Compromise City Budget Avoids Major Cuts, Including to Police Department

by Erica C. Barnett

(This article was originally published by PubliCola and has been reprinted under an agreement.) 


The cessation of open warfare between Mayor Jenny Durkan and the Seattle City Council over the 2021 budget doesn’t make for the most dramatic headlines (see above), but the detente between the two feuding branches could mean a budget compromise that won’t end in another spate of open warfare.

The Council’s budget proposal makes dramatic cuts to Durkan’s proposal to designate $100 in funding “for BIPOC communities,” fulfills the City’s 2019 promise to invest proceeds from the the sale of publicly owned land in South Lake Union into housing and anti-displacement programs, and cuts the size of the police department by about 20%, with a commitment to spend the savings from those reductions on community safety projects through a participatory budgeting process, which the budget also funds.

On Monday, Durkan issued a statement praising the Council’s budget for “continuing that historic $100 million for communities through slightly different community-led processes.” This was a departure from Durkan’s previous position on the Council’s spending priorities. Last month, a mayoral spokeswoman responded to questions about the racial equity implications of Durkan’s $100 million plan by suggesting that the Council’s own spending proposals, including plans for COVID relief, participatory budgeting, and police department cuts, had not gone through a proper vetting to see if they truly benefited Black, Indigenous, and People of Color communities.

During a press conference on Tuesday, I asked about this seeming contradiction. Durkan responded that while she hasn’t read all of the Council’s budget amendments, “my read on it is that they are also committing $100 million to community investments, and I am really heartened that they have followed my lead to do so.” Durkan said she was “disappointed” that the Council wasn’t spending even more on BIPOC communities, given a new revenue forecast that adds more than $32 million to the 2021 budget.

“I’m very hopeful that when we come out of this, and when there’s a final budget, that we actually have a path forward that makes real on the commitment that we will invest generational investments in the city of Seattle” over the next 10 years, she said.

The Council’s proposal is still a recessionary budget. Instead of massive spending increases, it reprioritizes limited dollars in ways that advocates for sweeping, immediate change may find frustrating. But it also puts significant leverage in the hands of the community groups leading the process of participatory budgeting, and promises significant funding for that process.

“They are also committing $100 million to community investments, and I am really heartened that they have followed my lead to do so.” —Mayor Jenny Durkan, referring to the City Council

In reporting on the Council’s previous budget discussions, I’ve talked about many individual, one-off budget changes Councilmembers are proposing — from an analysis of “transportation impact fees” levied on new housing to funding for energy efficiency audits to the restoration of the City’s nightlife advisor position. This post will look at a few high-stakes, big-ticket spending areas, including investment in community-led alternatives to police.

Major Cuts to the Mayor’s Equitable Communities Initiative

As I mentioned, the Council’s budget chops $70 million from the mayor’s $100 million fund to pay for future investments in BIPOC communities. That money would be redistributed as follows:

• Durkan’s budget “abandoned”—and yes, that’s the technical term—$30 million that she promised last year for affordable housing and efforts to prevent displacement in gentrifying areas. The money came from the sale of the Mercer Megablock project, and was key to getting anti-displacement groups like Puget Sound Sage not to protest the sale. The Council’s budget restores this money to its original purpose.

• The Human Services Department would get $10 million to distribute to community organizations “to increase public safety through technical support, capacity building, and expansion of capacity.” The Council allocated this money in 2020, but the city didn’t spend it, and Durkan zeroed it out in her proposed budget.

• Another $18 million would go toward the participatory budgeting project that the Council began funding in 2020, which I’ll discuss separately in a minute.

• The remaining $12 million or so would replenish the city’s emergency reserve fund, which Durkan’s budget almost zeroed out (see graph above); restore funding for a restorative pilot program in schools; and restore funding for community-based alternatives to policing, among other smaller-ticket items.

As for the $30 million that remains out of the mayor’s initial $100 million: That money would still get allocated, through a process that would still include the mayor-appointed Equitable Communities task force, but only after the City Council approves the spending plan.

Participatory Budgeting

A total of $30 million, including the aforementioned $18 million, would fund community safety projects chosen through a participatory budgeting process; these projects would replace some functions (such as responding to crisis calls) that are currently performed by SPD.

The Council’s budget also places a proviso (spending restriction) on the $30 million that remains in the mayor’s Equitable Communities fund; it says that the Council must approve any spending plan the mayor proposes for that money, and that the Council “anticipates that such authority will not be granted until the Executive submits to the Council a plan for spending the funds that describes how the allocations were informed by and reflect alignment between recommendations from the Task Force and the Participatory Budgeting process’s recommendations.”

A small portion of the $30 million would be spent setting up and running the participatory budgeting process itself (up to $1 million) and on creating a “civilian crisis response and social services triage system app to make it easier to find, pay, and support community service providers and healers” ($550,000).

The details of how participatory budgeting will work, and what the Council will do with the recommendations that emerge from the process, remain largely unknown. So far, the city has granted a contract for $3 million for preliminary research work to determine high-level community priorities and identify barriers to participation in participatory budgeting.  Kevin Schofield, of SCC Insight, wrote a detailed post about the initial report from that community research effort.

The SPD Budget: “Divestment” Through Attrition

One reason Mayor Durkan may feel satisfied, or at least relieved, by the Council’s budget proposal is that it includes no immediate cuts to police department staffing. Instead, the budget reduces SPD’s budget a total of about 20%, mostly by eliminating positions that are empty anyway because of higher than usual attrition from the department.

Under SPD’s current hiring plan, Council president Lorena González noted Tuesday, the maximum size the department could hope to reach next year is 1,357 officers. The Council’s budget cuts that number to 1,322 by including 35 layoffs that will almost certainly be the subject of lengthy negotiations with the police union next year. By abrogating (eliminating spending authority for) 93 vacant officer positions (on top of 50 the mayor abrogated), the budget also ensures that those positions won’t be filled in the future without specific budget action to add more positions to the force.

Of course, those attrition-based reductions don’t come close to the 50% proactive cut that protesters, community groups, and grassroots activists have been demanding since early last summer. Nor does reducing the force in this haphazard fashion represent a strategy for creating a less violent or racially biased police force. It merely reduces the number of officers randomly, based on who decides to leave. The total number of police officers may go down, freeing up money to spend on the “reinvestment” side of the divest/reinvest equation, but there’s no quality control on the “divestment” side.

Councilmember Tammy Morales, an advocate for police defunding, acknowledged on Monday that “we will not reach our shared goal of a 50% reduction in one budget cycle.” On Tuesday, she added that the Council’s “strategy” was “not just reallocating resources from SPD but investing those dollars in community” through the participatory budgeting process. These are actually the same thing; what’s missing is a strategy for reducing the police force systematically, through strategic cuts to programs and personnel rather than through random attrition.

Homelessness

The Council reached another kind of compromise with the mayor over how the city will replace the Navigation Team, merging a proposal crafted by Council member Andrew Lewis and Deputy Mayor Casey Sixkiller with Morales’ proposal for a scaled-back team and adding more funding for contracted outreach providers than the mayor’s budget included. The compromise plan still leaves many details to be hammered out, but the bones of the proposal are an eight-person team that will “coordinate” the work of nonprofit outreach providers, as well as city programs like the “purple bag” trash cleanup program, from offices at city.

Whether these jobs will be filled by the members of the former Navigation Team is an open question. The city created two “system navigator” positions specifically to do outreach work in encampments; converting those positions to desk jobs will be a bit like telling an EMT to sit in an office and answer the phone.

The team would benefit, for next year at least, from federal COVID relief funding, which will allow the city to stabilize unsheltered people in leased hotel rooms. From there, the city plans to move people quickly into either market-rate apartments (through rapid rehousing subsidies that will last up to 10 months) or one of the 600 permanent supportive housing units that are being built over the next two years. 

The Council’s budget also includes funding for one additional grants and contracts administrator in HSD to administer homeless service contracts next year. This position may seem bureaucratic, but it’s critical. HSD’s Homeless Strategy and Investment division has shrunk by about half over the last year, thanks in large part to delays in standing up the new Regional Homelessness Authority. HSI staffers are not guaranteed jobs at the new authority, and as the timeline has dragged out, more and more people have left, hollowing out the division and leaving just a handful of staffers to get contracts out the door.


Erica Barnett has covered Seattle politics for more than two decades.

Featured image is a screenshot of the City of Seattle’s Fiscal Reserves from 2006 (actual) to 2021 (projected). (Image: Erica C. Barnett)