By Erica C. Barnett
The city council got a first look at a proposed mid-year budget package that would fund a graffiti cleanup team that Harrell recently rolled out as part of his Downtown Activation Plan; add funding to revive the delayed downtown streetcar connector; increase SPD overtime spending to pay for downtown emphasis patrols, expanded online crime reports, and public disclosure officers; and put an additional $19 million into a fund that pays out for lawsuits and claims against the city, many of them the result of alleged police misconduct.
Every year, the city council has to adjust the budget to reflect new priorities, as well as what the city has actually spent so far that year, in a midyear supplemental budget that’s often hundreds of pages long.
The council denied Harrell’s request to nearly double what the city spends on graffiti removal last year, increasing annual graffiti cleanup spending to almost $4 million. According to council staff, Harrell’s office reversed their decision by using unspent funds from Seattle Public Utilities public hygiene budget, including pump-outs for trailers that provide showers for unsheltered people, to fully the graffiti cleanup crews. Harrell announced the new spending earlier this month as part of his Downtown Activation Plan. Because the city has already executed the contracts, a council staffer explained Wednesday, the council now has little choice but to fund the expanded graffiti program.
To fund other Downtown Activation Plan programs, a central staff memo notes, Harrell has proposed using the JumpStart fund, which includes funding earmarked for small businesses. Ironically, it was the Downtown Seattle Association, along with the Seattle Metro Chamber and other business groups, that proposed temporarily suspending the JumpStart tax—which only applies to the city’s largest businesses—earlier this year.
The memo outlines all the other proposed midyear budget adjustments, which also include $1 million “a delivery assessment of the Center City Cultural Connector”—as the proposed downtown streetcar was recently rebranded—”to determine if the design needs to be updated to reflect the intent of the project.”
“My original idea was, just lift the proviso and let them spend the salary savings on emergent needs,” Councilmember Sara Nelson said Wednesday, adding that the funding limitation “prohibit[s] the uses of salary savings on on expenses that are really important right now for the for Seattle Police Department.”
The council will also have to approve a $19 million increase to the city’s judgment and claims fund—including $14 million from the city’s planning reserves fund and $5 million from insurance—to pay for “higher than anticipated expenses” from lawsuits against the city. A spokesperson for the city’s budget office told PubliCola the city “cannot accurately predict how much money will be spent if the request is approved,” and said the city may not end up using all the money.
Still, the allocation represents a significant increase to the fund, which the city already expanded by $11 million in the 2023 budget last year, when it increased the fund from $30 million to $41 million “to pay for extraordinary settlements against the City.” Last year, lawsuits against the police department accounted for almost half of the $36 million the city spent on settlements, defense attorneys, and other litigation-related expenses, according to a report released in April.
The midyear budget also releases some funding to SPD to pay for improvements to the department’s online reporting system and unbudgeted overtime expenses the department has already made, along with position authority for four new public disclosure officers. Currently, SPD has to get council approval to spend funding allocated to vacant positions, including sworn officer positions the department is unable to fill, on unrelated purposes.
Although the spending SPD is requesting is fairly limited—about $815,000—budget chair Teresa Mosqueda noted that whenever the city creates new SPD positions—on top of the hundreds of vacant positions that are included in the budget every year—”it compounds our increased costs year over year,” because the new positions become an additional SPD expense in future budget years.
“If there [are] positions that are vacant, that the department intends to hold vacant, that are no longer needed or are not part of the near term planning, it is okay to abrogate positions in order to put funding into other priorities,” Mosqueda said.
Councilmember Sara Nelson, who argued vehemently against restrictions on SPD’s spending authority last year, said another way to solve the annual funding problem would be to just allow SPD to spend salary savings on whatever they want. “My original idea was, just lift the proviso and let them spend the salary savings on emergent needs,” Nelson said Wednesday, adding that the funding limitation “prohibit[s] the uses of salary savings on on expenses that are really important right now for the for Seattle Police Department.” (In fact, it just requires the council to approve those expenses.)
Immediately after suggesting the council has made it too hard for the department to spend salary savings however it wants, Nelson spent 15 minutes questioning a $50,000 expenditure on a “living hotel” pilot that would create sustainable development standards for new hotels. Currently, the city has no way of endorsing or verifying that a hotel that calls itself “green” is actually adhering to green standards such as limiting water usage.
Suggesting that Mosqueda, who proposed the expenditure, was dropping the idea on the council out of the blue, Nelson said, “You make it sound like there’s a lot of talk going on between departments, but I’m the vice chair of the sustainability and renters rights committee, I’m on land use, I’m the chair of City Light, and the first time I’ve heard about this policy is through some of those form emails coming in.”
“I appreciate that you might know a lot about it,” Nelson continued. “Again, talking about money, that transparency in budgeting ,and making sure that when we allocate money, it’s actually getting spent. So is it premature to be funding this work, given those factors?”
No one took the bait on the glaring contradiction between supporting a blank check for police and scrutinizing a tiny expense for the environment, but Councilmember Lisa Herbold did chime in on behalf of Mosqueda’s add, noting that “it’s really important to guard against greenwashing” by companies operating in the city.
As the central staff memo notes, Harrell’s Downtown Activation Plan includes a special land use change for a proposed hotel in Belltown that will not have to adhere to any green standards, and would extend master use permits for existing downtown hotels, prolonging their exemptions from current environmental rules.