Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan’s 2021 budget plan, unveiled Tuesday and sent to the City Council for review, would use cuts across departments, money from emergency reserves and the City Council’s new tax on big businesses to close a revenue gap, continue COVID-19 relief programs and allocate $100 million for communities of color.
Durkan’s plan calls for $6.5 billion in total spending next year, including $1.5 billion in general-fund spending. Those are the same record amounts City Hall budgeted to spend this year, before the pandemic hit. Under the mayor’s plan, Seattle’s budget would remain flat for the first time in quite a while, after growing by leaps and bounds during the city’s tech-powered boom. The plan could entail up to 40 layoffs.
“This has been a brutal year for everyone in Seattle,” Durkan said in a video speech that aired Tuesday, mentioning COVID-19, unemployment and the Black lives uprising against police brutality and racism. “Our work and community needs have grown, but our revenue is shrinking.”
In her budget speech, prerecorded at multiple locations around the city and interspersed with images of Seattle residents pushing through the pandemic, the mayor touted her administration’s work to stand up testing sites, distribute personal protective equipment and provide childcare.
Durkan has come under fire from a range of critics this year for defending a Police Department that repeatedly has cracked down on protest crowds, for her handling of the volatile Capitol Hill Organized Protest zone in June and for clashing with the council over 2020 budget adjustments. The council also has taken heat.
“In this unprecedented moment, you deserve leaders that will work hard to bridge our divides,” Durkan said Tuesday.
The mayor promised $100 million for Black community needs this summer as she opposed demands by protesters and advocates that City Hall redirect 50% of the Police Department’s $400 million annual budget to alternative solutions and human services. Durkan last Friday announced that the pledged $100 million would be invested “in Black, Indigenous, and People of Color communities.”
Her 2021 budget plan would move the city’s 911 call center, parking-enforcement unit and emergency-management office out of the Police Department, shifting about $40 million away from the department.Her plan also would allow the police force to shrink by about 20 sworn officers through attrition, would dial back overtime pay and would keep civilian hiring paused, saving about $20 million, budget director Ben Noble said.
But the plan would not include any officer layoffs, despite the council’s vote to start layoffs last month and then voting to overturn a mayoral veto on the matter this month. Reducing the police force by attrition “is more likely to prove successful” than layoffs that require union bargaining, Durkan contends. The council wants to see officers laid off based on misconduct, rather than seniority.
Though Durkan’s administration is analyzing how to transition more 911 responses to civilians over the long term, the Police Department would retain about $360 million in 2021 in the mayor’s plan, and public safety — including the Fire Department and other services — would account for 49% of the city’s general- fund spending.
The general fund covers basic services such as policing and parks but not utilities and most transportation. Seattle’s utilities raise and spend their own money, and certain revenue sources can only be used for transportation, so the general fund is where most political debate happens.
The Durkan administration is projecting a general-fund revenue gap of nearly $200 million in 2021, due in large part to sales-tax and business-tax collections reduced by the coronavirus crisis. At the same time, the mayor wants to make good on her $100 million communities of color vow. She also wants to expand programs like Health One, which sends social workers with firefighters to help people who are struggling on the streets.
To cover those and other new general-fund expenses, Durkan’s plan would tap the council’s JumpStart tax on large corporations, which is expected to raise more than $200 million annually; the mayor opposed the tax earlier this year, warning it could hurt Seattle’s economy if not imposed regionally.
The council earmarked some JumpStart proceeds in 2021 to extend funding for pandemic-relief programs like grocery vouchers. It also earmarked a large chunk to preserve existing programs that would otherwise see reductions due to the coronavirus crisis.
The mayor’s plan would draw more than $70 million from the city’s emergency reserves, reducing those reserves almost to zero. Durkan’s plan also would execute more than $60 million in general-fund reductions across various departments.
The plan would make reductions outside the general fund, as well, with Seattle’s utilities, transportation department, parks department and Seattle Centerhard hit. Those departments are bringing in less revenue than expected from dedicated taxes and fees.
Under Durkan’s plan, multiple capital projects would be deferred, including the First Avenue streetcar line, some park projects, some bike-infrastructure improvements and some pedestrian-infrastructure improvements.
In terms of layoffs, strategic advisers would be among the employees let go, with the transportation department targeted for some pink slips, Noble said. The plan also would include allowing some vacant positions to remain vacant.
More than $20 million in federal grants would allow the city to increase homeless-shelter capacity next year. More federal and state help could still arrive for 2021, but the mayor’s plan doesn’t count on that, she said Tuesday.
Durkan has in recent months talked about possibly proposing an income tax on households or a new property-tax levy to pay for investments in communities of color. Her 2021 plan doesn’t include any such measure.
She said Friday she would be convening a community task force to guide the spending of the $100 million, with recommendations due in December. That approach already has drawn criticism from the coalition King County Equity Now, which is launching its own project to connect ordinary residents with City Hall budget choices as the council delves into Durkan’s plan.
The mayor has yet to name her task force. Multiple community organizers active with King County Equity Now have declined invitations to sit on the panel, predicting the group will lack real authority and arguing the $100 million should be drawn from the Police Department and criminal-legal system.
Asked about King County Equity Now’s project Tuesday, Durkan said she thought it could complement her task force’s work.
In a joint statement Tuesday, King County Equity Now and a number of other community groups, nonprofits and labor unions said they would call for Seattle to reduce police spending in 2021; boost city services during the COVID-19 crisis with additional, progressive tax measures, rather than cutting services; and distribute the $100 million through a community-managed participatory budget process.
The signatories, including Got Green, Columbia Legal Services and Solid Ground, said they would “Reject an austerity approach to the budget.”
The council’s budget committee will meet Wednesday to start digging into Durkan’s plan, with her cuts to nonpolice projects and her use of JumpStart proceeds likely to be discussed. The council is supposed to make changes to the mayor’s proposal and approve a 2021 budget before Thanksgiving.