Battle Over Budget Transparency Illustrates Deeper Rifts Between Seattle Mayor and Council

It’s probably another sign of the frayed relationship between most members of the Seattle City Council and Mayor Jenny Durkan that the big meta-budget dispute playing out in council chambers right now is how much the mayor and her budget office know about the details of midyear cuts the mayor is proposing and how much they’re telling the council, which has to approve a final package of midyear budget cuts based on more than a dozen pieces of legislation the mayor sent them earlier this month.

Yes, how much to cut the police department (and whether the mayor’s proposed “cuts,” for this year and next, are meaningful or merely cosmetic) remains the most pressing single budget issue. But the cuts the city has to make this year—and then replicat and expand in 2021—are largely in other departments that aren’t currently in the headlines, and the debate over the mayor’s proposals is also a debate about discretion and how much of the budget is actually on the table for the council to tinker with.

On Thursday morning, city council central staff director Kirsten Arestad said central staff will develop a new budget tool—essentially, a balancing worksheet—that will show exactly what is in the mayor’s midyear budget-cutting package, including “administrative cuts” the mayor has made that are not reflected in the legislation she sent to the council. The tool will also take a baseline forecast (the June revenue forecast, which added another $11.4 million deficit to the May forecast on which Durkan’s balancing packaged is based) and use it as the basis of the balancing package. The worksheet will also indicate more clearly the gap between revenues (including COVID-related federal funding) and expenditures (including unanticipated costs related to the pandemic), Arestad said.

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One reason all this extra work is necessary, according to Arestad, is because not all of the cuts Durkan made to the budget show up in the legislation she sent the council, which only includes cuts the council has to act on, making it “difficult to clearly see the full picture” of the budget and “almost impossible for individual council members to determine, as they’re making amendments, ‘Where can I take money, is this being double counted, how does this impact other fund balances, the levy exchanges, how we dip into the emergency funds, and so forth’.”

The budget office doesn’t see it this way. They say they have provided all the information the council has asked for—including not just specific line-item cuts but a list of cuts the mayor considered and rejected (scroll down)—and that the disagreement is actually more fundamental than a simple question of transparency. “We did not and were not intending to send down an entire new budget proposal,” budget director Ben Noble says, or relitigate the entire 2020 budget. But that, he argues, is exactly what the council is trying to do.

So why is this debate ultimately more illustrative than substantive? For one thing, a council that had a healthy relationship with the mayor could have communicated their confusion and need for more information behind the scenes, instead of having the director of Central Staff read a letter for the record; and a mayor who had a healthy relationship with the council could have figured out what information the council wanted and figure out a way to provide it, instead of sending down a dozen pieces of legislation that included gaps that were sure to frustrate a council primed to look for budget trickery.

The second reason this debate is largely symbolic is that the line items the council wants to add (and make up for by cutting from other parts of the budget) are—again, setting the police budget aside—relatively minor strictly from a spending perspective, and many of them will depend on departments (which answer to the mayor) agreeing to voluntarily start the hiring process this year for positions that have been frozen since March, at the risk of having to lay them off at the beginning of next year.

Here are a few examples of the edits the council is proposing to the mayor’s balancing package. The biggest non-police amendment, from Alex Pedersen, would restore $2.4 million for a sidewalk project in his northeast Seattle district. Other proposals would fund an arbitrator in the Office for Civil Rights, redirect funding from a hotel for essential workers to hotel rooms for people experiencing homelessness who are vulnerable to COVID, and fund the audio component of the AIDS Memorial Pathway in Cal Anderson Park, for which Durkan’s budget eliminated funding.

Since the council can only allocate funds, however, the mayor could decide not to spend the money—an outcome that seems particularly likely with positions that the council anticipates filling in October, when the city will be making a whole new round of cuts.

The council does have one other option to try to force the mayor to spend money the way they want: A budget proviso, which essentially says that a specific pot of money can’t be spent unless the executive branch meets certain conditions. The council’s budget amendments include several provisos, including one that would direct the city to translate information about building and permitting accessory dwelling units (ADUs) into languages other than English (a new initiative planned for this year that Durkan’s balancing package eliminated), one that would prevent the city from spending on the city’s contract with the King County Jail until both parties agree to renegotiate the contract, and one (which I covered last week) that would withhold funding for the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program unless the city agrees to eliminate the requirement that police sign off on each person who enters the program.

Of course, mayors have a long history of ignoring, delaying, or reinterpreting provisos, too. Witness, for example, the endless debate over whether the mayor’s Human Services Department is meeting the requirements imposed by provisos on funding for the Navigation Team. As council members have noted, with visible frustration, several times over the past few weeks, “We can’t force the mayor to spend the money we appropriate.”

One thought on “Battle Over Budget Transparency Illustrates Deeper Rifts Between Seattle Mayor and Council”

  1. Some day I will get better about understanding local legislation. I get very confused very fast. Adding your page to my Feedly. Since moving to Squarespace, I’m not great about keeping up with the people I followed in WordPress’s Reader (a function I wish Squarespace offered).

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