by Jason Buch
The budget Mayor Jenny Durkan proposed to the City Council for the rest of 2020 on Tuesday recommends pulling $20 million out of the Seattle Police Department (SPD) — but those funds are largely being cut as a result of a fiscal hole created by the COVID-19 outbreak, not in response to ongoing protests over police violence.
In a presentation on Tuesday, city staff raised the spectre of layoffs to reporters as they outlined details of Durkan’s new budget. Putting forward a revised budget mid-year is unusual, but the city is looking at nearly $400 million in combined budget shortfall in what was a $6.5 billion budget. Expenditures related to COVID-19, which includes everything from testing to rental assistance, are expected to reach $233 million by the end of the year. Meanwhile, revenue losses brought on the economic downturn and facility closures will bring the total budget shortfall to $378 million.
Some of that is being covered by federal grants and dipping into the rainy day and emergency funds, but the city is planning on cutting or redirecting $69 million and is looking for another $11 million in savings. To cover that gap, the city is holding open employment vacancies, redirecting levies and reducing overtime, travel and training, officials said.
The picture is even more dire next year, raising questions about where Durkan will find the $100 million she’s promised to invest in Black and Indigenous communities and communities of color.
To address the shortfalls, the city is looking at trimming staff and services, said Ben Noble, director of the city’s budget office.
“The scale of this is such that it will be hard to avoid [layoffs] entirely,” Noble said. “I care about layoffs for the sake of folks who are counting on that to support their families. I think it’s also important to recognize that it’s city staff that provides services to the public … We are facing the reality of fewer city services.”
Durkan has asked the police department to present her with three proposals for cutting the budget by 20, 30, and 50 percent, respectively. That request came after weeks of sustained protest about police brutality and inequalities faced by Black and Indigenous communities and people of color.
“While the considerations and implications of budget reductions require analysis and community feedback, I am committed to swiftly undertaking a comprehensive review that rethinks our approach to public safety,” Durkan wrote in a letter to city staff asking for the proposal.
Such deep cuts, however, were not reflected in the budget proposal released Tuesday, which will trim the department’s $409 million 2020 budget by less than 5 percent, well short of proposals suggested by protestors and others calling for police funds to be shifted elsewhere. While most of those cuts are reductions related to COVID-19, some of the money will be used on other city services. About $4 million budgeted for new facilities in the North Precinct will go back to capital improvements. And in nods to protesters’ demands that the city take money out of the police budget and spend it on underserved communities, $500,000 from the police budget will be reprogrammed to community engagement, although how exactly it will be used has yet to be decided.
“It’s for policing and the future of policing, but also community investments in the black community,” said Stephanie Formas, Durkan’s chief of staff. “It’s not going to stay in SPD.”
In another concession to the calls for more spending on communities that have not received sufficient investment from the city, the revised budget will use $5 million from education levees for mentorship programs for BIPOC youth.
Major reprogramming of police funds will take time, Noble said.
“Thirty days is not a long time in the budget world to examine opportunities for very significant and fundamental changes in the police budget,” he said.
Jason Buch is a Seattle-based journalist
Featured image by Alex Garland