By Erica C. Barnett
Mayor Jenny Durkan has asked the city council to lift more than a dozen restrictions on Seattle Police Department spending in 2020 so that SPD can pay for overtime expenses accrued this year, including—as the fiscal note prepared by the executive City Budget Office describes it—”exceptional budget pressures due to the utilization of overtime in response to on-going protests and demonstrations and increased separation pay-outs as officers have left the force late in the year.”
As part of the city’s 2020 rebalancing package, the city council passed a resolution that said the council “will not support any budget amendments to increase the SPD’s budget to offset overtime expenditures above the funds budgeted in 2020 or 2021.”
This year’s fourth-quarter supplemental budget includes additional police expenditures in 2020 that would add more than $5 million in SPD spending to the rebalanced budget the city adopted in August—a budget Durkan unsuccessfully vetoed over the issue of police funding. The legislation indicates that the mayor’s office believes some of that money will be reimbursed by FEMA as part of a COVID relief package.
The legislation would also lift a number of provisos relating to out-of-order layoffs, in recognition of the fact that layoffs will be subject to bargaining and can’t happen this year, so the officers who would be subject to layoffs must keep getting paid through the rest of 2020. The council acknowledged earlier this year that this was a possibility.
The legislation has to go through the budget committee, and ordinarily would be sponsored by the budget committee chair. But there’s a problem: The budget chair, Teresa Mosqueda, tells PubliCola that she does not “believe this is the time to lift the provisos or allow for additional spending authority” for SPD. During Monday morning’s council briefing, Mosqueda elaborated: “As this council has [made] very clear, we… want to make sure that we’re interrupting the process and the practice of SPD specifically coming back to ask for overtime dollars.”
SPD, Mosqueda said, made it clear earlier this year that they would fund overtime, as well as jobs the council has directed SPD to cut through “out of order” layoffs, through its existing budget; the resolution and provisos were a way of making sure that they did so. To come back now and ask for money—more than $3 million—violates both the letter and the spirit of the 2020 budget (which Durkan attempted, unsuccessfully, to veto), Mosqueda says.
“It’s no secret to the mayor or to the police department that council passed a resolution during our summer budget process that said the council will not support any budget increase … above the funds budgeted for 2020 or 2021,” Mosqueda told PubliCola on Sunday. “No other department is coming back to council and asking for additional spending authority or to [tell us] that they’ve already spent all their money and need reimbursement.”
The mayor’s office countered on Monday that the city council should have expected the additional spending request, given the magnitude of the cuts included in the mid-year budget revision. “In 2020, the Mayor and Council cut roughly $23 million from the SPD’s budget mid-year,” mayoral spokeswoman Kelsey Nyland said. “I don’t think it’s a huge leap to imagine the SPD – or any department – would have trouble making its budget under those circumstances.”
Nyland noted that in addition to excess overtime (which, she said, Interim Police Chief Adrian Diaz has partially addressed by transferring detectives from specialty units to patrol), the department had to pay unanticipated extra separation pay and vacation payouts as more officers than anticipated have left the department. “One thing that’s important to remember is that attrition actually costs a lot more than people realize,” Nyland said. “When an officer leaves, it doesn’t translate exclusively to salary savings for the SPD.”
In the last five months, according to data Nyland provided, the city has spend around twice as much on separation payments for departing SPD officers (just over $2 million) than it did in the first five months of 2020 (just over $1 million).
Mosqueda said she understood the need to provide separation pay when officers leave and to fund family leave, another expense that has cost the city more than anticipated. But she said she has no patience for the department’s request that the council to bail them out for overtime they used to respond to protests against police violence over the summer. Although the city’s police accountability partners called on police to deescalate and disengage from protesters, Mosqueda said, phalanxes of police in riot gear spent weeks turning tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets, and other “less lethal” weapons against mostly peaceful demonstrators, accelerating calls to defund the police.
“Our accountability partners were recommending less force and less of a presence, which could have been used to reduce the cost,” Mosqueda said.
It’s unclear exactly what would happen if the council refused to release more funding for SPD this year. According to multiple City Hall sources, Durkan has said that she and Acting Police Chief Adrian Diaz could be personally liable—as in, the city could take their houses—if the officers don’t get paid. Asked about this, Nyland responded that “Obviously, not paying City employees for their labor is illegal” and pointed to a state law that says public officials can be held criminally and financially liable for spending “in excess of the expenditure allowances authorized in the final budget as adopted or modified.”
When police funding was on the table earlier this year, Durkan’s senior deputy mayor said the city council’s proposal would require the mayor to “abolish the police department” and put an immediate end to all 911 response and patrols. (This did not come to pass). Whether Durkan’s office will make similarly hyperbolic predictions about what will happen if the council doesn’t increase SPD’s funding remains to be seen.
Mosqueda said she’s unaware of any law that makes the police chief or the mayor financially liable for police officer salaries. “I know of no other department where that’s the case, and if that is the case, I would say: it is very clear what the council expected in the budgeting process,” Mosqueda said.