City’s Recession-Era Budget Includes Modest Cuts to Police, Promises of Future Investments in Community Safety

This story originally appeared at the South Seattle Emerald.

by Erica C. Barnett

The Seattle City Council adopted a 2021 budget today that reduces the Seattle Police Department’s budget while funding investments in alternatives to policing; repurposes most of Mayor Jenny Durkan’s proposed $100 million “equitable investment fund” to council priorities; and replaces the encampment-removing Navigation Team with a new program intended to help outreach workers move unsheltered people into shelter and permanent housing. 

And although council member Kshama Sawant, who votes against the budget every year, decried the document as a “brutal austerity budget,” it contained fewer cuts than council members and the mayor feared they would have to make when the economy took a nosedive earlier this year. 

The council received two major boosts from the executive branch this budget cycle. First, the council’s budget benefited from a better-than-expected revenue forecast from the City Budget Office that gave them an additional $32.5 million to work with. And second, Durkan expressed support for the council’s budget, portraying it as a compromise that preserved all of the $100 million she had proposed spending “on BIPOC communities,” albeit not in the form she initially imagined. This show of goodwill (or political savvy) from the mayor signaled a sharp turnaround from this past summer, when she vetoed a midyear spending package that also included cuts to police.

Here’s a look at some of the biggest changes the council made to the mayor’s original proposal. 

Seattle Police Department

The council’s budget for police will be a disappointment to anyone who expected the council to cut SPD’s funding by 50%, as several council members pledged last summer at the height of the protests against police brutality sparked by George Floyd’s murder in May. Council members acknowledged that the cuts were smaller and slower than what protesters have demanded but said that the City is just at the beginning of the process of disinvesting in police and investing in community-based public safety. 

“Our goal is not about what the golden number of police officers is in this moment,” council public safety committee chair Lisa Herbold (West Seattle) said. “It’s about shifting our vision of what public safety is into the hands of community-based responses in those instances where those kinds of responses not only reduce harm but can deliver community safety in a way that police officers sometimes cannot.” 

Council member Tammy Morales (South Seattle), who acknowledged earlier this month that “we will not reach our shared goal of a 50% reduction in one budget cycle,” said that in her estimation, “increasing police staffing wrongly presumes that they can fill the roles” of the “nurses and support staffers and housing specialists” that the City plans to hire in the future.

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Although the 2021 budget does cut police spending by around 20%, the bulk of that reduction comes from shifting some police responsibilities, including parking enforcement and the 911 dispatch center, out of the department. The rest of the cuts are largely achieved through attrition — taking the money allocated to vacant positions and spending it on other purposes. 

For example, the council’s budget funds a total of 1,343 SPD positions next year, down from 1,400 in Durkan’s budget, for a total savings (including a last-minute amendment adopted Monday) of just over $8 million. That money will be removed from the police department and spent on future community-led public safety projects, which will be identified by a participatory budgeting process led by King County Equity Now.

At Monday’s council briefing meeting, some council members expressed hesitation about a last-minute amendment from Mosqueda cutting an additional $2 million from SPD’s budget, noting that the department now predicts it will be able to hire more than the 114 new officers it previously projected for next year. And at least one council member found it odd that the number of SPD employees the amendment predicts will leave next year — 114 — is exactly the same as the number of new hires predicted in the mayor’s budget, for a net gain of exactly zero officers.

“The fact that we are anticipating 114 attritions seems a little cute to me, to be honest, given that the number [of hires] in the [mayor’s] staffing plan … is 114,” Herbold said during the council’s morning briefing. “It just feels like it is an attempt to respond to the call for no new net officers and it confuses the situation, I think.” In the end, only Alex Pedersen, who represents Northeast Seattle, voted against the cuts.

Community Safety

The council’s budget puts $32 million toward future investments in community-led public safety efforts that would begin to replace some current functions of the police department, such as responding to mental health crises and domestic violence calls. 

Of that amount, up to $1.5 million would fund a ongoing participatory budgeting effort, which will help determine which projects get the rest of the funding, and a new “civilian crisis response and social services triage system app” that would “make it easier to find, pay, and support community service providers and healers.”

Much of the funding for community safety projects in the council’s budget comes from the $100 million Durkan initially set aside for her “Equitable Communities Initiative,” which would have been spent according to the recommendations of a mayor-appointed task force. That $100 million has since been pared back to $30 million.

Homelessness 

Perhaps it’s a symptom of Seattle’s challenge with keeping more than one priority front and center at a time, but the dismantling and replacement of the Navigation Team — a controversial group of human services staffers and sworn police officers that, before the pandemic, was chiefly responsible for removing homeless encampments throughout the city — received relatively little attention this budget cycle.

Earlier this year, the mayor’s office and council members announced a compromise on homelessness that marked a significant turnaround from last summer’s impasse over the best way to provide outreach and housing to unsheltered people. The new plan includes two elements. First, the City will replace the Navigation Team with a new Homelessness Outreach and Provider Ecosystem (HOPE) team that will coordinate the work of nonprofit outreach providers but whose members won’t go out in the field themselves. And second, the City will use federal COVID relief dollars to fund temporary shelter in hotels, with the goal of moving people quickly to permanent supportive housing or into market-rate housing through rapid-rehousing subsidies.

The council’s budget also adds funding for additional trash service at encampments, expansion of nighttime shelters to operate 24 hours a day, the Downtown Emergency Service Center’s mobile crisis team, new publicly accessible sinks, rapid rehousing, and neighborhood-specific unsheltered outreach.

The elimination of the Navigation Team does not mean that the controversy over homeless encampments has gone away. Last month, the Downtown Seattle Association released a survey that concluded that respondents do not feel safe downtown, in part because of the large number of unsheltered people in the area. During the pandemic, homelessness has become more visible as the City has stopped forcing unsheltered people to move from place to place, which has increased demands from businesses and business-backed groups to “clean up” streets by removing encampments and adopting a punitive approach toward people exhibiting the symptoms of mental illness and addiction.

Outtakes

Besides the big amendments I’ve noted above, the council budget made few other major changes to the mayor’s budget proposal. However, a few amendments merit honorable mention, including the following:

  • The council passed a new $20 vehicle license fee, which will fund about $3.6 million in transportation improvements next year and $7.2 million annually beginning in 2022. Sawant decried the fee as a regressive increase in car tabs, although drivers will actually pay $40 less next year than they currently do, thanks to the expiration of a voter-approved $60 vehicle license fee. Council members Pedersen, Herbold, and Andrew Lewis tried to dedicate the money to bridge maintenance, but their effort failed, and the council will decide how to spend the money sometime next year.
  • Two amendments kick off a process that could eventually make renting a new apartment easier and cheaper. The first requires the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections (SDCI) to study the creation of a rental history database that could eliminate the need for renters to pay landlords for multiple background checks; the second requires SDCI to draft standard lease terms with the goal of preventing landlords from including abusive or exploitative requirements in their leases.
  • Building on Durkan’s proposal to double the size of the Seattle Fire Department’s Health One program from one unit to two, the council added a third vehicle and funding for three new case managers for the program. Health One, which is staffed by specially trained firefighters and social workers from the Human Services Department, responds to non-emergency 911 calls that don’t require a full fire or police response.
  • The council also restored $1.6 million for fire department recruitment and testing. Durkan’s budget proposal would have reduced the 2021 SFD recruit class from 60 members to 40, at a time when fire department attrition is unusually high. A report from council central staff on the proposal estimated that if firefighters continue retiring at the current rate, the fire department could be forced to meet its legally mandated minimum staffing levels by using overtime.
  • Four years have passed since a King County task force unanimously recommended the creation of freestanding supervised consumption sites, yet for the third year in a row, Durkan’s budget included no funding for safe consumption or services for injection drug users. An amendment from Herbold, which had support from every council member but Pedersen, added $1.12 million for health services for drug users, including places for people to inject under medical supervision inside existing health-care centers.

 

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