “emphasis patrols” in targeted neighborhoods (the first round focused on Fremont, Ballard, Georgetown, SoDo, downtown, Pioneer Square, and South Park). The new patrols would be staffed by SPD officers working overtime shifts.

• The mayor’s budget includes $200,000 to expand the RV remediation and disposal program to include new locations, and $165,000 in new funding to pay for RV impoundment and disposal (an amount the budget says is needed to maintain the existing program). It does not include separate funding for Durkan’s proposed crackdown on predatory RV “landlords,” which the city council has heavily amended and is unlikely to pass out of full council until after the final budget is adopted in November.