Tag: 2020 city budget

Battle Over Budget Transparency Illustrates Deeper Rifts Between Seattle Mayor and Council

It’s probably another sign of the frayed relationship between most members of the Seattle City Council and Mayor Jenny Durkan that the big meta-budget dispute playing out in council chambers right now is how much the mayor and her budget office know about the details of midyear cuts the mayor is proposing and how much they’re telling the council, which has to approve a final package of midyear budget cuts based on more than a dozen pieces of legislation the mayor sent them earlier this month.

Yes, how much to cut the police department (and whether the mayor’s proposed “cuts,” for this year and next, are meaningful or merely cosmetic) remains the most pressing single budget issue. But the cuts the city has to make this year—and then replicat and expand in 2021—are largely in other departments that aren’t currently in the headlines, and the debate over the mayor’s proposals is also a debate about discretion and how much of the budget is actually on the table for the council to tinker with.

On Thursday morning, city council central staff director Kirsten Arestad said central staff will develop a new budget tool—essentially, a balancing worksheet—that will show exactly what is in the mayor’s midyear budget-cutting package, including “administrative cuts” the mayor has made that are not reflected in the legislation she sent to the council. The tool will also take a baseline forecast (the June revenue forecast, which added another $11.4 million deficit to the May forecast on which Durkan’s balancing packaged is based) and use it as the basis of the balancing package. The worksheet will also indicate more clearly the gap between revenues (including COVID-related federal funding) and expenditures (including unanticipated costs related to the pandemic), Arestad said.

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One reason all this extra work is necessary, according to Arestad, is because not all of the cuts Durkan made to the budget show up in the legislation she sent the council, which only includes cuts the council has to act on, making it “difficult to clearly see the full picture” of the budget and “almost impossible for individual council members to determine, as they’re making amendments, ‘Where can I take money, is this being double counted, how does this impact other fund balances, the levy exchanges, how we dip into the emergency funds, and so forth’.”

The budget office doesn’t see it this way. They say they have provided all the information the council has asked for—including not just specific line-item cuts but a list of cuts the mayor considered and rejected (scroll down)—and that the disagreement is actually more fundamental than a simple question of transparency. “We did not and were not intending to send down an entire new budget proposal,” budget director Ben Noble says, or relitigate the entire 2020 budget. But that, he argues, is exactly what the council is trying to do.

So why is this debate ultimately more illustrative than substantive? For one thing, a council that had a healthy relationship with the mayor could have communicated their confusion and need for more information behind the scenes, instead of having the director of Central Staff read a letter for the record; and a mayor who had a healthy relationship with the council could have figured out what information the council wanted and figure out a way to provide it, instead of sending down a dozen pieces of legislation that included gaps that were sure to frustrate a council primed to look for budget trickery.

The second reason this debate is largely symbolic is that the line items the council wants to add (and make up for by cutting from other parts of the budget) are—again, setting the police budget aside—relatively minor strictly from a spending perspective, and many of them will depend on departments (which answer to the mayor) agreeing to voluntarily start the hiring process this year for positions that have been frozen since March, at the risk of having to lay them off at the beginning of next year. Continue reading “Battle Over Budget Transparency Illustrates Deeper Rifts Between Seattle Mayor and Council”

Digging Into Durkan’s Boom-Year Budget

Mayor Jenny Durkan released a boom-economy budget last week that defies the signs of a coming economic downturn (while acknowledging, in the included revenue forecast, that the good times can’t last forever), relying heavily on one-time revenues, along with money from a proposed tax on ride-hailing companies, to fund large new investments in bike and pedestrian infrastructure, housing, and a new downtown streetcar.

Many details of Durkan’s budget have already been announced. The plan, for example, contemplates spending some of the $143.5 million the city grossed from the sale of the Mercer Megablock properties to expand the city’s Equitable Development Initiative, spur affordable homeownership opportunities through a community land trust, subsidize backyard cottages and mother-in-law apartments for homeowners at risk of displacement, and fund bike lanes, sidewalks, and curb ramps that were originally supposed to be funded by the Move Seattle levy.

It also assumes about $125 million in revenues over the next five years from a new tax on ride-hailing companies, ongoing funds from the recently approved library levy and families and education levy, and excess funding from the voter-approved Seattle Transportation Benefit District, which will pay for new bus lanes, transit shelters, and shuttles to connect riders to transit lines (so-called “first mile-last mile” service.)

I’ve covered some of the mayor’s proposals already, and will be paying close attention to the upcoming council budget deliberation and bringing you details. Those discussions start this afternoon, so in the meantime, here’s a short (and by no means exhaustive) list of some line items I found interesting when perusing the 677-page budget document:

• Durkan’s budget does not expend the Navigation Team, a group of police officers and Human Services Department staffers who remove encampments and inform their displaced residents about available services and shelter. Durkan’s last budget added funding to permanently fund several Navigation Team positions that had been funded with one-time dollars, sparking a debate in which Durkan characterized any decision not to add funding for the Navigation Team as a “cut.” (Council member Teresa Mosqueda had proposed not expanding the team permanently and instead spending the money on raises for city-contracted human service workers). This year’s budget avoids that debate, holding the size of the team steady for now and (as I reported back in August) giving contracted workers a 2.6 percent bump over the 2 percent “inflationary” cost of living adjustment they received last year.

Your annual reminder that discretionary dollars—what the mayor and council can change—make up a tiny fraction of the overall city budget

• The proposal makes permanent a pilot project in which the city’s transportation department (SDOT) loaned the funding equivalent of six full-time staffers to the Department of Neighborhoods to do outreach and engagement for SDOT’s projects. It also suggests that DON will soon take over outreach work for at least six more large city departments: Finance and Administrative Services, the Office of Sustainability and the Environment, Human Services, Seattle Information Technology, Seattle City Light, and Seattle Public Utilities.

The idea, as I understand it, is that Neighborhoods is better positioned to do outreach than the departments themselves. How this will work in practice, and at such a large scale, remains to be seen. At a DON-led outreach event about planned cuts to bike lanes in Southeast Seattle earlier this year, DON staffers told worried residents that they had no authority to talk about specifics and would take residents’ concerns back to SDOT and the mayor. Mayoral spokeswoman Chelsea Kellogg says the actual agreements will be negotiated later this year or by early 2020 at the latest.

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• The Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections, whose budget relies heavily on permitting fees (and thus tends to fluctuate widely depending on how much development is happening across the city), includes a number of interesting line items. There’s $401,465 for 140 laptops, which works out to $2,868 per laptop, as well as $352,800 for parking costs, which, according to the budget, “rose from approximately $85/month per space to $300/month per space” and were “not previously budgeted in SDCI.” (Meanwhile, in another section of the budget, the city’s total spending on transit benefits for all departments is increasing by $500,000, to $7.1 million.) Continue reading “Digging Into Durkan’s Boom-Year Budget”