What does a budget cut look like?
In Seattle’s South Park it could look like Dene Diaz no longer strolling South Cloverdale Street as the neighborhood’s public safety coordinator, sipping tea from a thermos and waving to passersby. This year, the city is paying for Diaz to promote community safety by connecting residents with services and each other. But in 2021, his position may not exist.
For the first time since the Great Recession, Seattle’s economy is wavering, so City Hall leaders are considering reductions in the year ahead. The revenue streams that allowed programs to grow during the city’s boom have been choked by the COVID-19 crisis, leaving politicians with tough choices to make.
Seattle’s budget hole would be larger had the City Council not adopted a new tax this summer on high salaries at large corporations. Still, the 2021 plan that Mayor Jenny Durkan sent to the council in September includes significant trims at a juncture when the city’s needs are greater than ever.
Demands that City Hall redirect police spending to community solutions, invigorated by recent protests, have captured widespread attention. The council could use that strategy, or some of $100 million earmarked by Durkan for undetermined investments in communities of color, to avert cuts in other areas. It also could ratchet up the new payroll tax.
The mayor’s office released an updated economic forecast Monday night that brightened the picture somewhat, boosting the city’s expected general-government revenues by $57 million over 2020 and 2021.
That could help council members as they weigh dozens of other budget changes, big and small, trying to determine what residents can — and can’t — do without. The council’s budget committee chair, Teresa Mosqueda, is scheduled to propose a balanced package of amendments to Durkan’s plan on Nov. 10.
Eliminating Diaz’s public-safety coordinator position doesn’t make sense, supporters contend, considering Seattle politicians have said they agree with protesters that the city should be boosting its alternatives to police.
The mayor’s plan would reduce the Police Department’s budget from about $409 million this year to $360 million in 2021 while allocating about $21 million for community-safety programs.
Rather than patrol South Park for lawbreakers, Diaz brings people and organizations together. He communicates between community groups, teaches a writing class for young people, shares crime-prevention tips at volunteer events, assists with a newsletter in multiple languages and knocks on doors to let residents know about social services.
“The person who’s afraid to ask is the person who should receive the most help,” said Diaz, who speaks Spanish with some residents in blue-collar South Park, long home to many Spanish-speaking households.
The 31-year-old grew up in New York City and wound up in Seattle during a road trip. He takes pride in collaborations. When the West Seattle Bridge closed, diverting more vehicles through South Park, residents made signs asking motorists to “slow your roll,” said Diaz, who leads monthly cleanup crews at a skatepark and supervised youth as they painted a mural urging residents to combat COVID-19.
Diaz works closely with Resistencia Coffee owner Coté Soerens, whose South Park coffee shop is a neighborhood hub and who believes in the power of relationships to build community safety. “What I need as a business owner is someone like Dene,” she said last week. “When he walks the neighborhood, he sees people with gifts and he connects them with each other.”
Diaz’s position was the No. 1 recommendation made in 2017 by a community panel in a city-commissioned report on South Park’s public safety needs. A coordinator was initially hired in 2018 through a contract with the nonprofit Seattle Neighborhood Group. The council retained the position with one-time budget additions in 2019 and 2020, but Durkan omitted it from her 2021 plan, noting the council hadn’t identified an ongoing revenue source.
Faced with an unprecedented revenue gap, “The city was forced to make difficult budget decisions,” Durkan spokesperson Kelsey Nyland said last month.
The council may again retain the $75,000 line item in 2021. Councilmember Lisa Herbold has proposed that move, with several colleagues signing on. In a letter to the council Monday about the city’s updated revenue forecast, Durkan suggested the South Park position be preserved, after all.
Five decades. That’s about how long Tim Burge has been waiting for sidewalks on the Beacon Hill street where he grew up, where he saw a childhood friend struck by a car and where he still lives.
“It happened right where we’re standing,” the 55-year-old said recently, looking down 32nd Avenue South, a hill street with potholes.
Burge’s wait was supposed to end in 2020. The city promised to build a walkway (low-cost sidewalk) in 2020 between South Graham and South Orcas streets using money from the Move Seattle property-tax levy, and even mailing notices to Burge and his neighbors. But the walkway was postponed when COVID-19 hit, and Durkan’s 2021 budget would postpone the project again.
“So we wait,” said Allison Bretz, who walks her kids to Dearborn Park International School around the corner so she can watch out for cars that speed down the street to avoid stoplights on nearby arterials.
The city expects to save about $550,000 by shelving the walkway and a similar project on another Beacon Hill street, according to the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT), which is moving ahead with projects in other neighborhoods. Nearly a quarter of Seattle streets lack sidewalks.
Property tax collections have remained relatively stable during the pandemic, but other revenue sources that support Move Seattle projects have plunged. The mayor’s 2021 plan includes $60 million in reductions across SDOT projects and operations.
The Beacon Hill walkways were recommended for delay because their designs aren’t quite complete and because other projects have obtained outside grants, SDOT said. No council members have proposed un-pausing the walkways.
“I don’t have any contacts with the city,” said 32nd Avenue South resident David Santos, 44, who worries about his five kids walking on the street. “I believed the city when they said they were going to do it. Now I’m like, ‘Is this even real?'”
Street sinks for homeless people
Durkan’s plan would reserve a record more than $150 million to address homelessness next year. But with tents crowding Seattle parks and COVID-19 case numbers climbing, advocates are asking the council to allocate more help for the city’s most vulnerable population.
For $58,000, the council could help homeless people and others stay healthy by installing more than 60 outdoor sinks at public properties, said Tiffani McCoy, the lead organizer at Real Change. McCoy teamed up with some architects, a University of Washington doctor and a Bellevue student to design the “Seattle Street Sink,” a $400 unit made with a utility sink, a soap dispenser, a planter box and a garden hose. The water drains into the planter box, which acts like a rain garden.
The idea was born after COVID-19 shuttered library branches, restaurants and other locations where people without shelter usually wash up, McCoy said. Seattle was supposed to obtain mobile restrooms before the pandemic but moved too slowly, she said. Instead, the city placed some hand-washing stations and portable toilets near encampments and rented hygiene trailers at a steep price.
“This is something the city can do for cheap,” McCoy said about the street sinks. “This about dignity and meeting basic human needs.”
When connected to a hose spigot, the street sink dispenses water on a timer. McCoy’s team has installed prototypes in the University District. Skye, an 18-year-old staying at the ROOTS Young Adult Shelter who declined to share his last name, has used the sink in the alley there, he said.
“We’re in a pandemic. You’ve got to wash your hands, right?” he said.
People have messed around with the sink setup in the alley by the shelter more than once, Skye said, suggesting the units would require some maintenance. The city has the wherewithal to provide that, McCoy said.
Councilmember Tammy Morales has proposed the addition, with several colleagues lending support.
Some budget matters are more complex, like a push by Councilmember Andrew Lewis for book pickups at every Seattle Public Libraries branch.
Though branches were shut down to combat COVID-19, the Library introduced curbside service over the summer at select branches: Central, Ballard, Broadview, Douglass-Truth, High Point, Lake City, Rainier Beach, Greenwood and Northeast.
Beacon Hill and Southwest will be added to the list soon and the Columbia branch may be added at a later date, while the rest of the library system’s 26 branches lack the service.
That doesn’t seem fair, said Ben Jol, a community college student who lives near the Northgate branch. The 19-year-old has been unable to use the computers and check out English and math books for school at his local site since March, he said. Jol doesn’t have a car, so visiting the Lake City branch involves taking the bus.
The Northgate branch, located near many apartment buildings and several senior centers, “was helpful when it was open,” and always busy, he said.
Lewis is requesting pickups at every location, but the library system has been unable to quote the council member a price. Providing curbside service at every branch would require the libraries to reconfigure certain spaces, and pickups are more labor-intensive than regular operations because employees must interact with every patron and observe COVID-19 protocols, library spokesperson Andra Addison said.
In her budget, the mayor reduced spending on library operations, assuming the system wouldn’t return to normal until July. But Gov. Jay Inslee last month said branches could reopen at 25% capacity, earlier than expected. Because the library is now working on that, pickup service could become less important, Addison said.
Many patrons are eager for the library system to reopen, though others may decline to venture inside. A Morales proposal would boost spending in 2021 on electronic materials, which patrons with the right technology can access remotely.
For those who read hard copies, pickups have been popular; about 20 patrons waited in line at the Northeast branch recently. Helene Collins, 59, called the service an excellent option. “I hope they do it everywhere,” she said.
Staff reporter Heidi Groover contributed to the story.