Morning Fizz: Will Durkan Veto the Council’s Budget?

1. Will Mayor Jenny Durkan veto the city council’s budget?

It may seem early to start asking whether the mayor will reject the council’s revisions of her 2021 budget proposal, since the council is only at the midway point of the budget process. But as the potential amendments and substantive policy changes add up, it’s clear that the council is intent on restoring funds to  housing, grassroots community safety projects, and COVID relief—which means cutting into the mayor’s flagship priority, a $100 million “equitable investment” fund for “investments in BIPOC communities,” in the last budget before the next mayoral election.

Durkan first floated the concept of funding “$100 million in community-driven programs for Black youths and adults” at the height of last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, when every day produced new allegations of police brutality and overreach. A more detailed proposal came in September in the form of a plan to spend “$100 million on BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, and People of Color] communities. Specifically, Durkan proposed setting $100 million aside in next year’s budget until a task force appointed by the mayor comes up with recommendations for spending it.

To pay for such a large line item in a year of budget cuts, Durkan’s budget plan relies on revenues from the JumpStart payroll tax, which the council allocated to COVID-19 relief and homelessness and housing projects.

Separately, Durkan’s plan also eliminates $10 million the council allocated this year to scale up community-led alternatives to policing. And it “abandons” $30 million that was allocated to equitable investment projects during the sale of the Mercer Megablock property and spends these “flexible funds” on “critical City services in the 2020 Revised Budget and 2021 Proposed Budget.”

The clawback of the Megablock proceeds is perhaps the clearest case of a promise broken. Just last year, Durkan stood in a vacant lot in South Lake Union—at the time, one of the largest and most valuable publicly owned properties in the city— and announced that proceeds from the $143 million sale would help fund affordable housing and other projects that combat displacement in gentrifying areas. “I believe that years from now, people will look back at this chance and say we seized an incredible opportunity to make our City better by reinvesting the proceeds directly in housing across Seattle,” Durkan said at the time.

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This funding promise was one reason progressive groups like Puget Sound Sage did not vocally oppose the project, council member Lisa Herbold noted Thursday. She joined council members Tammy Morales, Andrew Lewis, and council president Lorena González in supporting a proposal by Kshama Sawant to restore funding for the projects promised as part of the Megablock sale last year.

2. Herbold’s proposal to create a new “duress” defense for some people facing misdemeanor charges won’t be heard until after the council adopts the 2021 budget. On Wednesday, González said council staffers were already overloaded with more than 120 budget amendment requests from members.

She also questioned whether Herbold’s proposal—which Herbold says would save the city money by reducing the number of jail beds it has to pay for—is truly budget-related. And she suggested it might not actually save much money, because former mayor Mike McGinn signed a long-term jail contract that commits the city for 30 years to paying for jail beds that they aren’t using now.

Herbold’s proposal, which would allow defense attorneys to argue that their clients committed certain misdemeanor crimes because they were trying to meet basic needs or were in the middle of a behavioral health crisis, has been red meat for conservative pundits, who claim that it would legalize most crime and plummet Seattle into a state of lawlessness.

3. The council is around the midpoint of the budget process, which officially wraps up November 23. Some of the other amendments the council is considering include:

• A proposal by council member Alex Pedersen to eliminate cost-of-living adjustments for non-unionized city workers making at least 80 percent of the Seattle median income. According to the city of Seattle, 80 percent of median income for a one-person household is around $62,000. Pedersen has characterized these routine pay adjustments, which he refers to as “raises,” as wasteful at a time when some city workers are facing layoffs. In reality, cost of living increases allow a worker’s wages to keep up with inflation; since a dollar in 2021 buys less than a dollar in 2020, the city gives workers a small pay bump so their wages aren’t worth less and less each year.

Pedersen, who characterized people making $62,000 or more as “higher-paid workers,” makes around $137,000 a year and reported a net worth of nearly a million dollars on his personal finance campaign disclosure form.

• In what could be a sign of how little trust remains between this council and this mayor, council president Lorena González has proposed creating a new economic forecast office that would be independent of the City Budget Office, “establishing a level playing field for receiving this information.” González’ $150,000 partial funding proposal also restricts 2021 funding for the existing budget office, which answers to the mayor, unless she spends the startup costs for the new independent office (which would be established through separate future legislation).

• More than four years after a King County task force unanimously recommended the creation of freestanding supervised consumption sites, a modest city expenditure to begin the process of locating a single, scaled-back site for injection drug users continues to languish. For the third year in a row, Durkan’s budget includes no funding for a safe consumption site; an amendment from Herbold would remedy that, moving $1.4 million for health services for drug users, including places for people to inject under medical supervision inside existing health-care centers, into the Human Services Department.

Successful supervised drug consumption sites exist in cities around the world, including Vancouver, B.C. Some best practices for such sites include medical supervision, anonymity, and places for people to consume drugs by non-injections means such as snorting and inhalation, which are generally less dangerous than injection.

• Council president González proposed restoring funds for a position in the city’s Office of Sustainability and that is supposed to begin issuing fines for building owners who do not comply with city greenhouse-gas emission rules starting this year. Funding the position, which costs the city $150,000, is expected to bring in $140,000 in net revenues, of which $110,000 would be spent improving energy efficiency in affordable housing.

• Pedersen and Sawant want to fund a study of transportation impact fees—fees charged to developers for creating “impacts” on the transportation system by adding more density in an area, such as the need for more sidewalk maintenance and increased traffic.

Although these fees are common in many cities, they are often used as a way of discouraging density by driving up development costs. Impact fees fail to consider the fact that many people who live in dense neighborhoods have a positive impact on both the transportation system and the environment, because they take transit, bike, and walk, instead of driving cars.

Transportation impact fees also ignore the negative externalities of driving up housing prices in cities so that people move to the suburbs, creating more car dependency and more greenhouse-gas emissions for entire regions. In short, transportation impact fees assume that density is a bad thing for the environment, when overwhelming evidence points to the opposite conclusion.