The C Is for Crank: Buried in the Budget, Signs of Ongoing Council-Mayor Mistrust

Although Mayor Jenny Durkan’s conciliatory statements toward the city council about their amended 2021 budget—which, you’ll recall, reduces her plan to set aside $100 million for future spending “for BIPOC communities” by 70 percent —mark an improvement from last summer’s low-water mark in mayor-council relations, two under-the-radar budget details may reveal a more lasting lack of trust between the branches.

Every year, the city council issues a number of budget provisos—restrictions on spending that require executive departments to meet certain conditions before the legislative branch will release funding for a program. For example, since 2019, the council has required the Human Services Department to release a report on various aspects of the Navigation Team’s work as a condition of releasing the team’s funds each quarter.

The number of provisos the council imposes, and the amount of funding restricted by those provisos, tends to vary from year to year, and the departments that are subject to provisos change over time depending on the areas of conflict between a particular mayor and a particular council. In 2015, under then-mayor Ed Murray, the council adopted 15 provisos, which restricted a little more than $16 million in spending in the 2016 budget.

This year, the council’s proposed budget includes 42 provisos that restrict an extraordinary, and almost certainly unprecedented, $117 million.

The bulk of those restrictions had to do with Seattle Department of Transportation; at the time, Murray was under fire for failing to dedicate enough money to bike lanes and other non-car-related infrastructure.Three years later, when Durkan was finishing her first year as mayor, the council imposed 17 provisos on about $10 million worth of spending. A review of a half-dozen city budgets going back to the Mike McGinn administration (2013: 19 provisos covering about $6 million) reveals that most years, the council’s limits on spending fall somewhere around this general range.

This year, in contrast, the council’s proposed budget includes 42 provisos that restrict an extraordinary, and almost certainly unprecedented, $117 million. The provisos place conditions on everything from the $30 million that remains in Durkan’s Equitable Communities Fund to more than $30 million that the council plans to spend on participatory budgeting. One proviso, citing typical hiring rates by the Seattle Police Department, holds back $5 million from the police budget unless the chief can prove it’s necessary. on salaries without council approval; another four dictate the geographical distribution of a few hundred thousand dollars for homeless outreach.

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In theory, placing a proviso on a spending item doesn’t necessarily mean that the council believes the mayor will ignore their adopted budget; provisos can simply indicate the council’s desire to stay involved in policy decisions made by departments, or to keep tabs on the city’s investments before sending more money out the door. They can also express a general frustration with the mayor for not providing information the council has requested. For example, in 2018, then-council member Mike O’Brien proposed, and the council adopted, a proviso restricting funds for the South Lake Union and First Hill streetcars until the mayor coughed up an overdue report on the streetcars’ performance.

This year’s outsize funding restrictions could also be a product of the city’s still-nascent efforts to divert funding from the Seattle Police Department and into community-based organizations that promote public safety; since the city still doesn’t know what the participatory budgeting process will recommend, for example, it may make sense to restrict that funding until the process is complete.

However, some council members have made no secret of the fact that they don’t trust Durkan to spend the money they allocate in the budget as directed. When the council was first trying to dismantle the Navigation Team last summer, for example, they used a budget proviso to remove police officers from the team—citing, among other things, the fact that Durkan had recently used $1.4 million intended for non-congregate shelter on rental assistance; failed to spend money the council allocated for mobile showers; and refused to approve an expansion of the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program.

The massive amount of spending that will be restricted by proviso this year is also consistent with the council’s ongoing complaints about mayoral overreach, as well as the fact that the mayor and council simply don’t agree on the precise direction the city should take on issues like public safety and homelessness. And it’s of a piece with a second revealing detail from this year’s budget: The creation of a new, independent budget and forecasting office, which—unlike the longstanding City Budget Office—will answer to both the mayor and the council.

The proposal, by council budget chair Teresa Mosqueda, would use some of the money that currently funds the CBO to stand up a new Independent Economics and Forecasting Office, which “would independently develop economic and revenue forecast information and present forecast results to the Mayor and Council and the same time, establishing a level playing field for receiving this information.”

Mosqueda has expressed frustration that the executive branch receives information about budget forecasts (and thus potential revenue shortfalls or surpluses) before the council does. At a budget meeting earlier this month, for example, she questioned the CBO’s August revenue forecast, which is the basis of the November budget, suggesting that it was more pessimistic than the forecasts made by other jurisdictions. Although CBO staffer Dave Hennes said the discrepancy was because the forecasts she was referring to were from a month later, when the economy had improved somewhat, Mosqueda suggested that the council couldn’t independently verify the forecasts because they didn’t have access to the models that the budget office used to write them.

Whether the new office will produce different revenue forecasts than the existing budget office will depend less on mayor-council politics than on whether it makes pessimistic or optimistic assumptions about the future.

“Our team has been asking for the models that produced the data or forecasts. Is there confidentiality around that?” Mosqueda asked. “No,” CBO director Ben Noble responded. “There’s no secrets here on modeling whatsoever—never have been.”

I asked Mosqueda why she saw the need for a separate forecasting office. She said she saw it as simply “a matter of good, transparent governance.” Pointing to the state legislature’s independent economic forecasting office, Mosqueda noted that the council is “the legislative body in the City of Seattle, and as such we are implementing similar tools.” King County also its own independent Office of Economic and Financial Analysis.

The new office will pull resources and staff from the existing budget office, which currently has just one full-time staffer dedicated to forecasting, along with several others who pitch in part-time. Whether the new office will produce different revenue forecasts than the existing budget office will depend less on mayor-council politics than on whether it makes conservative, or pessimistic, economic assumptions or adopts a more optimistic (and riskier) approach. In any case, setting up an entirely new forecast infrastructure within the city is an act whose impact will last far beyond the current budget year.

The new office will cost the city $150,000 for a partial year of funding. The council will guarantee that the executive branch spends the money using—what else—a budget proviso.

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