By Erica C. Barnett
The Seattle City Council’s budget committee, which includes all nine council members, moved forward on a 2023-2024 budget yesterday that will move the city’s parking enforcement division back to the police department, preserve inflationary wage increases for human service workers, and increase the city’s funding for the King County Regional Homelessness Authority—all while closing a late-breaking budget hole of almost $80 million over the next two years.
Every fall, the mayor proposes a budget and the council “rebalances” it, adding spending for their own priorities and removing items to keep the budget balanced. In November, after many council members had already proposed substantial changes to Mayor Bruces Harrell’s initial budget proposal, the city received news that tax revenues would be even lower than previously anticipated. The biggest unanticipated shortfall came from a decline in real-estate taxes, which pay for long-term capital projects, but other revenues, including parking taxes and money from the sweetened beverage tax, also declined.
Last week, council budget chair Teresa Mosqueda proposed a balancing package that saved money by declining to fund most of the new programs and program expansions Harrell proposed in his budget, while making several substantive policy changes. Among the most controversial: A proposal to eliminate 80 vacant positions in the police department, and a related plan to to keep the city’s parking enforcement officers at the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT), rather than moving them back to SPD, while the city decides on a permanent home for the unit.
“Our mayor’s budget did not delete these 80 [vacant police] positions, and if we trust in what the mayor asks for regarding public safety and the budgeting knowledge and skills and best practices of the city budget office, I don’t think we should do anything different here.”—Councilmember Alex Pedersen
The budget the committee adopted Monday night, nearly 12 hours into a meeting that began at 9:30 that morning, will eliminate the 80 vacant positions, while preserving another 160 vacant positions in future years. Vacant positions continue to be funded year after year unless the mayor or council takes action to defund them temporarily and use the money for other purposes, as Harrell’s budget does this year. Both the proposed budget and the one adopted by the committee on Monday use money that would have gone to the 80 vacant positions to augment the city’s general fund, while using the savings from another 120 positions to pay for new spending within the police department. This week, the council got word that SPD had identified another 40 vacant positions, for a total of 240.
Council member Alex Pedersen opposed eliminating the 80 unfilled police positions, arguing that it would be wrong for the council to go against the “wisdom” of the City Budget Office, the mayor, and police chief Adrian Diaz, who want to keep as many positions vacant but funded as possible.
“Our mayor’s budget … did not delete these 80 positions, and if we trust in what the mayor asks for regarding public safety and the budgeting knowledge and skills and best practices of the city budget office, I don’t think we should do anything different here by abrogating or deleting these 80 positions,” Pedersen said.
Council member Sara Nelson added that eliminating vacant positions as a recurring budget line item could discourage people from applying for jobs at SPD and send a message to existing officers that the city did not support police hiring.
In response, council public safety chair Lisa Herbold pointed out that the budget fully funds the mayor and SPD’s hiring plan, which would increase the department by a net total of 30 officers in the next two years. (This hiring plan assumes a complete reversal, and then some, of current SPD hiring trends). It also keeps the remaining 160 vacant positions on the books, where they will be funded again automatically in 2025. For the city to need the 80 positions the council eliminated Monday, it would have to hire at least 190 net new officers, not counting new recruits who replace officers who leave the department. If that very unlikely scenario came to pass, the council could add funding for more officers—as it has many times in the past.
“It’s really disappointing that … some people seem unwilling to say that the hiring budget is fully funded for the next biennium for the council to act on,” Herbold said. “That would send a positive factual message, rather than … distort what an abrogation of positions would do for the budget.”
Nelson and Pedersen also cast the only votes against a Herbold-sponsored proviso, or spending restriction, requiring the police department to get council approval if they want to use their staffing budget for anything other than salaries and benefits, arguing it was important to give SPD special flexibility to spend their budget how they want to.
“I believe we should stop micromanaging the use of salary savings and exercise some humility going forward because we simply don’t know what needs will need to be met,” Nelson said. “[Extra] overtime, for example, if there’s an earthquake or a mass shooting or something.”
In a last-minute compromise with Harrell’s office, the council agreed to move parking enforcement from SDOT to SPD, as PubliCola reported Monday. The compromise amendment uses administrative savings from the move (almost $9 million a year) to pay for several council spending priorities, including $1 million in one-time funds to support the Public Defender Association’s LEAD and Co-LEAD programs, which Harrell’s budget partially defunded; $1 million to “activate” City Hall Park in Pioneer Square, which has been fenced off since the summer of 2021; and $1 million for RV parking and storage “associated with non-congregate shelter,” among other new spending.
In a separate amendment, the council provided an additional $2 million a year for LEAD and Co-LEAD, which the PDA says still leaves them $5.3 million a year short of what it needs to fully fund both programs. The two programs provide case management and (in the case of Co-LEAD) hotel-based shelter for people involved in the criminal legal system, including many with behavioral health conditions that make it harder to find housing.
Morales had more success with another amendment that would place a budget proviso, or restriction, on $1 million in 2023 spending from the city’s transportation levy, requiring SDOT to spend it replacing plastic bollards that do not actually “protect” bike lanes with concrete barriers that do.
Here are some more highlights from Monday’s meeting, which was the last chance for council members to make substantive changes to the budget; for budget changes the council agreed on prior to Monday’s meeting, check out our coverage of those changes from last week.
• The council turned down proposals to place extra scrutiny on two programs that the council’s more conservative faction, led by Pedersen and Nelson, generally oppose. For example, they voted to remove $1.2 million in funding (all numbers are two-year figures) that Nelson wanted to spend on two full-time city staffers who would evaluate the JumpStart tax, which was just implemented last year.
The council also rejected two proposals by Nelson to apply extra scrutiny to LEAD and Co-LEAD, which take a harm reduction approach to addiction and low-level criminal activity rather than the abstinence-only approach Nelson favors (more on that in a moment). Specifically, Nelson wanted detailed information about the PDA’s subcontracts with REACH, the homeless outreach provider, and the basic details of both programs.
“What services are provided to the clients of LEAD?” Nelson asked Monday. “Which contractors do what for which program?” because they do receive so much funding?” Additionally, Nelson proposed an amendment that would require quarterly reports on LEAD and Co-LEAD clients’ shelter and housing “acceptance” rates.
“What are the intended outcomes of the LEAD program, how are they tracked, what are the measures of success, cost per client and drivers of cost, [and] what services are clients receiving to eventually graduate from the LEAD program, because we know their client base grows every year?” Nelson asked.
This isn’t the first time Nelson has raised these questions. Earlier this month, Nelson wrote to PDA co-director Lisa Daugaard an email with questions about how LEAD and Co-LEAD work and where their city funding goes, which Daugaard answered in an email that included a detailed revenue and spending plan for the PDA’s three primary programs (the third is JustCARE, which places encampment residents in hotel-based shelters). On Monday council members noted that the PDA is already subject to extensive reporting requirements and is governed by a multi-jurisdictional group that includes a representative from the City Council (currently Herbold).
Nelson said she was singling these programs out for extra scrutiny because the city was “increasing” the amount of money they receive; in fact, the budget the council adopted reduces funding for both programs, as described above. Both amendments failed on 7-2 votes, with Nelson and Pedersen voting for them.
• The council also rejected a proposal by Tammy Morales to set up a municipal housing administration program to begin laying the groundwork for “social housing” in Seattle. The program would have included four new staffers at the city’s Office of Housing, who would start laying the groundwork for the publicly funded, tenant-run housing developments proposed by a local initiative that will be on the ballot next February. That initiative would, in turn, create a public housing developer but does not include funding for social housing, which will need to come from the state or other sources if the measure, I-135, passes.
“Municipal housing fills a niche in the city that we are not currently addressing in Seattle,” Morales said. The proposal failed, with Morales, Andrew Lewis, and Kshama Sawant voting “yes.”
Pedersen argued that it was important to ensure that jail beds were available in case the city wants to use them in the future—for example, if the jail hires enough people to start locking up more people accused of low-level misdemeanors.
• Council members also passed two Morales amendments PubliCola covered last week. The first will require the city’s Department of Education and Early Learning to come up with a plan to prioritize low-income kids, first-generation immigrants, and students of color for funds from the Seattle Promise program, which is funded through the local Families, Education, Preschool, and Promise (FEPP) levy.and require the city to use any “underspend” from the Seattle Promise program to go toward early learning and K-12 programs, rather than tuition assistance. As we reported, Morales raised concerns about the use of FEPP levy proceeds after learning that the tuition assistance provided through the Promise program disproportionately benefits white students.
• Morales had more success with another amendment that would place a budget proviso, or restriction, on $1 million in 2023 spending from the city’s transportation levy, requiring SDOT to spend it replacing plastic bollards in her district that do not actually “protect” bike lanes with concrete barriers that do. More than half the city’s traffic fatalities involving a driver crashing into a pedestrian or cyclist occur in Morales’ Southeast Seattle District, which includes the highest percentage of low-income and BIPOC people in the city—a hugely disproportionate number.
• Nelson and Pedersen were also united in their opposition to an amendment that eliminated a proposed new anti-graffiti plan, which would have more than doubled the $2 million the city already spends annually on graffiti removal; a plan to move five members of the HOPE Team, which does outreach at homeless encampments, to the regional homelessness authority; and a proviso, sponsored by Herbold, committing the city to work on a plan with King County to spend some of the money the city pays the county for empty jail beds on upstream health and safety programs to benefit communities that are disproportionately impacted by the criminal legal system and incarceration. All three proposals passed, with Nelson and Pedersen voting against them.
“There is no public funding from Seattle or King County for drug and alcohol rehab for people who want to quit using and also go into long-term recovery from substance use disorder.”—Councilmember Sara Nelson
Pedersen argued that it was important to ensure that jail beds were available in case the city wants to use them in the future—for example, if the jail hires enough people to start locking up more people accused of low-level misdemeanors. As we’ve reported, the jail is in the middle of a staffing shortage that has contributed to deteriorating conditions for jail residents, including the removal of sheets from cells and a lack of clean water for drinking, cooking, and brushing teeth.
• Finally, in one of its last actions before adjourning, the council approved a Nelson amendment stating the council’s intention to use some of the $14 million the city will receive as part of a statewide settlement with opioid distributors to create “one or more facilities for addiction treatment,” defined as treatment that includes an intake evaluation, medically supervised detox as a transition to abstinence, and therapy at a residential or intensive outpatient facility.
“There is no public funding from Seattle or King County for drug and alcohol rehab for people who want to quit using and also go into long-term recovery from substance use disorder,” Nelson said.
Like other forms of treatment, abstinence-based residential treatment has a high relapse rate; more than half of the people who graduate from rehab will relapse at least once in the first three months, and a large majority relapse within a year. Opiate users, in particular, have an extraordinarily high rate of relapse, and their relapses can easily lead to overdose, as former daily users return to a dose they can no longer tolerate after 28 days without the drug.
Harm-reduction strategies, like medication-assisted treatment and financial incentives for using less, are evidence-based approaches that can reduce the riskiness and severity of a person’s substance use. Housing, financial assistance, and health care also improve outcomes, including long-term abstinence: It’s easier to get and stay sober if you have your basic needs, including behavioral health care, met. But without major investments in those things up-front, 28-day abstinence-based treatment is almost designed to fail for the people the council says it’s most interested in helping—those with long-term addiction who have the least access to stable housing and long-term care.
The full council will adopt the final final budget on Tuesday, November 29; it will then go to Mayor Harrell, who can sign it, veto it, or let it become law without his signature.