Council Plans Police Budget Cuts, Parks Board Debates Encampment Sweeps

This post was updated with additional details about the SPD budget provisos on Friday, December 11.

1. City council members Teresa Mosqueda and Lisa Herbold have introduced legislation that makes good on Mosqueda’s earlier proposal to cut $5.4 million from the Seattle Police Department’s 2021 budget in response to the police department’s fourth-quarter budget request for that amount this year. The council decided to grant the request but expressed its “intent” to come back with legislation to cut the department’s budget by the same amount next year.

SPD said it needed the extra funding to essentially backfill the cost of protest-related overtime, unanticipated family leave, and higher-than-expected separation pay for officers who are leaving. Mosqueda and other council members countered this week that the police knew perfectly well that the budget explicitly did not fund any additional overtime, and that they were supposed to stay within their budget.

After some behind-the-scenes discussion about whether Acting Police Chief Adrian Diaz would be personally liable for unpaid wages if the council didn’t come up with the money, budget committee members decided last week to express the council’s “intent” to cut $5.4 million from SPD’s budget in 2021, most likely using the savings from higher-than-expected attrition.

Herbold said on Wednesday that she wasn’t “a person who is rigid in saying that I would not support more overtime,” but “there needs to be a consequence for a continued large expenditure of overtime resources.”

The council adopted the 2021 budget in November; Mosqueda’s proposal would cut that budget. “I am not interested in giving the department one more penny,” Mosqueda told PubliCola. “The reality is, we are in this situation because the department made managerial decisions to spend money on overtime instead of on other purposes.”

2. The budget committee also rejected a separate proposal to lift 13 provisos (spending restrictions) that the council imposed on SPD’s budget in August. The provisos withhold a total of $2.9 million until the department makes an array of cuts, including laying off officers who work on specialized units like the Harbor Patrol, SWAT and the (theoretically disbanded) Navigation Team.

The mayor’s office told PubliCola that SPD hasn’t been able to make most of the cuts the council requested, because they require “out of order layoffs” that would violate provisions in the city’s police-union contracts that require the least-senior officers to be laid off first. The city’s labor negotiation team will need to bargain with both unions before those layoffs can take place; in the meantime, SPD hasn’t laid off any officers, so the department still needs to pay their salaries.

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As a result, city budget director Ben Noble told the council, SPD needed the council to lift all 13 provisos so that the department can use the $2.9 million to fill holes in its budget. Mosqueda told PubliCola on Friday that “it’s premature to lift the proviso” before the council knows by how much SPD will underspend its budget in November and December. SPD, Mosqueda said, was only “in that spot because they failed to stay within [the] spending authorized” by the council in August. Noble maintained Wednesday that there won’t be enough of an underspend to fund the $2.9 million shortfall.

3. The Seattle Board of Parks Commissioners and the Park District Oversight Committee were scheduled to discuss the issue of encampments in parks during a joint meeting Thursday night, but a lengthy discussion about whether to permanently limit car traffic on Lake Washington Boulevard (in which historic-preservation advocates tossed around buzzwords like “redlining” and “equity” to justify turning the recently calmed roadway into Lake Shore Drive) pushed the discussion to the board’s next meeting in January. 

Still, the commission gave parks department staff, including a beleaguered-looking Parks Director Jesús Aguirre, a preview of next month’s discussion, when they’ll consider weighing in formally on the city’s decision to put a pause on sweeps during the COVID pandemic. Commissioner Tom Byers, a mayoral staffer during the Charley Royer administration (1978-1990) expressed frustration that neither Aguirre nor anyone else at the city would commit to removing encampments and telling people to move along. When Royer was mayor, Byers said, the city and businesses would work together to ensure that unsheltered people couldn’t “take over parks,” and the city should show a similar commitment to keeping parks “clean” now.

The tents that have proliferated in Seattle parks, Byers continued, are “an abuse of parks, and I would like to know when it is going to stop. I want to know …  when the public are going to be able to reclaim and reuse their parks the way they were intended to be used? I don’t find it acceptable that we’re just going to go on the way it’s been for the last several months, and I’d like to hear an answer for when things are going to change, Jesús!”

Aguirre responded that of the 485 parks in Seattle, only around 17 are the sites of “entrenched encampments,” and only about 10 of those are “probably what most of you are talking about.”

“I don’t know when things are going to change with regard to when there’s going to be enough housing for people living outdoors,” Aguirre continued. “The encampment issue isn’t just a parks and recreation issue, and I’m not in a position to tell you that tomorrow we can start removing encampments. … These are our neighbors, and we have to find places for them to go. If we start removing them from our parks … that not going to solve the underlying problem.”

As part of the 2021 budget, the city funded a new initiative, called Clean Cities, that will pay for additional trash pickup by the Parks and the Seattle Department of Transportation, expand the city’s needle and litter abatement programs, and provide grants to businesses to help clean up litter and graffiti. The program does not authorize or fund additional encampment sweeps.