Tag: city budget

Seattle Workers Hold “Practice Pickets” Over Wages; New Wrinkles in Burien Encampment Plans

City workers rally for higher wages and better working conditions in September.

1. On Thursday, city of Seattle employees will participate in rolling “practice pickets” that will serve as a kind of dress rehearsal for a potential strike if Mayor Bruce Harrell’s office does not agree to cost of living and wage adjustments that represent real wage increases. The pickets, organized by the Coalition of City Unions, will take place at a city facility in the International District starting at 6, in the area around City Hall at 11:30, and in South Lake Union at 3:30.

Negotiations between Harrell’s office and unions representing thousands of city workers started off on a bad foot last spring, when Harrell proposed a 1 percent “cost of living adjustment” that was about 7 percent below the rate of inflation. (Any pay increase below the rate of inflation represents a real wage cut because it costs more to buy the same goods and services, such as groceries and rent.) Since then, union sources say, the mayor’s office has barely budged, even as Harrell has proposed significant new spending on new programs like Shotspotter and agreed to cost of living increases for nonprofit homeless service providers.

Last week, City Councilmember Kshama Sawant proposed an amendment to the 2024 budget that would increase the JumpStart payroll tax to raise $40 million to fund city worker wage increases. “I don’t believe that there’s any excuse for asking essential city workers to accept a wage cut, with or without this budget amendment,” Sawant said. “However, making these funds available will make it crystal clear that the city has the funds to offer a wage increase that, at the very least, is not a wage cut in real terms.”

Councilmembers Lisa Herbold and Teresa Mosqueda signed on to the amendment, although both made a point of saying that city employees provide core services that the city should prioritize with or without additional funding from JumpStart.

2. UPDATE: On Thursday afternoon, a spokesperson for the city of Burien confirmed that the city has signed a contract with Discover Burien, a local business association, that will subcontract with a group run by a Kirkland mortgage broker to respond to and remove encampments in the city. This post has been updated accordingly.

The city of Burien has signed a two-month, $40,000 contract for encampment removal services with the local business association Discover Burien, which will subcontract The More We Love—a controversial nonprofit run by Kirkland mortgage broker and longtime Union Gospel Mission volunteer Kristine Moreland—to respond to and remove encampments. Discover Burien is headed up by Debra George, the operator of an animal shelter called Burien CARES.

The city did not respond to questions about why they are not contracting directly with The More We Love, as originally proposed. However, the issue of insurance has come up repeatedly in public meetings about the proposal, and The More We Love may not have the minimum $2 million commercial insurance policy required to contract with the city.

Burien CARES is the same animal shelter that rented a city-owned lot—at the bargain-basement price of $185 a month—where unsheltered people were living. The company promptly swept the encampment, and the area is now a dog park.

Last month, shortly after Burien passed a new law banning its unsheltered residents from sleeping in the city overnight, Councilmember Sarah Moore asked for a public briefing on the potential contract, which City Manager Adolfo Bailon has the authority to sign without any public process. Currently, there is no such briefing on the council’s calendar. Bailon has the authority to sign contracts under $50,000 without council approval.

Burien CARES founder and director Debra George, meanwhile, was recently sued by three of Burien CARES’ employees, who alleged that they were routinely required to work more than 40 hours a week, without pay, in order to perform their duties and that one of the three employees was improperly classified as an overtime-exempt manager.

As we’ve reported, Moreland was sanctioned in 2020 for violating consumer mortgage lending laws. Earlier this year, she distributed a detailed spreadsheet containing personal details and sensitive medical information about dozens of homeless individuals to political allies, police, and a businessman who paid The More We Love to remove an encampment on his property.

George, meanwhile, was recently sued by three of Burien CARES’ employees, who alleged that they routinely had to work more than 40 hours a week without additional pay in order to perform their duties, and that one of the three employees was improperly classified as an overtime-exempt manager.

In her response, George denied most of the allegations, and said the three employees would often show up late and leave early to keep from going over 40 hours a week, “because they were told repeatedly that overtime was not authorized.”

The response also argues that George was not the workers’ employer or supervisor, but a fellow employee of Burien CARES; however, George founded and incorporated the organization, serves as its only registered agent, and is the group’s primary governor—a person with authority to make decisions on behalf of a business.

3. Burien Councilmember Cydney Moore, who is running for reelection this year, is the director of the Burien Community Support Coalition, a nonprofit that announced plans yesterday to open a sanctioned encampment for three months at the Oasis Home Church in the Sunnydale neighborhood. According to an announcement from the group, residents of the encampment will have to comply with a strict code of conduct: No drugs or alcohol (including in the surrounding neighborhood), no visitors, and no “nuisance behavior” at the encampment or in the vicinity, such as “littering and loitering.”

“We take couples, we take pets, and we’re trying to collaborate with local providers who already work with the homeless population here,” Moore said. Religious institutions have special rights to host unsheltered people on their property under state law, which restricts local jurisdictions’ authority to ban encampments, “safe lots” for people living in their vehicles, and other sheltering activities churches conduct as part of their mission.

The code of conduct “is going to be a barrier for a lot of people,” including some in active addiction, Moore said, “but we had to meet conditions to even get this agreement with the church.” Worries about safety, noise, and intoxication around encampments “are valid concerns,” Moore added, and “even if we could take everyone with no [limitations], we don’t have the capacity to take everyone.”

According to KING 5, which spoke to City Manager Bailon about the proposal, Bailon said the church would need to seek a special temporary use permit to host unsheltered people on its property. The city has the ability (but is not required) to grant temporary use permits for up to 60 days per year for uses that don’t conform to local zoning; however, it’s unclear that the city has the authority to impose such a requirement on a church.

Proposals to Close City Deficit Prompt Immediate Backlash from Businesses, Business-Backed Council Members

A look at the ongoing structural shortfall in the city budget through 2026; “PET” refers to the JumpStart payroll tax.

By Erica C. Barnett

A list of potential progressive revenue options put forward by a city task force this week is already stirring controversy among businesses (and business-backed city council members) because it involves new taxes, rather than spending cuts, to maintain existing services and meet the city’s labor obligations. The policies, which are not recommendations, would help offset an average projected revenue shortfall, beginning in 2025, of $244 million a year.

Immediately after the task force published its list of options, one of the group’s own members, Seattle Metro Chamber CEO Rachel Smith, issued a statement denouncing the city for its “lack of budget transparency, accountability, and practical problem-solving” and arguing that the city’s real problem is overspending, not a lack of revenue.

Instead of proposing any new taxes, Smith said, Seattle should “look at reducing or eliminating services that do not meet measurable outcomes, are duplicative of other entities, are no longer aligned with current priorities, or have grown faster than real-world demands.” Smith did not identify any specific programs the Chamber believes the city should eliminate.

During a presentation of the recommendations to the council’s finance committee Thursday morning, Councilmember Alex Pedersen echoed Smith’s comments. “I believe City Hall doesn’t have a revenue problem. It has a spending problem,” he said. Chiming in, Councilmember Sara Nelson added that she believes the city should “live within our means” and cut the budget instead of raising taxes.

“I am simply suggesting that spending within our means is not austerity. It’s our responsibility,” Nelson said.


“The definition of austerity is a situation in which people’s living standards are reduced because of economic conditions,” Herbold responded.  

The projected shortfall, which is the result of declining revenues, expiring short-term funding, and spending increases, represents more than 15 percent of the city’s annual discretionary budget.

The progressive revenue work group, which included representatives from business and labor as well as the council and mayor’s office, came out of a statement of legislative intent the council passed in 2021, expressing the council’s commitment to work with the mayor to come up with permanent funding sources for a number of new general-fund programs that the city paid for using federal COVID relief dollars and revenues redirected from the JumpStart payroll tax.

With federal funding running out and JumpStart reverting to its intended purpose (funding housing, equitable development, and Green New Deal programs), the city is seeking new revenue sources to fund needs that are still ongoing, including homeless services, alternative 911 responders, and business assistance.

In addition to new programs, the city has had to spend more each year to keep up with population growth (more people require more services) and inflation, which raises labor costs. The city has also committed to raise wages for workers at human service nonprofits that contract with the city, which are so low that many employees qualify for public benefits. Overall, internal labor agreements account for 85 percent of the city’s increased costs through 2026, according to the work group’s report, while raises for human service workers account for about 4 percent of the increase.

According to a memo from the council’s central staff,  if the city fails to deal with this structural shortfall, the budget gap between 2025 and 2030 will average $244 million a year.

The task force, which looked only at the revenue side of the equation, whittled a list of more than 60 potential new fees and taxes down to nine, including three the city could implement right away, without the need for a ballot initiative or a change to state law. Those options include increases to the size or scope of the existing JumpStart payroll tax; a local tax on capital gains above a specific level, modeled after the state capital gains tax that recently withstood a state supreme court review; and a local tax on businesses whose CEOs make significantly more than the average worker.

Councilmembers have already proposed—and council staff have already analyzed—a JumpStart tax increase and a local capital gains tax, which could form the basis for future legislation and reduce the time it takes to pass either option.

In the council meeting Thursday, Nelson and Pedersen returned repeatedly to two ideas: First, they argued, the city should simply reduce the amount it spends on programs that, as Nelson put it, “do not meet measurable outcomes, are duplicative… [or] are no longer aligned with the city’s residents’ current priorities.”

“I am simply suggesting that spending within our means is not austerity. It’s our responsibility,” Nelson said.

Second, the pair argued, the city should get rid of all spending restrictions on the JumpStart tax, which provides a dedicated source of funding for housing and programs that benefit people and businesses disproportionately impacted by the presence in Seattle of large tech companies, like Amazon, and their wealthy employees. “I think the next city council could consider, once again, liberating those payroll tax revenues to handle that deficit, rather than locking up those dollars permanently for new programs [while] piling on another round of new taxes,” Pedersen said.

Councilmember Lisa Herbold—who, like Pedersen, is leaving the council next year—took issue with Nelson and Pedersen’s argument that budget cuts would not negatively impact the city. “The definition of austerity is a situation in which people’s living standards are reduced because of economic conditions,” Herbold said. “‘Just simply living within your means’ sounds nice, and it’s a great soundbite. I’m sure it’ll get picked up today. It sounds great. It’s just not accurate.”

The other taxes on the list include a tax on vacant residential or commercial units, which would have to navigate state law requiring uniform property taxes; a higher real-estate excise tax on the sale of properties above a certain value; a local graduated estate tax, with an exemption for the first $250,000; a local inheritance tax, paid by the beneficiaries of large bequests, which would be the first of its kind in the country; a congestion fee, or toll, on people who drive into highly congested parts of the city; and a flat income tax with rebates for low-income people.

All six of these options would require additional study, authorization from the state legislature, or a public vote, making them less viable solutions to the city’s near-term revenue shortfaull.

Midyear Budget Proposal Adds Funding for Streetcar Study, Police Overtime—and $19 Million for Unanticipated Lawsuit Payouts

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.

“Authentic” Harrell Doubles Down, Public Safety Director Myerberg Reassigned, Baseless Complaint Claims PubliCola Engaged in Pro-Cop “Quid Pro Quo”

1. Mayor Bruce Harrell doubled down yesterday on comments he made during a Seattle Police Department roll call that were subsequently leaked to Jason Rantz, a host at the conservative station KTTH, telling reporters he stood by “whatever people said I said.” According to quotes from the meeting, Harrell blamed at “inexperienced” city council members, the King County Regional Homelessness Authority, and service providers for the “mess” the city has become—calling out the KCRHA, in particular, for “working against” Harrell by publicly opposing encampment sweeps.

“I’ve been in the city my entire life. And there’s one thing about me, is I am authentic,” Harrell said. Gesturing toward his wife, Joanne, who was standing behind him, he continued, “[I’ve] been with my best friend and wife, we’ve known each other for close to four decades. By the way, she’s a tough critic. But she’s seen me say the same things over and over and over again. So it’s time to stop playing small ball. Let’s play big ball. Let’s attack racism. Let’s attack police reform. Let’s revitalize our downtown. That’s big ball.”

Harrell declined to say whether he would actually propose defunding the regional homelessness authority, which receives the bulk of its funding, about $70 million, from the city through its annual budget process. “We’ll present our budget in a few weeks, but you will see our clear recognition of a lot of the great work they are doing,” Harrell said. “You will see continued support. What I owe to the leaders in RHA is my expectations. And I think they share my concern that we have to get this work done. … I’m still very optimistic. I’m very optimistic. But I’m not going to look at any of the work we’re doing in the city through rose-colored glasses.”

Harrell has been publicly and privately critical of the KCRHA and its director, Marc Dones—complaining publicly, for example, about the agency’s request for city and county funding that would nearly double its existing budget to fund a slew of new projects. Privately, Harrell has reportedly questioned the need for the authority, which still lacks meaningful buy-in from suburban cities and is entirely funded by Seattle and King County.

On Wednesday, Harrell said removing Myerberg from his position was just part of a six-month evaluation that involved “moving people around,” but declined to say more about what Myerberg will do in his new role. “He’s still part of our strong part of our administration and literally sits 40 feet from my desk. We’re looking forward to our continuing partnership,” Harrell said.

2. Harrell’s erstwhile director of public safety, former Office of Police Accountability director Andrew Myerberg, has been reassigned to a vaguely defined new position—”director of special projects”—where he will reportedly head up efforts to get the city out from under a consent decree between the US Department of Justice and the Seattle Police Department.

Harrell has reportedly criticized Myerberg for his lack of connection to communities impacted by police policy, such as the ill-advised decision (supported by Harrell’s other chief public safety advisor, strategic initiatives director Tim Burgess) to crack down on “disorderly conduct,” including music, smoking, and shouting, at Third Avenue and Pine St. downtown.

On Wednesday, Harrell said removing Myerberg from his position was just part of a six-month evaluation that involved “moving people around,” but declined to say more about what Myerberg will do in his new role. “He’s still part of our strong part of our administration and literally sits 40 feet from my desk. We’re looking forward to our continuing partnership,” Harrell said.

Asked what qualities he’s looking for in Myerberg’s replacement, Harrell said, “We want a person who understands constitutional policing, seven minute response times, [and is] willing to do the hard research on what’s working in other cities, issues dealing with gun regulations, just a good director of public safety.”

3. Local police accountability gadfly Howard Gale has filed a formal complaint with the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission alleging a “quid pro quo” conspiracy between me (Erica Barnett) and City Councilmember Lisa Herbold and/or the city’s Office of the Inspector General, which reviews police misconduct investigations to publish information flattering to the OIG and Herbold and, by extension, the Seattle Police Department.

The “whistleblower complaint” asserts that either Herbold or someone at the Office of Inspector General leaked a copy of a report to me, and only me, in advance, in exchange for my agreement to provide flattering coverage. My straightforward piece describing the contents of the external report, which included recommendations for avoiding improper certification of investigations into police misconduct, is here.

“I believe this is a clear ethical violation because it was done with the intent to avoid negative coverage for both the OIG and CM Herbold, and done for professional mutual benefit (quid pro quo),” the complaint says.

The only evidence for this utterly baseless claim is that Gale contacted nine unidentified “journalists” and “none can find any notice of the independent audit being released/available.”

The reality, as it often is with conspiracy theories, is much more mundane. The OIG released an embargoed copy of the report to a list of reporters, including me, on the afternoon of July 27, one day before the office released the report publicly.

An embargo is an agreement between journalists and a person or entity releasing information, such as a government agency or advocacy group, that journalists will get the information in advance in exchange for agreeing not to publish it until a certain time; such agreements are extremely common and allow journalists to absorb the information (for example, details in a technical briefing or lawsuit), ask clarifying questions, and write their stories before something gets released publicly. I may have been the only one who wrote about the report when the embargo lifted, but lack of coverage is not evidence of a conspiracy.

Council Considers Using Excess JumpStart Revenues to Patch $141 Million Budget Hole

Before and after: The growing budget shortfall at the city.

By Erica C. Barnett

City Council budget chair Teresa Mosqueda said yesterday that she would propose using JumpStart payroll tax revenues to supplement the city’s general-fund budget for the fourth and fifth years in a row, after the City Budget Office released new projections of a growing budget shortfall through the next five years. Between 2023 and 2026, the city now projects an average budget gap—the difference between revenues coming in and expenditures going out—of $142 million, on average, including a $141 million budget gap next year.

JumpStart—a payroll tax paid by the city’s largest employers on the salaries of their highest-paid workers—has consistently produced more revenue than originally anticipated. Since it went into effect in 2021, the tax has paid for COVID relief, housing, small business support, and to top off the general fund. Mosqueda’s proposal, which hasn’t been formally drafted, would use JumpStart revenues in excess of the city’s original 2020 projections to backfill the general fund in 2023 and 2024; currently, the city projects those excess revenues at $71 million and $84 million, respectively.

“This is just a 2023-2024 option. This is not a stopgap measure; this is a temporary use because that additional source of progressive revenue has not been passed and we need to prevent austerity while maintaining the city’s commitment to the JumpStart spending plan.”—Council budget chair Teresa Mosqueda

“The broad coalition that proposed JumpStart always intended to avoid austerity, and we can do both the spend plan as codified in 2020 and potentially find some short-term solutions for addressing the shortfall,” Mosqueda told PubliCola on Wednesday. In the meantime, she said, Mayor Bruce Harrell’s office is convening a new progressive revenue task force to consider other locahoul revenue sources. The original progressive revenue task force, which recommended a payroll tax in 2018, also said the city should consider a local estate tax, a tax on excess compensation, and a tax on real-estate speculation, among other options.

“This is just a 2023-2024 option,” Mosqueda said. “This is not a stopgap measure; this is a temporary use because that additional source of progressive revenue has not been passed and we need to prevent austerity while maintaining the city’s commitment to the JumpStart spending plan.”

In addition to new revenues, the city could be looking at cuts to departments, including the elimination of some positions that have been vacant but funded in the budget for long periods. Advocates for reducing the Seattle Police Department’s budget aren’t likely to see much trimming in that area, though; the last time a council member (then-council president Lorena González) proposed reducing SPD’s budget by eliminating unfillable positions, the council voted it down.

At the same time, the King County Regional Homelessness Authority, which is primarily funded by the city, sent a budget proposal to the city and county earlier this year requesting $90 million for new programs, on top of the $119 million that it currently receives from the city and county. If the city funded this extra spending proportionally to its current contribution ($70 million in 2022), that would amount to an additional $60 million in city spending.

Harrell has expressed frustration publicly about the KCRHA’s budget, and has reportedly wondered aloud privately what the agency is doing with its money. Efforts to stand up a program to “navigate” people off the streets of downtown Seattle by placing them in shelters or housing, launched with a one-time infusion of private money earlier this year, are going slowly, with one of the program’s high-profile leaders leaving the agency after just three months in June. In February, KCRHA director Marc Dones said one of the goals of the initiative was to reduce the number of people living unsheltered downtown to around 30, or “functional zero,” in as little as 12 months.

When PublICola asked Harrell about KCRHA’s big budget ask back in June, he said the agency seemed to “approach the budgeting process as, ‘in a perfect world, this is what [we] could do.’… But at some point, I need you to do the hard work, which is tell us exactly what you need. This is not a negotiate, ‘you go high, I go low,’ process.”

Harrell will send his proposed budget to the council on September 24.

JumpStart Comes to the Rescue (Again), Sound Transit Updates on Escalator Outages

The forecast office went with the baseline scenario, but noted that the pessimistic scenario has become more likely than it was three months ago.

1. Next week, Seattle’s budget office will release its budget forecast for next year, which will tell city budget writers exactly how much of a shortfall the city faces in 2023. On Monday, the city’s Economic and Revenue Forecast Council, which includes city council members and representatives from the mayor’s office, got a look at the revenue side of that equation, which, like the cost of doing city business, is strongly influenced by the economy, inflation, and interest rates set by the Federal Reserve.

The big picture: In 2022, the city would face a shortfall of nearly $18 million if not for late payments from the JumpStart payroll tax, assessed on very large local companies with highly paid workers. Those payments should have come in last year but didn’t for a variety of reasons, including the fact that some firms apparently didn’t know they had to pay the tax but “fessed up,” in the words of Office of Economic and Revenue Forecasts director Ben Noble, and paid this year.

Because JumpStart revenues were still going to the general fund in 2021 to address the impacts of the pandemic, the money went into the general fund this year. Next year, though, that won’t be the case—and the office expects other city funding sources, such as taxes, grants, and court fines, to be lower than they predicted back in April.

Overall, the forecast office predicts the city will bring in about $1.5 billion in general-fund revenues next year—down $217 million from the current forecast for 2022.

The decline in revenues can’t all be chalked up to parking ticket refunds. Other factors include lower than anticipated revenues from business and occupation taxes, FEMA reimbursement for COVID expenditures, and a decline in use for some utilities, including telephone service (on the decline for years) and water (Seattle had a rainy spring). The city also expects payroll taxes to decline in the future, as tech companies’ stock value decreases and jobs shift away from Seattle to the Eastside

2. In a presentation to the Seattle Pedestrian Advisory Board about Sound Transit’s frequent escalator and elevator outages on Wednesday Sound Transit’s vertical conveyance deputy director, John Carini, argued that user error, rather than anything Sound Transit could control, is to blame for the majority of escalator failure. Carini also talked at length about what the light-rail agency is doing to keep riders informed about why outages are happening, and noted that the agency relies mostly on the public, rather than internal systems, to let it know when its equipment is down.

After showing a slide depicting a new sign that read, “This unit is out of service due to vandalism,” Carini said, “what a lot of people don’t understand is, mechanical failures account for about 38 percent of our total outages”; the rest fall into categories like “misuse” (32 percent) and “environmental” (15 percent), which includes debris people drop that gets caught in the equipment.

Overall, Carini said, Sound Transit is actually exceeding its targets for elevators and escalators in service—if you exclude the downtown light rail tunnel, which Sound Transit took over in January 2021. That’s a huge “if”—as anyone who has taken light rail to or from downtown is well aware, the escalators in every downtown tunnel station are often out of service; currently, according to Sound Transit’s performance tracker, one in three tunnel escalators is down.

The presentation did come with some good news for frustrated light rail riders: Sound Transit is currently setting up a schedule for replacing the downtown elevators and escalators, although with the exception of the International District station, where construction is supposed to start in 2024 the schedules are “TBD.”

In the meantime, Sound Transit will keep working to repair the broken-down equipment, and finally upgrading its elevators and escalators with equipment to ping the agency when they break down, rather than relying on security guards and the general public to let them know things aren’t working. That upgrade, too, is in a “pilot” stage; it will be 2024 or later before Sound Transit stops relying on what Carini called “the human factor” to keep them up to date on equipment failures.


Despite Concerns, Homelessness Authority Approves Budget that Funders “Have No Realistic Ability to Pay For”

Seattle City Councilmember Andrew Lewis
Seattle City Councilmember Andrew Lewis

By Erica C. Barnett

On Friday, after a half-hour of discussion, the governing board of the King County Regional Homelessness Authority voted unanimously to move forward with a 2023 agency budget that would require Seattle and King County to come up with $209 million next year to fund the authority—$90 million more than its current “base” budget of $119 million.

Seattle, which provides about 60 percent of the authority’s direct local funding, just received a six-year budget forecast that includes cascading budget shortfalls after next year, including projected operating deficits of $146 million in 2024 and 2025. Seattle’s budget planners are currently discussing ways to reduce such shortfalls in the future, through better long-term financial planning, reducing the number of times departments can change their adopted budgets throughout the year, and making the budgeting process more transparent.

Seattle and the county are the only local funding sources for the regional authority, which also receives some federal funds, including short-term COVID dollars the authority is using to fund some ongoing programs. The Sound Cities Association, representing nearly 40 suburban cities, has voting representatives on the authority’s implementation and governing boards but does not contribute financially to the authority. The city and county agreed to this financial and power imbalance in 2019, when they signed off on a heavily amended agreement that also barred the authority itself from ever raising revenue or issuing debt to pay for homelessness programs.

My constituents and my stakeholders, in my district and also in my city, are tired of being put in the position where we have to be the ones to say no to aspirational budgets and aspirational regional plans.”—Seattle City Councilmember Andrew Lewis

Seattle City Councilmembers Lisa Herbold and Andrew Lewis, who sit on the governing board, tried to pass an amendment to the budget clarifying that the proposal was unrealistic without additional funding and “that without such additional funding, the parties to KCRHA’s interlocal agreement will need to make adjustments to reduce” the proposal. The amendment, sponsored by Lewis, also asked the authority to list new spending requests in order of priority “when expenditures are anticipated to exceed current resources” in the future.

After representatives from suburban cities pushed back on the budget amendment—including Redmond Mayor Angela Birney, who said statements about funding required a “broader conversation—Lewis downgraded it to a nonbinding resolution, which passed. But Lewis said that in the future, the authority needs to stop sending the city and county budgets that it knows are unaffordable.

“My constituents and my stakeholders, in my district and also in my city, are tired of being put in the position where we have to be the ones to say no to aspirational budgets and aspirational regional plans,” Lewis said. “If we’re going to pass a budget we know we have no realistic ability to pay for, it puts the city in the position where we draw regional criticism and criticism from the media for not fully funding requests that we were never in a realistic position to be able to do on our own.”

The KCRHA’s budget request includes funding for safe parking spaces for up to 130 vehicles; a wage supplement for nonprofit homeless service providers; a new “high-acuity shelter” serving up to 55 people with significant behavioral and physical health needs; and “emergency housing,” a kind of intermediate housing between shelter and permanent housing, for up to 345 people.

Mayor Bruce Harrell promised to “identify” 1,000 new shelter or housing beds in the first six months of his term, plus an additional 1,000 beds by the end of the year. On Tuesday, he plans to make an announcement about progress toward that goal, which could include housing and shelter that was already in progress before he took office. Harrell will also unveil a new “dashboard” that could include the location of encampments in Seattle—an idea that many homeless advocates oppose, because they worry it will open unsheltered people up to additional harassment.

New Councilmember Sara Nelson at Center of Debates Over Hiring Bonuses, Renter Relief, and Nonbinding Resolutions

1. At a meeting of the Seattle City Council’s public safety committee Tuesday, City Councilmember Sara Nelson continued to push for spending up to $4.5 million on hiring bonuses for new Seattle Police Department recruits and lateral hires. “We need to use every tool in our toolbox to accelerate the hiring of officers,” Nelson said. “If we don’t do this, what else are we going to do?” 

Nelson’s resolution states the council’s intent to lift a budget proviso, or restriction, the council imposed on SPD’s funding last year. That proviso stipulated that if SPD failed to meet its hiring goal of 125 new officers in 2022, they can’t spend the extra money until the council lifts the proviso and allocates the funds to a specific purpose. SPD now projects that it will hire around 98 new officers, leaving between $4.1 million and $4.5 million unspent. 

Although Nelson has proposed using the unspent money to pay bonuses to new recruits, the funds may be needed elsewhere. The city budget office has asked every city department to come up with potential cuts of between 3 and 6 percent of their budgets in anticipation of a budget gap of around $150 million next year. Unspent money from this year, including the $4.5 million left over from SPD’s 2022 hiring budget, could help fill that gap.

Just as debate on her hiring bonus resolution was wrapping up, Nelson attempted to walk on a last-minute addition to the committee agenda. The bill, which committee chair Lisa Herbold’s office confirmed she had not seen, proposed lifting the proviso on the $4.5 million to allow SPD to spend it on unspecified “staffing incentives,” including anything that “accelerates and prioritizes the hiring of police officers,” according to a draft of the bill.

Herbold attempted to cut Nelson off by closing debate, but Nelson interrupted, telling Herbold, “this should be the job of the public safety committee.” Although Herbold shut her down by moving on to the next item, the debate over hiring incentives isn’t over; in fact, Nelson has made it a cornerstone of her agenda, arguing that the only way to reduce crime and cut down on “addiction and overdoses” is to hire more police, and the best way to do that is through hiring bonuses. 

The city has consistently found that hiring incentives have no significant impact on the number of new officers SPD hires. Last month, the Seattle Department of Human Resources Department issued a memo concluding that a short-lived 2021 hiring bonus program had little impact on hiring, and an earlier report about a lengthier bonus program in 2019 found that only 18 percent of SPD applicants cited the potential bonus as one of the reasons they applied. 

Mayor Bruce Harrell has not requested funding for hiring bonuses.

A separate bill, sponsored by Herbold, would provide $650,000 out of the provisoed funds for two items the mayor’s office has requested: Reimbursement for moving expenses for new officers and a professional recruiter for the department.

Both Sara Nelson and Alex Pedersen left the online council meeting immediately before the vote—the equivalent of standing up in the middle of a council meeting and marching out of chambers

2. Less than two hours after the public safety meeting ended, Nelson raised objections to several bills on the full council’s afternoon agenda, including legislation updating the city’s renter protections to comply with state law, which she argued would hurt small landlords. (Even Alex Pedersen, who’s with Nelson on the “naturally occurring affordable housing” debate, voted for that one).

Nelson also objected to a nonbinding resolution by Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda condemning a federal pilot program critics call a first step toward privatizing Medicare. Accusing Mosqueda of “legislating by slogan,” Nelson she didn’t have enough information on how the pilot would affect “our constituents, and that’s who I represent—I don’t represent advocates or medical service providers.” 

Council members will soon take up legislation that will allow them to abstain from some resolutions that aren’t directly connected to city business, but for now, council rules require them to cast a vote. To avoid this, both Nelson and Pedersen left the online meeting immediately before the vote—the equivalent of standing up in the middle of a council meeting and marching out of chambers.

Although this action technically violates the council’s rules, violations are hard to enforce—back when council meetings happened in person, certain council members were notorious for taking bathroom breaks just before big, controversial votes. After the resolution passed 6-0 (with Kshama Sawant excused from the meeting), Councilmember Dan Strauss took a moment to thank a legislative aide who is leaving. “I’m sorry Councilmembers Nelson and Pedersen aren’t here to hear this,” Strauss said.

Hiring Bonuses Don’t “Compensate” for Other Issues Impacting City Worker Retention; Bright Economic Forecast Won’t Zero Out Budget Gap

1. During a briefing at the city council’s public safety committee about the city’s struggle to retain qualified staff in every department, City Councilmember Sara Nelson suggested there is no need to “study the benefit of [hiring] incentives” for police, “because it’s been shown to work in other cities—pretty much most if not all cities in our region.” With public safety “such a crucial issue right now,” Nelson continued, “this is something that doesn’t need a lot more study.”

Nelson, whose legislation to fund hiring bonuses will come before the same committee later this month, was responding to a presentation by the city’s Human Resources Department about a survey that concluded the biggest barrier to retention for most city staffers is the city’s 32-year-old job classification system, which creates artificial barriers to advancement for many city workers. 

Her comments elicited immediate pushback from other council members, including committee chair Lisa Herbold, who pointed out that recent short-lived hiring bonuses did not lead to more applicants for police jobs, although they did get people to apply for jobs at the city’s new 911 call center. (After the city offered hiring bonuses for new SPD recruits in 2019, slightly fewer than one in five applicants said the hiring bonus was one factor in their decision to apply). Councilmember Andrew Lewis asked, semi-rhetorically, whether there was any city in the country that wasn’t currently struggling to retain officers right now. And Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda went further, apologizing to SDHR’s Keith Gulley “on behalf of the council” because “the work that you’ve done was impugned” by Nelson.

So, about that work: SDHR’s analysis found that, in general, hiring incentives serve as “a one-time quick fix that may not compensate for uncompetitive wages, difficult or unsupported work conditions, lack of opportunity to develop career relevance, experience and skills, and limited promotion opportunities” at the city, Gulley said. Additionally, signing bonuses for new hires can hurt the morale of existing employees who “feel undervalued and underappreciated” because they’re doing the same work with no extra reward.”

The hardest jobs to fill, according to the department’s survey, include carpenters, plumbers, and truck drivers as well as IT programmers, senior civil engineers, and public safety auditors. 

The shortcomings of the city’s job classification system are especially troubling for mid-career employees, who frequently get stuck in mid-level positions because they lack a requirement, such as a graduate degree or specific college credits, to move up the ranks. Gulley gave the example of an accountant who had been at the city for more than 15 years but got stuck on the ladder because she hadn’t taken 24 hours of required coursework back in college. “That’s where the majority of our employees who have worked for the city for years get stuck,” Gulley said.

Of three possible scenarios, the city is using “baseline” assumptions in its forecast.

2. An economic forecast released by the city’s Economic and Revenue Council last week predicts the city will take in about $90 million more in taxes and fees this year than a similar forecast predicted six months ago, thanks to higher-than-expected revenues from sales taxes, the JumpStart payroll tax, and the tax on real estate sales.

In all, the city expects to collect about $711 million in general-fund revenues, which fund the city’s annual budget, in 2022—a 5.6 percent increase over 2021. The forecast also predicts the city will take in about $447 million in other taxes and fees that can only be spent on specific purposes, including taxes on real estate sales, which fund capital projects. Next year, the city predicts that revenues will continue to grow, but at a slightly slower rate.

In a press briefing last week, ERC director Ben Noble cautioned that the actual value of city tax dollars—the bang the city can get for its buck—will be reduced this year because of high inflation. And he noted that job growth has been distributed unequally: While tech and other white-collar jobs have more than bounced back, hiring in hotels and the hospitality industry, as well as manufacturing, is still far below pre-pandemic levels. Continue reading “Hiring Bonuses Don’t “Compensate” for Other Issues Impacting City Worker Retention; Bright Economic Forecast Won’t Zero Out Budget Gap”

Public Safety Fizz: Council Takes Up SPD Budget, Captain Demoted Over Protest Role Sues, and More

1. The Seattle City Council’s budget committee heard presentations on Thursday about Mayor Jenny Durkan’s proposed 2022 public safety budget, which would increase the Seattle Police Department budget by $2.8 million and add 125 new officers, for a net gain, after projected attrition, of 35 officers compared to current staffing levels.

The meeting helped clarify the mayor’s decision to move the nascent “Triage Team” unit (previously, and briefly, known as Triage One) to the Seattle Fire Department instead of the Community Safety and Communications Center (CSCC). According to CSCC Director Chris Lombard, his fledgling department is underprepared to take on the new crisis units. “It would take us at least six months to get the teams off the ground,” he said, “and I recognize that there’s an urgent need to get this program running sooner than that.” 

In her presentation, SPD budget director Angela Socci said most of SPD’s proposed budget increase would pay for paid family leave and a standard annual wage increase. The rest of SPD’s spending plans come from re-shuffling the department’s existing budget. Even with 125 new hires and slower attrition, Socci predicted that the department may have as much as $19 million in unspent salaries next year to repurpose.

After a brief report on a plan to add staff to the City Attorney’s Office to expand a pre-filing diversion program for young adults, Councilmember Andrew Lewis floated the possibility that the council could make the program a “permanent fixture” of the office instead of “an elective program”—alluding to the impending change in leadership at the City Attorney’s Office, which could place the future of the office’s pre-filing diversion program in question.

2. Three people in custody at the King County Detention Center in downtown Seattle lost consciousness on Wednesday after ingesting a still-unidentified substance. The King County Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention (DAJD) would not confirm on Thursday whether the three people had suffered overdoses, but department spokesman Noah Haglund noted that jail staff and medics were able to resuscitate all three before transporting them to Harborview Medical Center along with two other people who had ingested the same substance. All five people were housed in the same section of the jail; after the incident, guards emptied the nearby cells and moved inmates to a different unit.

3. On Thursday, Gov. Jay Inslee announced that the state’s Department of Corrections (DOC) will no longer use disciplinary segregation—solitary confinement as a form of punishment—in any of the agency’s jails across the state.

The DOC made the change after reviewing data collected in Washington prisons between 2019 and 2020 that showed that more than half of the 2,500 people subjected to disciplinary segregation were punished for non-violent infractions. Additionally, the data showed that most people held in disciplinary segregation had already waited in administrative segregation—another type of solitary confinement, ostensibly for the safety of the incarcerated person—while awaiting a disciplinary hearing. The average stay in disciplinary segregation during the one-year study period ranged from 11 days for non-violent infractions to 16 days for violent ones.

According to a news release issued on Thursday afternoon, the DOC officially ended its use of disciplinary segregation on September 16.

4. A Seattle Police Department commander demoted in May filed a lawsuit against the city on Wednesday alleging that Interim SPD Chief Adrian Diaz unfairly blamed him for the department’s handling of a protest on Capitol Hill on June 1, 2020. Continue reading “Public Safety Fizz: Council Takes Up SPD Budget, Captain Demoted Over Protest Role Sues, and More”