Durkan Will Veto Council Budget Over Cuts to Police Department; Council President Hopes for Compromise

As I first reported on Twitter this morning, Mayor Jenny Durkan will announce this afternoon that she will veto the city council’s midyear budget rebalancing package, a move that could effectively remove one co-equal branch of government from the city’s budget process by reinstating Durkan’s original budget proposal with no input from the council. The council could overturn the veto, as they did the mayor’s recent veto of a COVID relief package that relies on future revenues from the JumpStart payroll tax. Or—as seems likely—the council try to work with Durkan to come up with a rebalancing package that the mayor will accept.

“The bills I am vetoing today were passed without the level of collaboration that I think we need, and more important, that the city expects of us,” Durkan said at a press conference this afternoon, “but I am optimistic that we can continue to work together to bridge the gaps. I continue to believe that we can [reach] common ground on the vision for SPD that has been laid out by Chief [Carmen] Best and I.”

The objections Durkan raised were familiar to anyone who has been following the debate over police defunding: The mayor said that the council is attempting to change things “overnight,” “without a plan,” and that her budget proposals already contain large cuts to the police department. The vast majority of those cuts, however, come from transferring some current SPD functions, such as the 911 dispatch center, into other parts of the budget—not from transforming the city’s approach to public safety or reducing the number of SPD officers, as protesters have been demanding since May.

City council president Lorena González said in an interview that she is “incredibly disappointed’ in the mayor’s decision to veto yet another council spending proposal. “It is obvious that there is a significant difference of opinion between the City Council and the mayor and the chief on what can and should be achieved in 2020 in order to respond to the calls from community to reduce the Seattle Police Department’s budget this year and begin the process of investing in community safety programs,” González says.

The rebalancing proposal was necessary to deal with a midyear budget shortfall of around $300 million, a number that keeps getting edited upward as new revenue projections come in.

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The council’s plan included more significant, but still relatively minor, cuts. The version they adopted cuts SPD’s budget by 7 percent by eliminating the encampment-removing Navigation Team, reducing the salaries of SPD command staff (including Best, whose 2020 pay was reduced by $6,000) and cutting 100 positions at SPD through a combination of layoffs and attrition. The council’s proposal also provided $3 million to start a participatory process to reallocate SPD to community-based public health and safety programs, plus $14 million to a combination of city and community programs, funded through an interfund loan that Durkan said was the main reason for her objection to that particular spending proposal.

“Look, it’s a loan that I’m not sure we can repay, and we know with the coming budget that we will have to do some interfund loans just to keep the city services that we have,” Durkan said.

Durkan mentioned the Navigation Team specifically at several points during her press conference, suggesting that the council wanted to cut the team “without a plan” to deal with dangerous encampments. “I’ve had open houses with a number of community and neighborhood groups in the last weeks, and the impact that some of these encampments are having are real— and they are also real for the people living in those encampments,” she said. “We have to have a way to bring people inside and address the public safety [issues], and the cuts did not allow us an opportunity to do that.” Since the pandemic began, the city has provided only about 100 new shelter spaces for the thousands of people living unsheltered in Seattle.

Under the city charter, the council must take a vote to overturn or sustain the veto within 30 days. Council president Lorena González says her hope is that, rather than simply overturning another mayoral veto, the council will be able to “come to some agreement  with the mayor around a rebalanced package, and that’s going to be a two-way street. We need her to make a good-faith effort to engage in order to meaningfully move this forward.”

Otherwise, González says, the council and mayor will likely stay stuck in “this constant back and forth” of vetoes and votes to overturn. “This mayor has made a historical number of vetoes. I’m not aware of any other mayor in the history of the city of Seattle who’s used veto power at this level, and I think that she is sending us a clear message that she will continue to do so,” González says.

It’s clear that there are still significant gaps between what the council wants and what the mayor will accept. In particular, it’s unclear what, exactly, the mayor would consider “on the table” when brokering a future “compromise” with the council. The Navigation Team, community spending, participatory budgeting research, command staff salaries, and SPD personnel cuts seem to be off the table.

But there is also now precedent for compromise between the mayor and the council. This afternoon, Durkan also announced an agreement on the COVID relief package that is much smaller than the council’s original proposal but that will, in the words of JumpStart sponsor Teresa Mosqueda, enable the city to “mov[e] forward jointly as we cannot wait another day” for relief to residents and small businesses impacted by the pandemic.

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