Mayor Jenny Durkan will propose $20 million in cuts to the Seattle Police Department in the last six months of 2020, the largest cuts to any department as the city attempts to fill a budget shortfall of around $400 million this year caused by the novel coronavirus.
The city expects to spend $233 million this year responding to the coronavirus, although some of that is money the city would have otherwise spent in other areas. It’s been spent increasingly on emergency food and housing assistance, providing free coronavirus testing, on support for first responders, and adapting city staffing and facilities to handle the crisis, according to the mayor’s office.
At the same time, the city’s $1.5 billion general fund is likely to see tax revenues fall $200 million below expectations this year, as the epidemic has shuttered businesses and ground the economy to a standstill.
In total, the city needs to find $378 million to balance this year’s budget, the mayor’s office projects.
Layoffs across city departments are “inevitable” in 2021, Ben Noble, the city’s budget director said.
“This is the biggest financial hit the city has ever seen,” Noble said. “The local economy is getting smaller, significantly smaller.”
Durkan, in a presentation to the Seattle City Council Wednesday, will propose budget changes that attempt to fill the gap with state and federal aid, one-time reserves and city emergency funds, a hiring freeze, canceled travel for city employees and by tapping voter-approved transportation and parks levies.
Many of the protests that have dominated Seattle for more than three weeks have demanded a 50% cut to the police department’s budget as among their cornerstone goals. The call for defunding has echoed across the country since the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, with those supporting cuts asking for savings to be put in community programs and alternatives to policing.
The mayor proposes slashing about 5% of the Seattle police budget this year and a hiring freeze on new officers next year until a new plan is developed “reflecting community priorities for public safety.”
Durkan has also asked her staff and the police department to prepare models by the end of July of what 20%, 30% and 50% budget cuts would look like.
The cuts this year include a “pause” on $4 million that had been budgeted to plan a new North Precinct building.
In a “letter to the community” Tuesday, Seattle police Chief Carmen Best wrote that the department is reviewing which of its “responsibilities can acceptably be passed to other agencies, or completely turned over to the community.”
Noble said that the cuts to the police budget are “somewhat higher than originally anticipated,” in light of the protests.
André Taylor, who leads the Seattle organization Not This Time! and works to reduce police violence, said he was pleased to hear Durkan’s proposal, calling it a “down payment on a promise.”
“At least she’s putting her money where her mouth is on this shortfall budget,” Taylor, who’s received criticism from other activists for working with Durkan’s office in the past, said. “Instead of just talking about it, she’s really produced something for real. That means she means serious business.”
The mayor’s proposed changes this year include a new $5 million in spending for mentorship programs for youth of color.
Durkan also proposes taking $10 million from 2015’s Move Seattle levy, which largely funds street maintenance and bus projects, and $10 million from the 2014 Seattle Park District. The city is “pausing” plans to build a new downtown streetcar, connecting the lines on First Hill and in South Lake Union.
For 2021, the mayor projects a budget gap of nearly $300 million. She proposes covering $129 million by using the remainder of rainy day and emergency funds, but writes that “impacts to the City workforce are unavoidable.”
“Layoffs will be the most direct impacts, but negotiations with the City’s unions may also provide alternative cost-savings strategies,” the budget presentation says.
She’s also proposed spending $100 million to invest in communities of colors in the 2021 budget, but the specifics have not been defined.
Most of the changes will require City Council approval and the mayor’s office said it expects to submit around 30 pieces of legislation to the council. The City Council has shown no appetite to balance the budget through cuts alone.
A new proposal from Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda to tax large businesses with highly paid employees could underwrite $86 million in coronavirus relief this year, according to Mosqueda’s office. The proposal, which has the support of at least five of the City Council’s nine members, would raise as much as $200 million a year in the long term for affordable housing, business assistance and community development.
Dubbed JumpStart Seattle, the proposal would hit businesses with payrolls of more than $7 million, taxing their pay to employees who make more than $150,000 a year.
A more aggressive tax, proposed by councilmembers Kshama Sawant and Tammy Morales, would tax large companies’ pay to all employees which they said could raise as much as $500 million a year.
Durkan has opposed Sawant and Morales’ proposal and has not taken a stance on Mosqueda’s proposal. She has previously supported a county-wide tax that failed to get legislative approval this year.
“New revenues may address some of this shortfall, but economic impact of COVID will still force deep reductions in City spending,” the mayor’s presentation says.
Seattle Times staff reporter Elise Takahama contributed to this report.