OPINION: Passionate Testimony Brightens a Bleak Seattle Budget

by Geov Parrish

Sept. 23, hundreds packed Seattle City Council chambers and an overflow room for their first chance to offer public testimony on Mayor Jenny Durkan’s proposed 2019-20  budget, and potential council amendments to it. Some 140 people and groups signed up to offer testimony in what turned out to be a frequently emotional four-hour marathon that hopefully left council members — at least those who weren’t looking at their phones all evening — a lot to think about. To her credit, Councilmember Sally Bagshaw chaired the hearing with a notably fairer and more restrained hand than council President Bruce Harrell employs in contentious council meetings.

Here are some key takeaways from the evening:

Durkan’s Social Service Cuts Would Come With a Death Toll: Durkan’s homelessness spending came under withering criticism, including heart-wrenching testimony about the implication of cutting off all funding for the WHEEL women’s shelter; the complete defunding of the SHARE emergency indoor shelter network; and an inexplicable 60 percent cut in homelessness prevention programs. Many of these cuts are being justified as necessary to come up with the money for the retroactive raises in the new Seattle Police Officers’ Guild contract (which the City Council has yet to approve). Testifiers repeatedly invoked this year’s record-setting — again — death toll for people living on Seattle’s streets, which has already topped 100 by the King County Medical Examiner’s count.

Similarly, several people cited the King County Health Board’s recent finding that homelessness in Seattle now constitutes a public health crisis — particularly in support of the now-stalled plans for a safe consumption site in the city, which Durkan is also undercutting the funding for.

The City is Betraying Its Commitment to Race and Social Justice Equity: Seattle’s Race and Social Justice Initiative (RSJI), begun in 2005, is our city’s “commitment to eliminate racial disparities and achieve racial equity in Seattle.” As with many programs that Ed Murray hadn’t authored himself, the RSJI was badly undermined during the former mayor’s tenure, and it looks like Durkan’s tenure will be similar. A majority of the public comments objected to one or another of Durkan’s social service cuts, frequently impacting communities of color — from homelessness issues to underfunding senior and other community centers to job training and internship programs. The City Council badly needs to stand up for the city’s RSJI.

Speak Out Seattle Wants To Legitimize Themselves: The anti-homeless hate group Speak Out Seattle had about 15 members attending, in matching T-shirts and signs, who parked themselves directly in front of Councilmember Kshama Sawant. They gave several interviews to local TV despite testimony that was frequently factually incorrect, booed by much of the crowd, and jarringly at odds with the tone of the rest of the evening. At one point, Speak Out Seattle ally and former council candidate David Preston — who has been the object of numerous police complaints for harassment and cyberstalking of local journalists and homeless service providers and volunteers — tried to cut in and testify after another Speak Out Seattle member finished, without having signed up. Thankfully, Bagshaw was having none of it. But the council’s sudden repeal last June of the Employee Hours Tax (EHT), in response to polling on a proposed initiative that Speak Out Seattle-led the signature gathering for, gave the group’s Trumpian rhetoric and tactics a legitimacy they don’t deserve. Local media should know better.

Trans Rights Are In An Existential Fight: In extreme counterpoint to the privilege Speak Out Seattle members exuded, testimony from Seattle’s trans community and allies underscored that the trans community, in the wake of recently announced Trump Administration plans to redefine gender, is in an existential fight for the rights that impact everything they do — and that they need support from the city that’s utterly missing in Durkan’s proposed budget. This will be a major civil rights battle in 2019.

The Kids Are All Right: At least a half-dozen groups of activists, mostly under the age 21 and mostly youth of color, gave powerful testimony, largely in support of social service funding. They all did great jobs, and provided a warm glow to an otherwise long, frequently dry evening.

A widely used truism, popularized largely by Jim Wallis of the liberal Christian group Sojourners, holds that a budget is a moral document. Former mayor Mike McGinn liked to use that quote. The message Tuesday night was clear: Durkan needs to re-examine her budget’s moral priorities.

The final Seattle City Council vote on the 2019-2020 budget will be on Monday, November 19. Council members can be contacted here with your thoughts and suggestions.

Featured Photo by Geov Parrish.