Seattle City Council $6 Billion Budget Reflects Incremental Change

by Carolyn Bick

With the exception of Councilmember Kshama Sawant, the Seattle City Council almost unanimously passed its $5.9 billion 2019-20 budget.

The nine-member council voted 8-to-1 in favor of passing a budget that included increases in funding for police and the city’s homelessness outreach program, as well as funding for a new program aimed at low-acuity mental health response. The budget largely reflected what Mayor Jenny Durkan originally proposed, with minor changes.

In her final comments before the vote, District 3 (Central District) Councilmember Sawant lambasted her colleagues and Mayor Durkan for what she called “an austerity budget,” that she said benefits only the wealthy, and for rolling over for Amazon and big businesses by refusing to tax them.

“This is not surprising, but neither did they put forward any alternative ways to tax the rich or big business in this increasingly unequal city. In this state, which has the most regressive tax system in the nation, the burden of taxes falls overwhelmingly on working people, instead of on the richest man in the world, and his billionaire friends,” Sawant said. “If you are Amazon, if you are real estate interest, Seattle will give you whatever you want, paid for with the ever-increasing regressive property and sales tax on working people.”

Instead, she said, the City Council approved funding for a waterfront project that she contends will “make millions for the big developers and increase property values of super-wealthy people downtown.” The project follows the closure of the Alaskan Way Viaduct and creation of the State Route 99 tunnel.

In October, Sawant floated by her colleagues several proposals, all of which would have added money to the city’s coffers for affordable housing efforts, opening $480 million in housing bonds that would be paid for through a big business tax or through other cuts to the city budget, including reducing the salaries of the mayor and council. Her colleagues ultimately voted down her proposals, as well as Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda’s proposal that would have added a $3 million canopy structure to shelter between 75 and 100 individuals experiencing homelessness.

The budget also expands city’s Navigation Center team with a permanent, $500,000-per-year transfer from the city’s Department of Finance and Administrative Services to its Human Services Department, and creates 500 new shelter beds. It allots an additional $200,000 for outreach workers in Chinatown-International District/Little Saigon, Capitol Hill, and First Hill. The Navigation Center has had mixed success: It found housing for 40 people through the center, but as of July, only three had employment income.

The 2019-20 budget adds a little more than $40 million to the Seattle Police Department (SPD) and Police Relief and Pension Fund (PPEN) in 2019, and another $50 million to the Seattle Police Officer’s Guild’s contract in 2020. This will allow police officers in the SPD to get a retroactive pay raise for 2015-2017 of 3 percent; a pay raise of 3.65 percent for 2018; and a pay raise of 3.85 percent for 2019.

City Council Chair Sally Bagshaw said the budget made the city “a safer and more welcoming place for everybody who is in Seattle,” and called for housing efforts in 2019. She said that, when she was originally looking at the budget, she wanted to make sure the city didn’t over commit, or spend money in areas it couldn’t sustain.

“I didn’t want us to be spending money on more plans than what we had already been planning. Let’s build on what we already know, and get some things done,” Bagshaw said. “Through this budget, we have managed to expand services for our most vulnerable populations — things like treatment on demand, and services to address substance abuse disorders.”

Bagshaw said the budget allows for a reform of the city’s criminal and legal system, which she said will save the city money, keep people out of jail, and ensure individuals receive needed services. She said the city will be creating a new medical response program based on similar programs out of Colorado Springs, Colorado, and Mesa, Arizona.

“What we are going to be doing is responding and helping our first responders to people who are chronically ill, those who oftentimes on our streets, and are calling, or people are calling on their behalf over and over again, or that they have behavioral health or mental health problems, or chronic illnesses,” Bagshaw said. “Rather than sending out multiple ladder trucks, multiple ambulances, we can have a system set up to ensure coordinated and effective responses that for our first responders would allow our mental health folks to arrive in something less than ladder trucks, but with the supplies they need to be helpful.”

Bagshaw and Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda said there will be a new childcare facility at City Hall, which will be operational in 2019. Mosqueda also highlighted funding for an air and noise pollution study regarding SeaTac’s flight plan changes and their effect on Beacon Hill residents. She said the Council has been able to create a budget that creates inroads into critical issues, “with no new revenue.” Still, she said, there is more work to be done, particularly around the issues of homelessness and affordable housing.

“What you’ve heard from us is a commitment to come back and find additional revenue so that we can address these pressing issues with urgency and integrity,” Mosqueda said. “We all understand the significant revenue restraints that are upon us, whether they are they types of revenue, or the limitations on how we can spend that revenue.”

Other budget items include:

  • The budget redirects a little less than $270,000 from the unexpected Sweetened Beverage Tax revenue to the city’s Human Services Department for food bank funding. In the mayor’s original budget, the surplus — about $5 million over the projected $14.8 million in revenue — effectively all went back into the General Fund, for use elsewhere, such as actions around homelessness. The tax went into effect in January of this year, and adds $.0175 per ounce to the cost of any drink sweetened with sugar.
  • Next year’s expenditures put additional millions into Community Block Development Grant (CBDG) funding, and Equitable Development Initiative (EDI) grants. These grants are efforts to support community-driven race and social equity projects and organizations, and lessen displacement. This year, for instance, the city awarded $5.5 million in EDI grants to organizations like Africatown and the African Women Business Alliance.
  • The budget also provides a 2 percent inflationary adjustment for Human Service Department (HSD) contractees to help account for the increasing cost of living in the City of Seattle. The increase will be made possible by enacting a Business and Occupation tax on life sciences research grants, and is meant for those HSD contractees at the lowest income levels and for positions with the highest turnover rates.