Tag: city budget

Participatory Budgeting “Clearly Delayed Until Next Year,” Councilmember Confirms

An early version of the proposed budget for the Black Brilliance Research Project’s administrative model.

By Paul Kiefer

Seattle’s participatory budgeting process, which received $30 million in the 2021 city budget adopted last year, “is now clearly delayed until next year,” Seattle City Councilmember Tammy Morales confirmed by email Wednesday.

The city council identified participatory budgeting as a way to allocate spending on alternatives to policing last year. But the timeline to get the process underway has been unclear for months because of uncertainty about who will manage the process. The council is considering two options, but Morales has been reluctant to move forward with either alternative.

The first option would follow the plan the Black Brilliance Research Project (BBRP) team laid out in their final presentation to the city council in March. According to that plan, a third-party contractor—likely a nonprofit—would be responsible for hiring a 26-person “steering committee,” made up of people representing various marginalized groups. The steering committee would gather proposals from Seattle-area residents, shape them into viable projects, and supervise a citywide voting process to choose which projects get funded; through the contractor, the city would pay steering committee members an annual salary of around $112,000, including benefits. 

Despite the delays and controversies, Morales still hopes that a larger-scale participatory budgeting process can become an annual part of the city’s budget.

The third-party contractor would also be responsible for reducing barriers to participation in the participatory budgeting process, including by distributing WiFi hotspots and computers to low-income residents and providing translation services. 

Because of all these new hires, the BBRP researchers’ proposed budget for administering the participatory budgeting process is close to $8 million, with an additional $6 million set aside to cover unexpected costs; that would leave roughly $16 million to fund community safety projects.

Because of its high overhead costs, Morales has called called the BBRP’s proposal “unworkable” in its current form. But she is no more confident in an alternative proposal, offered by Deputy Mayor Tiffany Washington during talks with the council with BBRP researchers, that would put the Department of Neighborhoods (DON) in charge of participatory budgeting at a lower cost and on a shorter timeline. Under that model, DON would hire 15 contractors to serve on a steering committee for $75 an hour; overall, the mayor’s office estimates that the scaled-down approach would cost $2.6 million, but the office maintains that the mayor isn’t advocating for any model in particular.

The Department of Neighborhoods runs a small, four-year-old participatory budgeting program called Your Voice, Your Choice, which allows residents to suggest and select small capital improvement projects—new speed bumps in front of Leschi Elementary School, for instance—for the department to fund.

From Morales’ perspective, the alternative participatory budgeting plan doesn’t reflect input from Black Seattle residents; according to the BBRP researchers’ final report to the council, members of the public who responded to their questionnaires and participated in their town halls were specifically opposed to entrusting DON to oversee the project. Instead, the respondents favored using staffers from the Office of Civil Rights to support the work of a community steering committee. Continue reading “Participatory Budgeting “Clearly Delayed Until Next Year,” Councilmember Confirms”

Council Vote Leaves Fate of Proposed SPD Cuts In the Air

Breakdown of Estimated Salary Savings Under Herbold Proposal

By Paul Kiefer

Months of debate on the City Council about how to distribute millions of dollars in unpaid Seattle Police Department salaries came to an end on Tuesday, though no one seemed satisfied with the result.

During the meeting, the committee considered a proposal to cut $2.83 million from SPD’s budget while simultaneously lifting a budget proviso on another $5 million that the council has withheld from SPD’s budget since the beginning of the year. Ultimately, the committee sent the ordinance to the full council with a ‘do not pass’ recommendation.

The committee’s discussion was part of the ongoing debate over the council’s promise to curtail overspending by SPD last December. When department leadership informed the council that SPD had overspent their budget by $5.4 million, the council expressed its intent to cut the same amount from SPD’s budget this year. The council hoped that the $5.4 million would support the participatory budgeting process this spring.

The planned cut didn’t jeopardize SPD’s plans to hire new officers, because the council had already passed a budget that provided enough money to pay the salaries of all officers SPD expected to hire or retain in 2021.

But the proposal set off alarm bells at SPD. In March, interim SPD Chief Adrian Diaz appeared before the public safety committee to argue that the department is already hamstrung by earlier budget cuts and staffing losses. Cutting an additional $5.4 million from the department’s budget, he argued, would plunge the department into a staffing crisis “beyond mitigation” by spurring more officers to leave for greener pastures.

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Later that month, in response to pressure from SPD to reconsider the cut, public safety committee chair Lisa Herbold revised the proposal: instead of cutting $5.4 million from the police department budget, the council could reduce the cut to $2.83 million. Most of the money taken from SPD’s budget would go to the participatory budgeting process; the rest would pay for civilian staff in other city departments who could support SPD, including evidence storage staff and five new mental health crisis responders. Herbold also proposed offsetting the $2.83 million cut by lifting a proviso the council passed last November that withholds $5 million in salary savings from SPD; the department’s budget also includes several million more dollars in salary savings unaffected by the proviso because of the abnormally high attrition from the department in the past year.

From Herbold’s perspective, the reduced budget cut still allowed the council to penalize SPD for spending beyond their budget in 2020 while also giving the department greater flexibility to fill budged holes as they appeared.

But Herbold’s proposal to reduce the size of the budget cut didn’t assuage SPD’s concerns. And it drew the attention of Dr. Antonio Oftelie, who leads the monitoring team appointed by a federal district court to track the progress of reforms to SPD. Oftelie’s team directed the committee to delay acting on their plans to cut SPD’s budget until department leadership answered a list of questions about the impacts of staffing losses and additional budget cuts on the department’s day-to-day responsibilities. Continue reading “Council Vote Leaves Fate of Proposed SPD Cuts In the Air”

SPD Argues Proposed Budget Cut Would Lead to Crisis “Beyond Mitigation”

SPD data shows rising attrition since 2012, when the department fell under federal supervision.

By Paul Kiefer

Interim Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz appeared before the City Council’s Public Safety Committee on Tuesday to present his argument against the $5.4 million cut to the SPD budget proposed by the council in December 2020 in response to overspending by the department. Diaz argued that the additional proposed budget cut could plunge SPD into a staffing crisis “beyond mitigation.”

The proposed $5.4 million cut was the council’s response to the revelation in December that SPD had overspent its budget by that amount, requiring the council to make a last-minute addition to the department’s budget. Though SPD staff told council that the department needed that funding to cover separation costs, family leave pay, and COVID testing site-related overtime, the council pointed out that SPD spent past its approved overtime budget during last summer’s protests and left other costs unpaid until the end of the year. The resolution expressing the council’s intent to cut $5.4 million from SPD’s 2021 budget was largely an effort to dissuade SPD from similar overspending in the future.

A month earlier, the council had approved a larger slate of reductions to SPD’s 2021 budget—a $21.5 million cut proposed by the mayor, and a $12.7 million cut added by the council. Most of those cuts reduced SPD’s staffing budget, shifting the salaries reserved for vacant positions and the salaries of officers leaving the department to the city’s general fund.

Diaz argued that while his department can work within a constrained budget, the proposed $5.4 million cut would leave the department unable to adapt to its smaller workforce and could spur more officers to part ways with the department; since the beginning of 2020, SPD has seen more than 200 officers retire or transfer to other agencies—twice as many departures as in 2019. “The continued cuts to the budget, especially those not matched with efforts to reduce the duties of the department, will only drive further staffing losses,” Diaz said. “I can’t plan around a budget that’s constantly changing,” he added.

According to both Diaz and Deputy Mayor Mike Fong, who appeared alongside the interim chief during Tuesday’s presentation, rising attrition—and, Diaz added, a growing number of older officers who are taking medical leave to “burn time” before retirement—have already created serious holes in the department. Continue reading “SPD Argues Proposed Budget Cut Would Lead to Crisis “Beyond Mitigation””

What’s Next for Participatory Budgeting in Seattle

The Priorities for City Investments Identified by the Black Brilliance Research Project

By Paul Kiefer

After six months and a trio of lengthy reports to the Seattle City Council, the Black Brilliance Research Project (BBRP) has come to an end. The two researchers who led the project, Shaun Glaze and LéTania Severe, appeared before the council last Friday for their final presentation, which gave a few glimpses at what lies ahead: An ambitious effort to put a city-wide participatory budgeting process into motion by August.

Participatory budgeting is a form of direct democracy in which residents generate city spending proposals. When the council first embraced the idea last fall, the idea was that it would go hand-in-hand with divestment from policing and reinvestment in community-based public safety. The preliminary research would create a working definition of “community safety” and a blueprint for the participatory budgeting process itself, and Seattle residents would get the opportunity to suggest public safety investments—things like emergency housing for domestic violence victims and youth mentorship programs—for which they could vote later in the budget cycle.

Last fall, the council allocated $30 million to pay for participatory budgeting and the winning project proposals themselves; if successful, it will be among the largest participatory budgeting projects in the United States.

But while the BBRP team has spent the past six months conducting surveys, interviews and focus groups on a set of high-level priorities that will “guide” participatory budgeting, Glaze and Severe told the council that most of the legwork needed to get the program up and running still lies ahead—as do some steps that the researchers initially planned to tackle over the past six months.

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By March 16, council staff and the research leads—with some input from the city budget office and mayoral staff—are supposed to have hammered out the details of a spending plan for the participatory budgeting process. The money for that process will come out of the $30 million, and the final BBRP report also suggested setting aside 20 percent of the available funds to cover unexpected expenses. Whatever remains once the process comes to an end will be available to fund winning project proposals.

The proposed overhead would be significant: In addition to paying for promotional materials, translation, and software development, the researchers’ final report also outlined a plan to pay as many as 37 staffers to collect and review project proposals and encourage residents to participate, among other tasks.

Those new staffers would include the seven members of the “steering committee,” which Glaze and Severe said will create the rules for participatory budgeting, as well as 25 full-time members of five “work groups” and up to five full- or part-time city employees.

According to the BBRP proposal, seats on the steering committee would be year-long, and most members would receive a salary similar to a City of Seattle Strategic Advisor 2, in the range of $100,000 per year, based on a current listing for a strategic advisor position with the Office of Civil Rights, because of their roles as project managers.

But while the BBRP team has spent the past six months conducting surveys, interviews and focus groups on a set of high-level priorities that will “guide” participatory budgeting, Glaze and Severe told the council that most of the legwork needed to get the program up and running still lies ahead—as do some steps that the researchers initially planned to tackle over the past six months.

To choose the members of the steering committee, Glaze and Severe outlined a complex process in which a group of decision-makers will allot points to applicants based on their lived experiences; people with disabilities, Duwamish tribal members, trans or non-binary people, and Black women are among the groups who would receive points because the researchers have determined that their experience is vital to the success of the committee. Who the decision-makers would be, and how they will be chosen, is still unclear. After allocating points to applicants, the group of decision-makers would choose ten applicants from a pool of those who receive high enough scores at random, according to Glaze, to form a “jury” that would then choose the members of the steering committee from the remaining high-scoring applicants.

 

According to the BBRP’s report, applications for the positions will open in March. Excluding the city employees who will provide support for the process, the BBRP’s outline for a participatory budgeting process would require a staff nearly as large as Seattle’s Office of Civil Rights.

Once formed, the steering committee is supposed to create job descriptions for the full-time work group members. Members of the “accountability work group,” for instance, would “monitor and receive feedback” about the decisions made by the steering committee; a second group, called the “lived experience work group,” would “ensure the participatory budgeting process is aligned with the lived experiences of community members.” Continue reading “What’s Next for Participatory Budgeting in Seattle”

Mayor Announces Membership of New Equitable Communities Task Force, Faces Criticism from Social Justice Activists

by Paul Kiefer

Today, a little more than four months since Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan first said she would invest $100 million in services for BIPOC communities, and more than two weeks after she announced she was creating a task force to recommend how to spend the money, she announced the initial members of the task force.

The 28 members of the group, the Equitable Communities Initiative Task Force, are drawn from an array of BIPOC-led nonprofits and civic organizations around Seattle, including well know civil rights leaders such as Estela Ortega, the Director of El Centro De La Raza, and Dr. Sheila Edwards Lange, President of Seattle Central College. They will be tasked with “develop[ing] recommendations for a historic $100 million new investment in Black, Indigenous, and people of color communities to address the deep disparities caused by systemic racism and institutionalized oppression,” Durkan said in the announcement, ostensibly building on existing city investments

At present, the mayor’s proposed budget would take that $100 million from the revenues of the new Jumpstart payroll tax the City Council passed earlier this year. The council originally intended to use the Jumpstart tax revenue for COVID-19 relief for Seattle residents for the next two years, and later to fund affordable housing, projects outlined in the Equitable Development Initiative, Green New Deal investments, and support for small businesses; many of those budgetary priorities were the result of years of lobbying and activism by local BIPOC organizations.

As PubliCola reported last month, city budget director Ben Noble told reporters in September that “budget priorities for the city have changed, arguably, since that [JumpStart] plan was developed,” justifying the mayor’s affront to the council’s legislation.

Because the task force is expected to divert city dollars from JumpStart projects championed by racial and climate justice activists — and not from the Seattle Police Department — the Equitable Communities Initiative has raised alarms among some activist and nonprofit leaders in the past month.

Continue reading “Mayor Announces Membership of New Equitable Communities Task Force, Faces Criticism from Social Justice Activists”

Mayor’s 2020 Budget Would Reallocate JumpStart, Uber Taxes to Pay for BIPOC Investments To Be Determined by New Task Force

Screen shot from internal City of Seattle presentation obtained by PubliCola.

UPDATE: Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office has confirmed that the mayor plans to use both JumpStart (payroll) tax revenues, which are currently earmarked for housing, people experiencing homelessness, and small businesses, and money from the Transportation Network Companies (Uber/Lyft) tax to help pay for her $100 million “new investment” in BIPOC communities. The details of that spending would be hammered out by a task force whose members Durkan will announce next week. (More information in original story, below.)

The TNC tax is currently earmarked for affordable housing near transit and the Center City Streetcar. Using TNC revenues to get to the $100 million goal could mean abandoning the troubled downtown streetcar project.

Earlier this year, the city council passed the JumpStart tax—a graduated payroll tax on high-income workers’ earnings. Durkan, who opposed the tax, nonetheless only vetoed the council’s JumpStart spending plan, letting the tax itself become law without her signature. (The council overrode the veto).

It was an odd move that many observers questioned at the time. However, if Durkan was planning to use the tax revenues to pay for her July commitment, which she made at the height of clashes between protesters and Seattle police, the mayor’s decision to preserve the tax but try to undo the spending plan makes sense. 

But it will have consequences. Under the council’s plan, payroll tax revenues would be used in the short term to fund rent relief, non-congregate shelter beds, immigrant and refugee relief programs,grocery vouchers, and direct assistance to child care centers and other small businesses. In the long term, the tax is supposed to provide $214 million a year for low-income and affordable housing, equitable development, small business support, and Green New Deal projects.

Council member Teresa Mosqueda, who proposed the JumpStart plan, told PubliCola, “JumpStart funding for 2021 was supposed to lessen the austerity cuts that were expected to core government services, much of which serves BIPOC communities. We cannot take expected JumpStart revenue to make good on a promise [Durkan] couldn’t keep.”

The council, which is just coming off a bruising battle over the 2020 rebalancing package, will have to decide now whether they want to fight Durkan’s plan to allocate $100 million to a list of projects that won’t be determined until her task force comes up with spending priorities; or to give in and abandon some or all of the JumpStart spending plan they adopted in July.

If they fight, the mayor will be able to accuse the council of “not listening to community” because their spending plan didn’t involve the kind of lengthy community process Durkan has proposed. If they don’t, community groups that worked to secure the funding in that plan, including groups that advocated for months for the Green New Deal spending plan, could lose out.

Overall, according to PubliCola’s reporting, Durkan’s budget plan would require between 75 and 80 outright layoffs, representing about $7 million in city spending. The mayor will present her budget to the council next Tuesday at 1pm.

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Original story follows.

As PubliCola reported yesterday, in advance of today’s announcement, Mayor Jenny Durkan is convening a new “Equitable Investment Task Force” as part of a “Reimagining Seattle” process that will begin discussions to “realign” the city’s spending  for a post-COVID recovery. The mayor’s announcement, made in an op/ed in the South Seattle Emerald, does not provide many details about her “Equitable Communities Initiative” or the makeup of the task force, but does indicate that this will be a multi-year process, starting with the 2021 budget she’ll propose next Tuesday and continuing with an already planned supplemental budget next spring.

As we noted on Twitter yesterday, PubliCola has obtained additional details that shed more light on the mayor’s plans, which also involve numerous internal “work groups” (distinct from the external task force) and more than 30 city staff, most of them from the city budget office or the mayor’s office.

In an internal PowerPoint presentation titled “Reimagining Seattle As We Know It,” Durkan’s office laid out a plan that that includes new internal city of Seattle “work groups” and an Equitable Investment Task Force with various committees and a paid facilitator, which will “interface” with, and get technical assistance from, the city by way of the new work groups. The mayor’s office will serve as the liaison between all these different groups, and a still-to-be-hired Director of Re=covery and Equitable Investment will head up the whole effort.

The mayor has been criticized in the past for appointing task forces to discuss urgent problems in the past instead of taking quick and decisive action. Past task forces have included groups that discussed homelessness (One Table), zoning in industrial areas (the Industrial and Maritime Strategy Council), and business (the Small Business Advisory Council), among others.

This purpose of this task force is, in part, to discuss how to spend the $100 million the mayor has pledged in “new spending” on BIPOC communities in her 2021 budget, which her office will present to the city council on Tuesday.

One likely source of these revenues will be the JumpStart tax, which is intended to help individuals and businesses recover from the COVID-related economic downturn next year, to cover some of the $100 million. Earlier this year, Durkan vetoed the spending plan for the tax, but not the tax plan itself (the council overrode the veto).

Council member Teresa Mosqueda, who proposed the JumpStart plan, told PubliCola, “JumpStart funding for 2021 was supposed to lessen the austerity cuts that were expected to core government services, much of which serves BIPOC communities. We cannot take expected JumpStart revenue to make good on a promise [Durkan] couldn’t keep.”

According to the city’s internal presentation, the task force—whose members the mayor’s office has not yet identified—will have four co-chairs, and the whole effort will be headed up by the mayor’s new Director of Recovery and Equitable Investment, who has not been hired yet (the job posting went up in early September). PubliCola hears it’s been a challenge to find someone to fill the cabinet-level position, which has a pay range of $120,000 to $180,000.

 

Morning Fizz: Veto Crunch Time, a $100 Million Mystery, and Other Budget News

Council President Lorena González, via
City council president Lorena González, via Youtube

1. Today at its special 3pm meeting, the Seattle City Council will vote on whether to overturn or uphold Mayor Jenny Durkan’s veto of their 2020 “rebalancing” budget package. The council’s version of the budget included modest cuts to the police budget, new spending on a process to reinvest city dollars in alternatives to policing, and the elimination of the Navigation Team, a crew of cops, sanitation workers, and three social workers that until recently removed hundreds of homeless encampments a year.

The mayor actually vetoed three separate bills. Two require a six-vote majority to overturn; the third, which actually appropriates funding for the remainder of 2020, requires seven votes—so seven is the number council members who want to overturn the mayor’s veto will need to shoot for. A vote to overturn all three vetoes would restore the council’s budget. A vote to sustain the veto(es) would lead to a vote on a separate, “compromise” piece of legislation, put forward by council president Lorena González, that would preserve the police department at existing levels, eliminate a loan between city departments that would pay for city and community human services programs, and keep the Navigation Team at current levels while requesting that the Seattle police chief reduce the total size of the team by eliminating two police positions that are already vacant.

On Monday, it looked unlikely that there would be seven votes to overturn the mayor’s veto, although several council members were conspicuously silent during the discussion. Interestingly, González herself tweeted on Monday night that she would vote to overturn the veto, in support of “the work to divest from a broken model of policing.”

A vote for the compromise bill would hand Durkan a significant victory on the eve of her 2021 budget speech next week, and on the threshold of her 2021 reelection campaign. Council members suggested Monday that they believe their hands are tied—if they overturn Durkan’s veto, the mayor can simply ignore any budget provisos that restrict police spending (forcing the council to overturn those provisos so that officers will continue to get their paychecks) and any negotiation with the Seattle Police Officers Guild would probably take three months anyway, pushing the discussions into 2021.

“I think we’re faced with the unfortunate reality that even though we can appropriate money, we can’t compel the mayor to spend the money, and that is sort of the condition we found ourselves in with a lot of these projects around how we’re going to restructure and defund” SPD, District 7 council member Andrew Lewis told PubliCola after the vote.

The consolation prize, to the extent that there is one, consists of $3 million that, according to the legislation, “is intended to be spent on providing non-congregate shelter,” like tiny house villages and the hotel rooms Durkan has resisted funding in response to the COVID-19 crisis. That funding is secured through what council members called a “verbal agreement” with the mayor’s office; Lewis said after the meeting that because the council discussed the agreement publicly, “it’s on record that that’s going to be the understanding of how this is going to work. We are about to [discuss] the 2021 budget and we can make sure this is in there, and we would be fully within our rights to be very indignant about that if there’s not a shared commitment to keeping that deal.”

There’s also $500,000 to be divided among a long list of human service needs, including behavioral health investments, “support[ing] the work of the Navigation Team,” diversion funding, and rapid rehousing funds. The entire half-million would flow through the Navigation Team, even though some of the programs—such as rapid rehousing, a kind of short-term rent subsidy that assumes a person will be able to pay full market rent within a few months—are not really geared toward people experiencing long-term unsheltered homelessness.

Under the compromise bill, the $3 million allocated for research into community-led alternatives to policing in the council’s budget is shrunk to $1 million, with the rest to follow, also apparently by verbal agreement, next year. And there’s $2.5 million for “organizations engaging in community safety,” such as (for example) Choose 180 and Community Passageways.

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2. If the compromise passes, Durkan will also get to keep the Navigation Team at its current level. The future of the team was a major sticking point in the budget negotiations (the other two being whether the council would overturn the veto—which Durkan was adamantly against even if the council immediately adopted a compromise—and cuts to police) and a vote for the compromise bill will only forestall the debate over the fate of the team.

Already, Durkan has reportedly indicated that she plans to keep the team going through 2021, although Lewis—who chairs the council’s special committee on homelessness—says the team’s role, like public safety in general, may be “reimagined.” What that might look like remains unclear, but it could involve renegotiating the terms under which the city can remove encampments, or—as Lewis puts it—”pivoting to more of a coordinating and clearinghouse kind of space to coordinate service providers.”

The council voted unanimously to remove police from the team last month through another budget proviso. The compromise bill also states the council’s “policy intent” to cut five positions from the Navigation Team total; Lewis indicated during the meeting that the additional cuts would come from removing non-SPD staffers from the team.

3. With the 2020 budget almost the rearview mirror, it’s time for Durkan’s 2021 budget proposal, which she will send to the council next Tuesday. The biggest-ticket promised item—”$100 million in community-driven programs for Black youths and adults,” as she put it when she first committed to the funding in June—will also be the hardest to pay for. Durkan has not said publicly where she plans to come up with $100 million in a budget that will have to address ongoing revenue shortfalls in 2021.

Will the money be new revenue—something like a flat income tax, with rebates to low- and middle-income people to get around a court ruling quashing the city’s high-earners’ income tax? Will the revenue come by reallocating funds from a tax that already exists? Or will the mayor use budgetary magic—similar to the math that turned an interdepartmental transfer of 911 call center staff into a huge “cut” to the police department—to conjure $100 million from existing dollars?

Durkan Will Veto Council Budget Over Cuts to Police Department; Council President Hopes for Compromise

As I first reported on Twitter this morning, Mayor Jenny Durkan will announce this afternoon that she will veto the city council’s midyear budget rebalancing package, a move that could effectively remove one co-equal branch of government from the city’s budget process by reinstating Durkan’s original budget proposal with no input from the council. The council could overturn the veto, as they did the mayor’s recent veto of a COVID relief package that relies on future revenues from the JumpStart payroll tax. Or—as seems likely—the council try to work with Durkan to come up with a rebalancing package that the mayor will accept.

“The bills I am vetoing today were passed without the level of collaboration that I think we need, and more important, that the city expects of us,” Durkan said at a press conference this afternoon, “but I am optimistic that we can continue to work together to bridge the gaps. I continue to believe that we can [reach] common ground on the vision for SPD that has been laid out by Chief [Carmen] Best and I.”

The objections Durkan raised were familiar to anyone who has been following the debate over police defunding: The mayor said that the council is attempting to change things “overnight,” “without a plan,” and that her budget proposals already contain large cuts to the police department. The vast majority of those cuts, however, come from transferring some current SPD functions, such as the 911 dispatch center, into other parts of the budget—not from transforming the city’s approach to public safety or reducing the number of SPD officers, as protesters have been demanding since May.

City council president Lorena González said in an interview that she is “incredibly disappointed’ in the mayor’s decision to veto yet another council spending proposal. “It is obvious that there is a significant difference of opinion between the City Council and the mayor and the chief on what can and should be achieved in 2020 in order to respond to the calls from community to reduce the Seattle Police Department’s budget this year and begin the process of investing in community safety programs,” González says.

The rebalancing proposal was necessary to deal with a midyear budget shortfall of around $300 million, a number that keeps getting edited upward as new revenue projections come in.

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The council’s plan included more significant, but still relatively minor, cuts. The version they adopted cuts SPD’s budget by 7 percent by eliminating the encampment-removing Navigation Team, reducing the salaries of SPD command staff (including Best, whose 2020 pay was reduced by $6,000) and cutting 100 positions at SPD through a combination of layoffs and attrition. The council’s proposal also provided $3 million to start a participatory process to reallocate SPD to community-based public health and safety programs, plus $14 million to a combination of city and community programs, funded through an interfund loan that Durkan said was the main reason for her objection to that particular spending proposal.

“Look, it’s a loan that I’m not sure we can repay, and we know with the coming budget that we will have to do some interfund loans just to keep the city services that we have,” Durkan said.

Durkan mentioned the Navigation Team specifically at several points during her press conference, suggesting that the council wanted to cut the team “without a plan” to deal with dangerous encampments. “I’ve had open houses with a number of community and neighborhood groups in the last weeks, and the impact that some of these encampments are having are real— and they are also real for the people living in those encampments,” she said. “We have to have a way to bring people inside and address the public safety [issues], and the cuts did not allow us an opportunity to do that.” Since the pandemic began, the city has provided only about 100 new shelter spaces for the thousands of people living unsheltered in Seattle.

Under the city charter, the council must take a vote to overturn or sustain the veto within 30 days. Council president Lorena González says her hope is that, rather than simply overturning another mayoral veto, the council will be able to “come to some agreement  with the mayor around a rebalanced package, and that’s going to be a two-way street. We need her to make a good-faith effort to engage in order to meaningfully move this forward.”

Otherwise, González says, the council and mayor will likely stay stuck in “this constant back and forth” of vetoes and votes to overturn. “This mayor has made a historical number of vetoes. I’m not aware of any other mayor in the history of the city of Seattle who’s used veto power at this level, and I think that she is sending us a clear message that she will continue to do so,” González says.

It’s clear that there are still significant gaps between what the council wants and what the mayor will accept. In particular, it’s unclear what, exactly, the mayor would consider “on the table” when brokering a future “compromise” with the council. The Navigation Team, community spending, participatory budgeting research, command staff salaries, and SPD personnel cuts seem to be off the table.

But there is also now precedent for compromise between the mayor and the council. This afternoon, Durkan also announced an agreement on the COVID relief package that is much smaller than the council’s original proposal but that will, in the words of JumpStart sponsor Teresa Mosqueda, enable the city to “mov[e] forward jointly as we cannot wait another day” for relief to residents and small businesses impacted by the pandemic.

City Could Be On Hook for Nearly-Empty Hotel It’s Been Renting Since March

While the city and county debate whether to move people experiencing homelessness from individual rooms into mass shelters, which offer no privacy and minimal protection from airborne transmission of COVID-19, the city continued to pay for unused hotel rooms in a high-end downtown hotel through the end of June. Last Wednesday, the council learned that the city has only received a guarantee of $325,000 in federal reimbursement for the empty rooms, which were originally intended for first responders, leaving at least a $1.6 million gap.

The city rented the Executive Pacific Hotel’s 155 rooms in March, at a time when it seemed that emergency personnel responding to the COVID-19 pandemic might need a place to isolate during the crisis. When that turned out not to be the case (thanks largely to county-wide efforts that limited the number of cases), the city expanded eligibility to include health care workers, who didn’t end up needing many rooms, either. Ultimately, the hotel sat mostly empty during the city’s three-month lease, while thousands of homeless people slept outdoors or crowded into mass shelters—the city’s preferred solution for sheltering people during the crisis.

Because so few people ever stayed in the Executive Pacific Hotel, the city’s actual bill ended up being about $2 million—a sum that paid for about 12 hotel rooms a night. But budget director Ben Noble revealed Wednesday that the city could be on the hook for much of that cost, unless FEMA changes its mind about what it will reimburse.

Noble said he was hopeful that the federal government would reconsider its reimbursement, given that so many cities initially thought they would need mass hospitals and temporary housing for first responders during the early days of the pandemic.

“In terms of facilities, [the city] went out looking for a contract arrangement and that was the one they were able to find on short notice,” Noble said. “FEMA is apparently open to reconsidering the reimbursement, because as it turns out, we weren’t the only city who found itself in this situation at the time.”

Going forward, the city will be paying for the rooms it uses, rather than the cost of the entire hotel.

The larger context for the discussion about reimbursement is the fact that many cities, including San Francisco, Los Angeles, Baltimore, and New Orleans used high hotel vacancy rates as an opportunity to move people experiencing homelessness into individual rooms that offered more safety, privacy, and dignity than cots or mats in mass shelters. Mayor Jenny Durkan has resisted calls for a similar shift of resources in Seattle, preferring to re-distribute mass shelters so that people can sleep slightly further apart.

As council member Lisa Herbold noted Wednesday, the city already has a hotel/motel voucher program that could have been providing families and individuals with safe places to stay, if it had been funded adequately during the pandemic. As it was, the city didn’t have enough vouchers to offer the small number of homeless people removed from Cal Anderson Park during the city’s recent sweep of the CHOP protest zone.

“What is keeping us from boosting funding for that existing program and making those vouchers available for people who are currently in congregate-model shelters?” she asked. “I just imagine there are a lot of hotel rooms in the city that aren’t being used.”

In response, Noble pointed out the existing budget shortfall that will require about $300 million in midyear cuts.

It’s possible, perhaps likely, that the federal government would not see the wisdom in using FEMA dollars to move people into individual rooms rather than warehousing them in shelters. What’s harder to stomach is the argument that spending potentially millions of dollars on empty hotel rooms was a better use of those limited funds than filling some of those beds with people.

Durkan’s Proposed $20 Million Cut to Police Is Just $4 Million More Than Initially Planned

The overall budget picture, via City Budget Office.

After weeks of soaring, budget-speech-style rhetoric about “reimagining the police” and “working with community,” Mayor Jenny Durkan’s proposed midyear police budget cut of $20 million, or just 5 percent of the department’s $400 million budget, was underwhelming. Moreover, according to sources familiar with Durkan’s initial budget balancing package, the proposed cut is only one percentage point (or $4 million) higher than the one Mayor Durkan proposed internally three weeks ago, before protests against police violence upended the city’s business-as-usual approach to public safety. That $4 million can be accounted for by Durkan’s proposal to delay the construction of a second North Precinct for the department.

Despite demands from activists against police violence to start cutting SPD right away, the 5 percent cut will not even reduce the size of the police force. As a presentation on the budget cuts makes clear, SPD is on track to hire and train enough new officers to make up for the expected rate of attrition through the end of the year. The presentation emphasizes that SPD is taking the biggest budget hit, in dollars, of any department; it does not point out the fact that this is because SPD is by far the largest department in the city.

SPD spent an extra $6.3 million this year policing protests over a period of 12 days, including the ones that led to the Capitol Hill Organized Protest zone near the East Precinct. That $6.3 million paid for 72,619 hours of overtime.

None of the changes proposed for SPD’s budget in 2020 represent a realignment of priorities; rather, they nibble around the edges by cutting things like new IT investments and cars.

SPD’s midyear budget adjustment also does not include any changes to the Navigation Team, the group of police officers and Human Services Department employees who do outreach and remove encampments around the city. Currently, the SPD budget includes $2.4 million for the Navigation Team, which pays for one lieutenant, two sergeants, and nine officers. School resource officers—police who provide security at schools, a role that is also extremely controversial—have been repurposed to go out with the Navigation Team while schools are closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

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The mayor’s budget announcement included a commitment from SPD to come up with proposals to cut its own budget by 30, 40, and 50 percent for 2021, and a commitment from the city to “engage community to provide substantive input on what 2021 SPD budget choices should be made.”

It’s standard for the city to ask departments to come up with potential cuts themselves, but the case of SPD is different because protesters are clamoring for its budget to be cut in half (to begin with) and for the entire concept of public safety to be reimagined in a way that does not center police. The Human Services Department, for example, came up with 2020 cuts that include not filling vacancies and reducing or eliminating travel and trainings—but, unlike the ongoing outcry over police funding, no one is clamoring for fewer human or social services, so the process of asking HSD to propose its own cuts is less politically fraught.

The police department spent an extra $6.3 million this year policing protests over a period of 12 days, including the ones that led to the Capitol Hill Organized Protest zone near the East Precinct. That $6.3 million paid for 72,619 hours of overtime.

The mayor’s proposed 2020 budget balancing package would also draw on funds from several voter-approved levies to pay for normal city operations. For example, $10 million will be shifted this year from the Move Seattle Levy, which was supposed to fund new transportation capital projects, toward the day-to-day operations of the Seattle Department of Transportation. The library levy, which was supposed to fund increased services, will now pay for basic operations—keeping the lights on at branches that might otherwise see reduced hours or closures.

The council will be discussing the mayor’s proposed budget cuts this afternoon. Most members of the council support passing a progressive tax to reduce the impact of next year’s budget shortfall. A payroll tax on large employers with high-paid workers, proposed by council budget committee chair Teresa Mosqueda, has five co-sponsors (a majority), but council member Kshama Sawant has threatened to put her own competing employee hours tax on a citywide ballot if Mosqueda’s proposal goes through in its current form. Durkan has not endorsed Mosqueda’s package and has never supported any tax proposal at the city level.

Budget director Ben Noble said yesterday that the budget cuts the city expects to make in 2021 (again, in the absence of any progressive revenue package) will amount to about 10 percent of the city’s overall budget—an “unprecedented” amount that even dwarfs the cuts the city made under former mayor Mike McGinn during the Great Recession.