Morning Fizz: Veto Crunch Time, a $100 Million Mystery, and Other Budget News

Council President Lorena González, via
City council president Lorena González, via Youtube

1. Today at its special 3pm meeting, the Seattle City Council will vote on whether to overturn or uphold Mayor Jenny Durkan’s veto of their 2020 “rebalancing” budget package. The council’s version of the budget included modest cuts to the police budget, new spending on a process to reinvest city dollars in alternatives to policing, and the elimination of the Navigation Team, a crew of cops, sanitation workers, and three social workers that until recently removed hundreds of homeless encampments a year.

The mayor actually vetoed three separate bills. Two require a six-vote majority to overturn; the third, which actually appropriates funding for the remainder of 2020, requires seven votes—so seven is the number council members who want to overturn the mayor’s veto will need to shoot for. A vote to overturn all three vetoes would restore the council’s budget. A vote to sustain the veto(es) would lead to a vote on a separate, “compromise” piece of legislation, put forward by council president Lorena González, that would preserve the police department at existing levels, eliminate a loan between city departments that would pay for city and community human services programs, and keep the Navigation Team at current levels while requesting that the Seattle police chief reduce the total size of the team by eliminating two police positions that are already vacant.

On Monday, it looked unlikely that there would be seven votes to overturn the mayor’s veto, although several council members were conspicuously silent during the discussion. Interestingly, González herself tweeted on Monday night that she would vote to overturn the veto, in support of “the work to divest from a broken model of policing.”

A vote for the compromise bill would hand Durkan a significant victory on the eve of her 2021 budget speech next week, and on the threshold of her 2021 reelection campaign. Council members suggested Monday that they believe their hands are tied—if they overturn Durkan’s veto, the mayor can simply ignore any budget provisos that restrict police spending (forcing the council to overturn those provisos so that officers will continue to get their paychecks) and any negotiation with the Seattle Police Officers Guild would probably take three months anyway, pushing the discussions into 2021.

“I think we’re faced with the unfortunate reality that even though we can appropriate money, we can’t compel the mayor to spend the money, and that is sort of the condition we found ourselves in with a lot of these projects around how we’re going to restructure and defund” SPD, District 7 council member Andrew Lewis told PubliCola after the vote.

The consolation prize, to the extent that there is one, consists of $3 million that, according to the legislation, “is intended to be spent on providing non-congregate shelter,” like tiny house villages and the hotel rooms Durkan has resisted funding in response to the COVID-19 crisis. That funding is secured through what council members called a “verbal agreement” with the mayor’s office; Lewis said after the meeting that because the council discussed the agreement publicly, “it’s on record that that’s going to be the understanding of how this is going to work. We are about to [discuss] the 2021 budget and we can make sure this is in there, and we would be fully within our rights to be very indignant about that if there’s not a shared commitment to keeping that deal.”

There’s also $500,000 to be divided among a long list of human service needs, including behavioral health investments, “support[ing] the work of the Navigation Team,” diversion funding, and rapid rehousing funds. The entire half-million would flow through the Navigation Team, even though some of the programs—such as rapid rehousing, a kind of short-term rent subsidy that assumes a person will be able to pay full market rent within a few months—are not really geared toward people experiencing long-term unsheltered homelessness.

Under the compromise bill, the $3 million allocated for research into community-led alternatives to policing in the council’s budget is shrunk to $1 million, with the rest to follow, also apparently by verbal agreement, next year. And there’s $2.5 million for “organizations engaging in community safety,” such as (for example) Choose 180 and Community Passageways.

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2. If the compromise passes, Durkan will also get to keep the Navigation Team at its current level. The future of the team was a major sticking point in the budget negotiations (the other two being whether the council would overturn the veto—which Durkan was adamantly against even if the council immediately adopted a compromise—and cuts to police) and a vote for the compromise bill will only forestall the debate over the fate of the team.

Already, Durkan has reportedly indicated that she plans to keep the team going through 2021, although Lewis—who chairs the council’s special committee on homelessness—says the team’s role, like public safety in general, may be “reimagined.” What that might look like remains unclear, but it could involve renegotiating the terms under which the city can remove encampments, or—as Lewis puts it—”pivoting to more of a coordinating and clearinghouse kind of space to coordinate service providers.”

The council voted unanimously to remove police from the team last month through another budget proviso. The compromise bill also states the council’s “policy intent” to cut five positions from the Navigation Team total; Lewis indicated during the meeting that the additional cuts would come from removing non-SPD staffers from the team.

3. With the 2020 budget almost the rearview mirror, it’s time for Durkan’s 2021 budget proposal, which she will send to the council next Tuesday. The biggest-ticket promised item—”$100 million in community-driven programs for Black youths and adults,” as she put it when she first committed to the funding in June—will also be the hardest to pay for. Durkan has not said publicly where she plans to come up with $100 million in a budget that will have to address ongoing revenue shortfalls in 2021.

Will the money be new revenue—something like a flat income tax, with rebates to low- and middle-income people to get around a court ruling quashing the city’s high-earners’ income tax? Will the revenue come by reallocating funds from a tax that already exists? Or will the mayor use budgetary magic—similar to the math that turned an interdepartmental transfer of 911 call center staff into a huge “cut” to the police department—to conjure $100 million from existing dollars?

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