By Erica C. Barnett
Seattle City Councilmembers Sara Nelson and Alex Pedersen voted against the city council’s amended 2023-2024 budget proposal at a council budget committee meeting Monday, joining socialist Kshama Sawant—who votes against the budget every year—in an ideologically split three-vote minority. The budget, which goes to the full council for a final vote tomorrow, requires a six-vote majority to pass; if even one more council member sided with Nelson, Pedersen, and Sawant, the entire budget would fail.
Nelson and Pedersen, who frequently formed a two-vote mini-bloc during the council’s budget deliberations, explained their decision in similar terms: They couldn’t vote for a budget that doesn’t fully fund Harrell’s public safety priorities. “I cannot in good conscience endorse a final budget that, I believe, fails to learn from recent public policy mistakes on public safety and fall short on public safety for a third year in a row,” Pedersen said.
That argument would hold more water if the council had proposed actually cutting SPD’s budget. Instead, the council fully funded SPD’s (and Mayor Bruce Harrell’s) entire hiring plan, and used savings from vacant SPD positions to provide the department with an additional $17 million a year to pay for, among other things, the recruitment and retention proposals Nelson and Pedersen have supported. No other department received this kind of kid-gloves treatment; in fact, many departments face dramatic cuts next year.
The council’s budget also returns the city’s parking enforcement division to SPD, another one of Harrell’s top budget priorities.
“Minor reductions [to proposed new SPD programs] are being emphasized and exaggerated. This is the harmful rhetoric that is likely to continue to negatively impact hiring and retention.”—City Councilmember Lisa Herbold
In contrast to previous years, such as 2020, it’s virtually impossible to make the argument that the council didn’t work with the mayor to craft a budget that retains most of what he wanted—a point Councilmember Lisa Herbold made when she accused her two colleagues of contributing to a “false narrative” about public safety.
“It’s normal to debate budget issues,” Herbold said. “But these false narratives don’t make us safer.”
“Ninety-nine percent of the mayor’s proposed budget is included in this balancing package,” Herbold continued. “SPD hiring is fully funded, and they’ve begun to show some promising trends. Minor reductions to the remaining 1 percent of the budget”—the elimination of new programs, such as a gunfire surveillance system and a marketing consultant—”are being emphasized and exaggerated. This is the harmful rhetoric that is likely to continue to negatively impact hiring and retention.”
Eliminating these new programs from next year’s budget helped the council close a late-breaking general-fund budget shortfall of $4.5 million, on top of the $141 million shortfall announced earlier this year.
Nelson and Pedersen also objected to the council’s decision to eliminate, or abrogate, 80 of the 240 SPD positions that are currently sitting vacant; these vacant positions, which the city will use to augment the budget and fund new SPD spending next year, receive funding every budget cycle. The council’s budget will retain funding for at least 160 of these “ghost” positions going forward, and can add more positions in the future if SPD hiring suddenly skyrockets past the department’s own rather optimistic projections. Nonetheless, both Pedersen and Nelson have characterized this as an example of “defunding” the police.
Nelson also criticized the council for failing to fund an expansion of the city’s graffiti abatement program and for moving homeless outreach workers out of Harrell’s new Unified Care Team (which the council fully funded) and into the King County Regional Homelessness Authority.
The two council members’ votes against the budget seem even less justified when you consider the concessions the rest of the council made to fund their priorities.
Nelson, for example, got unanimous approval for a last-minute amendment that commits the city to spend some of the proceeds from a recent settlement with opioid distributors on abstinence-based rehab, marking the city’s first foray into the kind of public health decisions that are usually made by King County’s public health department.
Nelson was elected last year, and is staking out a position on the budget every bit as absolutist as Sawant’s: If the rest of the council doesn’t support her specific priorities, she’ll vote to reject the city’s budget wholesale.
In an op/ed earlier this year, Nelson expressed her view that medication-assisted treatment, such as the use of suboxone (an opioid) to treat opiate addiction, is “not aimed at long-term recovery.” This is the opposite of scientific consensus (the federal government’s substance abuse agency, for example, has a far more expansive definition of recovery that embraces long-term medication), but in line with Nelson’s general opposition to harm reduction programs— like the Public Defender Association’s LEAD and Co-LEAD programs, which provide case management and housing to people with addiction and other behavioral health issues.
Pedersen, meanwhile, managed to wrangle $3.5 million a year for bridge maintenance out of the Seattle Transportation Benefit District tax, which is supposed to fund transit, by arguing that because buses and bikes also use bridges, funding for bridges is a transit investment. That amendment passed 5-4—a major win for Pedersen at the expense of future transit projects.
Nelson was elected last year, and is staking out a position on the budget every bit as absolutist as Sawant’s: If the rest of the council doesn’t support her specific priorities, she’ll vote to reject the city’s budget wholesale. Time will tell if she continues down this all-or-nothing path.
Pedersen, in contrast, has apparently had a dramatic change of heart. Just two years ago, Pedersen wrote in a Seattle Times op/ed that it would be irresponsible for him to vote against the 2020 budget—which included far more dramatic changes than this year’s plan—just because he didn’t like everything that was in it.
“People are yearning for functional government. If the budget does not pass, nothing gets done,” Pedersen wrote. “No budget is perfect. Our constituents have diverse and conflicting views. A budget with positives and negatives is a natural result.”
“And to my constituents who ask, ‘Why did you vote the same way as Kshama Sawant?,” Pedersen concluded,
“I didn’t. She voted No.” This year, so did Pedersen.