By Erica C. Barnett
Mayor Bruce Harrell introduced a “mid-biennial” 2024 budget on Tuesday that includes significant cost-of-living raises for city-funded human service providers, six new non-police responders for a renamed 911 department, and—for the second year in a row—funding for a gunshot surveillance system, which the city has rejected repeatedly over privacy concerns and studies showing such systems don’t reduce crime.
“For those of you who like to play cards, you know that when you have a good hand and a plan that’s working, you double down,” Harrell said in his budget speech. “And that’s what this budget proposal does: It doubles down on the priorities that matter for the city and it invests in a better tomorrow for Seattle.”
The proposal, which will be amended by the city council and adopted in November, is based on revenue forecasts that are somewhat less dire than predicted last year, when the council “endorsed” an early version of the 2024 budget. At the same time, revenues from JumpStart—a payroll tax on the city’s largest businesses—have fallen and inflation has increase the cost of running the city, dampening the impact of higher overall revenues.
Other high-profile budget items include unspecified funding for city employee cost-of-living wage increases; increases to on-street parking fees; and millions of new dollars for Harrell’s Downtown Activation Plan, including funds to extend the We Deliver Care program on Third Avenue, maintain and expand the Seattle Restored small-business program, and add restaurant pick-up zones, informational kiosks, and public safety improvements in the street right-of-way.
We’ll be covering the budget process and doing deeper dives into specific items as the council review gets underway. Here are a few of the issues we’ll be paying attention to.
Skeptics, including budget chair Teresa Mosqueda, predicted that Harrell’s commitment to diversion would be limited to the language in the legislation. They were right.
No New Diversion Funding for Drug Users
City council members who voted last week to support the latest version of a new drug criminalization law said they were reassured by the fact that Harrell’s budget, which had not yet been released, would include new investments in diversion programs so that people caught using drugs in public would have real alternatives to jail. The bill, as PubliCola has reported, includes a number of nonbinding “whereas” clauses expressing the city’s preference for diversion instead of arrests, along with a provision saying police will, in the future, adopt policies governing diversion.
Skeptics, including budget chair Teresa Mosqueda, predicted that Harrell’s commitment to diversion would be limited to the language in the legislation. They were right. The budget contains no funding to expand LEAD, the city’s pre-arrest diversion program, and actually cuts $1 million that was added to the program in 2023. Without additional funding, LEAD will have to stop taking so-called “community referrals”—clients who get into the program through paths other than arrest—and focus on referrals through police instead.
The budget also includes about $1.1 million for a new opioid overdose response center and additional funding to expand the capacity of the Fire Department’s Health One program to respond to overdoses; the funding for these programs will come from the city’s portion of a state settlement with opioid manufacturers and distributors.
Police: $392 Million; Alternatives to Police: $5 Million
Last week, Harrell announced the Community Assisted Response and Engagement department, a “third” public safety department that will include a dual-dispatch pilot in which civilian employees, some of them with human-service training, will respond to low-priority calls, including person-down calls as well as calls where the only thing left to do is write up a report. Harrell’s budget proposal would pay for six new first responders, along with three 911 dispatchers, a deputy director, a new public information officer, an executive assistant, and a manager. Most of these employees were funded and hired this year.
The police department, as a point of comparison, would also gain 13 new employees, bringing the total number of funded positions to 1,826. The city currently has fewer than 1,000 deployable officers, which means many of those 1,826 positions (which represent all job types at SPD) remain vacant but funded, allowing SPD to use the money they would ordinarily spend on staff for other purposes (see below).
In addition to fully funding the department’s recruitment and hiring program, Harrell’s budget adds $30,000 for “recruitment related expenses such as career fair materials, job board postings, and law enforcement related recruitment conferences.”
Better Pay for Human Service Workers (City Employees TBD)
Thanks to legislation the city council passed in 2019, the city is required to increase human service provider contracts every year so that provider pay can keep up with inflation. Last year, Harrell proposed overturning this law to reduce pay increases for already underpaid nonprofit workers to a sub-inflationary 4 percent—an effective pay cut. This year, Harrell has proposed using JumpStart tax revenues to bump provider pay increases by the rate of inflation plus 2 percent, for a total raise of 9.5 percent.
Budget office director Julie Dingley, echoing the budget itself, remarked Wednesday that Seattle is “the only government entity in the whole state that has a requirement, in code, that we provide inflationary adjustments” to human service providers every year, adding that other jurisdictions will need to pitch in so that Seattle isn’t going it online on human service pay. In response, Councilmember Lisa Herbold pointed out that King County, the King County Regional Homelessness Authority, and the state of Washington have all funded similar wage increases through levies, budgets, and legislative decisions—different methods to reach the same result.
Mosqueda noted that the previous budget funded human service provider wages within the general-fund budget, rather than tapping JumpStart—a tax Mosqueda proposed and pushed through—to fund an ongoing city commitment. JumpStart is supposed to pay for housing, equitable development, and Green New Deal priorities, but the city has repurposed the fund every year since its inception to pay for other priorities.
The city is still in negotiations over cost-of-living adjustments for its own employees, who were shocked by Harrell’s “insulting” initial offer of 1 percent. Harrell’s subsequent offer—reportedly just 2 percent—was hardly better, and hundreds of workers took time off thier jobs to rally at City Hall last week for a better deal. The budget does not include even a range of possible expenditures to pay for worker wage increases; in a briefing with reporters, Dingley said that would be like buying a house by telling the seller what was in your bank account. But PubliCola has heard that the deal could end up closer to 6 percent, still lower than the inflation rate.
The budget includes $150,000 for a new “graffiti specialist” who will “lead and enhance the beautification efforts of graffiti art, connect with the graffiti society, and educate, mentor and guide youth to use their time and energy in constructive ways.”
We’ll Never Be Rid of Shotspotter
Last year, the council roundly rejected Harrell’s proposal to spend $1 million on a “gunfire detection” system that would have placed audio surveillance devices throughout certain “high-crime” neighborhoods to detect noises that sound like gunshots. The systems, known colloquially as “Shotspotter” after the company that dominates the market, detect and determine the approximate location of outdoor sounds that resemble gunfire and alert human “acoustic experts” who make a call—gunshot or not a gunshot?—and alert police, who can respond to the scene.
The city first considered funding Shotspotter back in 2012, and the idea has come up periodically ever since, despite numerous studies showing that the monitoring devices don’t reduce or help solve gun-related crime and can lead police to be on high alert—and thus more likely to make unwarranted stops and arrests—in the areas where they’re located.
This year, Harrell’s request is couched in a larger $1.8 million “crime prevention pilot” that would also include new CCTV camera surveillance and automated license plate readers, all funded by salary savings from unfilled SPD positions. A spokesperson for the mayor’s office said the “specific amounts for the technologies in the SPD Crime Prevention Pilot are still being determined.” When council members asked similar questions Wednesday, budget director Dingley referred them to Deputy Mayor Tim Burgess.
Parking Rates, Finishing the Waterfront, Subsidizing the Streetcar
Harrell’s updated Seattle Department of Transportation budget includes an increase to the city’s minimum and maximum rates for on-street parking, which have been reduced dramatically from pre-COVID levels. The new rates would start at $1 an hour and go up to $8 an hour, depending on demand in specific parking areas; the $2.2 million the city says it will bring in through higher parking costs will pay for increased costs associated with parking meter maintenance and the city’s “pay-by-phone” service.
Tucked away elsewhere in SDOT’s budget are $25 million in new expenses associated with finishing the downtown waterfront highway, which the budget chalks up to the concrete workers’ strike in 2022. The city would pay for this unanticipated increase through bonds, so the budget impact in 2024 is small ($1.3 million), but the bond proposal represents a long-term commitment of the city’s overall debt capacity, which is limited.
Another new cost is related to the existing First Hill streetcar, which has required hefty operating subsidies ever since it opened in 2016. A $5 million annual subsidy from Sound Transit expires this year; Harrell’s budget proposes using revenues from the Seattle Transit Measure, a sales tax voters approved in 2020 to pay for equitable transportation, to continue the streetcar subsidy.
Other budget changes, which PubliCola will cover in more detail in the coming weeks, include:
- New funding to staff up the Office of Inspector General, whose oversight role will expand to replace the federal monitor who has overseen the Seattle Police Department and its accountability system for the past 11 years
- $150,000 for a new “graffiti specialist” in the Office of Arts and Culture, who will “lead and enhance the beautification efforts of graffiti art, connect with the graffiti society, and educate, mentor and guide youth to use their time and energy in constructive ways. Reducing graffiti is a priority of the One Seattle initiative and is a key factor in improving Seattle livability.
- $1.1 million for a review of city employee classifications and compensation, which haven’t been updated since the 1990s. Misclassified positions can prevent workers from receiving promotions and being paid what they’re worth, a problem that is particularly acute in jobs held predominately by women of color at the city, according to past analyses.
- $850,000 to fund the start-up costs for the social housing development authority, which voters established (but did not fund) earlier this year.
Harrell’s 2024 budget does not contend with projected 2025 and 2026 deficits of more than $200 million a year. That deficit will be a next-year problem for a new city council, which will include at least five, and up to seven, freshman members after this year’s council elections.