In a statement to the media shortly after our Budget Committee last week, the other eight Seattle City Councilmembers celebrated amendments made to Mayor Jenny Durkan’s $6.5 billion proposal. Finalizing a budget feels like an achievement, especially given this year’s challenges: a pandemic, a recession, a racial reckoning, the homelessness crisis, the West Seattle bridge closure and an antagonistic Trump administration.
Yet, I did not feel like celebrating. The amended budget has substantial negatives: It shortchanges our bridge infrastructure, fails to revamp public safety with a plan, and reduces accountability for our response to homelessness — all while giving city government a pay increase instead of investing more in our most marginalized communities. Ultimately, I voted yes for the final package for reasons I’ll discuss below. First, some key negatives:
Shortchanges our bridge infrastructure: I am thankful to voters who approved transit funding to maintain extra bus service. Now, let’s protect the bridge network those buses rely on to safely connect us. The cracking and closure of the West Seattle Bridge should have been a wake-up call. The audit of all Seattle bridges I requested confirmed many of our bridges need more maintenance. Yet this budget excluded the fiscally responsible proposal to substantially increase investments to support our bridges. In a city defined by waterways and ravines, another forced bridge closure will stall multiple modes of transportation and our local economy.
Cuts before new safety plans: I strongly support more police reform and effective alternatives to traditional policing, such as sending mental-health professionals to help people in mental-health crises. But we need the plans in place first. Even after The Seattle Times analysis indicated our police department has fewer officers per capita than other cities, and after we learned highly trained officers are leaving at a faster rate, the council chose to permanently eliminate police officer positions without first finishing the formal community input processes created by the council and mayor.
The budget also sidesteps a real issue: The urgent need to revamp the unjust, inflexible and expensive police union contract. Redoing that contract is how we can save money, improve discipline, honor good work of first responders and deploy unarmed professionals for lower priority calls to reduce harm. “Police contracts are one of the keys to police reform,” said Community Police Commission Co-Chair the Rev. Aaron Williams at my Budget Town Hall. “When you’re talking about changing anything from the discipline of officers to them receiving pay, it all comes back to contracts.”
Moreover, expanding accountability reforms requires ample staffing for supervision and community policing. Yet council’s amendments cement a sharp reduction in officers before proven alternatives are in place. I’m concerned the remaining officers will be stretched thin and responding late. Our former Police Chief Carmen Best was clear: “I do not believe we should ask the people of Seattle to test out a theory, crime goes away if police go away, that is completely reckless.”
Reduces accountability for homelessness response: At a time when homelessness appears to be growing, a majority of my council colleagues unfortunately used the summer and fall budgets to dismantle our city’s interdepartmental Navigation Team that engaged with unauthorized homeless encampments. Instead, I believe we need to allocate more resources to our Human Services Department to track and evaluate the effectiveness of such changes, so we can ensure we are truly helping people.
Increases government salaries during a deficit: While thousands of people live in tents and tens of thousands are unemployed during this pandemic-driven recession, your city government is giving itself $40 million in pay increases. Future city government employment contracts should encourage a sensible renegotiation of pay increases whenever City Hall faces recessions and deficits, so we have the flexibility to redeploy more resources to the most marginalized communities.
So why did I vote yes? People are yearning for functional government. If the budget does not pass, nothing gets done. No budget is perfect. Our constituents have diverse and conflicting views. A budget with positives and negatives is a natural result.
This budget benefits every council district, including benefits to northeast District 4, which I represent:
■ Allocates funding to examine the aging University Bridge.
■ Requires an assessment of 911 response times as our police department changes.
■ Funds a Tiny Home Village to relocate those living in tents to a safer place with case management.
■ Restores funding for more sidewalks, and looks at whether we can build a swimming pool for Magnuson Park’s low-income residents.
■ Increases funding for more cleanups of litter.
■ Requires better data on affordable housing to help prevent economic displacement.
■ Secures funds for pedestrian safety on the I-5 overpass connecting Wallingford and the University District.
I’m hopeful the next budget prioritizes our aging infrastructure, implements an effective public safety plan and reduces homelessness with evidence-based solutions. Regardless of the positives or negatives, City Hall must work together to make sure the budget invests your tax dollars in a sustainable and effective manner to produce positive outcomes for all of Seattle.
And to my constituents who ask, “Why did you vote the same way as Kshama Sawant?” I didn’t. She voted No.
The opinions expressed in reader comments are those of the author only and do not reflect the opinions of The Seattle Times.