Seattle City Council Considers Cutting SPD by $5.4M in Response to 2020 Overspending

by Paul Kiefer

(This article originally appeared on PubliCola and has been reprinted under an agreement.)

The Seattle City Council’s Public Safety Committee is considering a $5.4 million cut to the Seattle Police Department’s (SPD) 2021 budget to account for an equivalent amount of overspending by the department last year. During the committee’s regular meeting on Tuesday morning, councilmembers received a briefing from the council’s central staff on the potential impacts of those cuts on a department still reeling from a spike in attrition in 2020.

Last August, in an effort to avoid spending extra money on protest-related overtime, the council passed a resolution saying that they wouldn’t support any increase to SPD’s budget “to offset overtime expenditures above the funds budgeted in 2020 or 2021.” Three months later, the council backpedaled, grudgingly adding $5.4 million to SPD’s to backfill for overspending on family leave, separation pay, and overtime pay for officers working at COVID-19 testing sites.

While none of the spending in Durkan’s proposal would directly pay for protest-related overtime, several councilmembers — including Budget Committee chair Teresa Mosqueda — argued that the department could have avoided year-end budget shortfalls if it had scaled back its protest response and prioritized spending on other unanticipated expenses.

But the council wasn’t happy bailing out SPD, and on the same day, they passed a second resolution expressing their “intent” to cut an equal amount from SPD’s 2021 budget to offset the overspending and discourage the department from spending beyond its budget in the future. The council also passed a budget proviso withholding $5 million from SPD’s budget under the assumption that the department would save at least $5 million in staff salaries because of high attrition and the city-mandated hiring freeze; if the department didn’t reach $5 million in salary savings, the council would lift the proviso.

Year-end attrition figures from SPD surpassed the council’s expectations. By the end of 2020, 186 officers had left the department — double SPD’s projections for attrition at the beginning of last year. The council developed SPD’s 2021 budget under the assumption that the department would pay 1,343 officers; on Tuesday morning, the council’s central staff estimated that SPD will only fill 1,289 of those spots, leaving SPD with as much as $7.7 million in salary savings in 2021.

The question before the council’s Public Safety Committee on Tuesday was whether to both impose the $5.4 million cut and maintain the $5 million proviso, or to reduce the size of the budget cut. According to Public Safety Committee chair Lisa Herbold, the council “conceived of the two measures separately”: The proviso was intended to capture salary savings from attrition, and the $5.4 million cut was intended to account for departmental overspending.

On Tuesday, Herbold signaled that the council should be cautious when considering whether to enact the $5.4 million cut in its entirety. “I’ve consistently been trying to signal that I’m willing to hear from SPD about what their priorities are,” she told PubliCola, “while also recognizing that the intent of the original bill was as a consequence for overspending their 2020 budget.”

SPD will still need to reserve some of the excess salary savings to cover separation payments for departing officers; the council’s central staff estimated that separation payments alone may cost the department $1.1 million to $1.8 million. But council central staff also cited SPD’s concerns about other spending that will not be possible unless the council reduces or abandons the $5.4 million cut, such as filling vacant civilian positions in SPD’s struggling public disclosure and evidence units.

The central staff presentation also pointed to an increase in patrol-related overtime spending. Despite Interim Chief Adrian Diaz’s effort to address patrol officer shortages by transferring 100 sworn SPD staff to patrol, year-end data showed that SPD’s patrol staffing decreased by nearly 90 officers between September and December. SPD has managed the ongoing patrol officer shortage both by restricting 911 response to high-priority calls and by paying the remaining patrol officers to work overtime.

During Tuesday’s committee meeting, Herbold also noted that the Seattle City Attorney’s Office has begun discussions with consent decree monitor Dr. Antonio Oftelie, who reports to the federal court overseeing reforms to SPD, about whether further cuts to the department’s budget would undermine reform efforts.

Paul Faruq Kiefer is a journalist, historian, and born-and-bred Seattleite. He has published work with KUOW, North Carolina Public Radio, and The Progressive magazine, and he is currently working on a podcast for KUAF in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Paul reports on police accountability for PubliCola.

Featured image by Susan Fried.

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