The Metropolitan King County Council approved a two-year budget on Tuesday that represents a 6.7% cut from its last two-year budget but adds a new 0.1% sales tax to fund housing for people who are chronically homeless.
The County Council also voted to make Juneteenth and Indigenous Peoples’ Day paid holidays for county employees, although Indigenous Peoples’ Day would be a paid holiday contingent on funding being available.
The budget, which the council passed unanimously, closely follows the one proposed in September by County Executive Dow Constantine. The $12.6 billion budget, for 2021-22, is $900 million less than the 2019-20 budget, as the coronavirus pandemic wreaked havoc on tax revenues.
It eliminates about 308 jobs, council staff said, but 274 of those would be achieved through attrition or voluntary buyouts for retirement-eligible employees.
County employees will generally not be receiving raises in 2021.
“There’s a large contrast in how we’ve approached this and what’s gone on with the Seattle City Council and the mayor,” Councilmember Jeanne Kohl-Welles, the Budget committee chair, said, referencing the months of feuding, vetoes and veto overrides over Seattle’s police budget. “We have passed a budget for the next two years that invests with purpose, makes responsible reductions, supports our BIPOC [Black, Indigenous and people of color] communities and vulnerable populations, and does so in a way that is fiscally prudent and sustainable.”
The county plans to use the new sales tax revenue to generate $340 million in bonds to purchase existing motels and hotels for people who have been living without permanent housing for at least a year, and other behavioral health supports.
The budget includes about $4 million in funding from the county Rainy Day Reserve Fund to continue operating several hotels as homeless shelters through January. The county, since the start of the pandemic, has turned vacant hotels into shelters in Seattle, Bellevue, Issaquah, Renton, SeaTac and Kent.
The budget preserves some of the cuts to the King County Sheriff’s Office that Constantine proposed. It shifts $4.6 million in marijuana tax revenue money from the Sheriff’s Office and uses some of it to help people vacate old marijuana convictions.
“This is not a defund budget but they did take their share of cuts,” Councilmember Rod Dembowski said.
The budget restores $2 million of the funding that Constantine had proposed cutting, including for added sheriff personnel outside the county courthouse on Fourth Avenue in downtown Seattle and for the sheriff’s helicopter unit.
Several council members lamented that the county, which is responsible for law enforcement in unincorporated areas of King County, was devoting extra resources to law enforcement within Seattle.
“At some point we really have to back off and let Seattle patrol Seattle’s streets,” council Chair Claudia Balducci said, in supporting the funding, hesitantly.
“It is a mistake to make this level of investment in one particular block within another jurisdiction and not our best use of resources,” Councilmember Joe McDermott said.
Already this year, the County Council has passed five emergency budget adjustments to fund coronavirus measures. Those have funded $262 million in public health support, economic relief and food and rental assistance, largely provided by the federal government.
“We have done nothing but budgets all year long,” Balducci joked.
The new budget, like the budgets of states, counties and cities across the country, features cuts to almost every agency and department because of pandemic-induced drops in tax revenues.
“Every department, every agency had to take cuts,” Kohl-Welles said.
King County, however, gets much of its tax revenue from property taxes, as opposed to business or sales taxes, so its revenue shortfalls have not been as dire as those of other governments.
King County Metro Transit, which relies heavily on a sales tax to fund bus service, is seeing the bulk of the job losses — about 200. Metro went without fare revenue for months during the pandemic, but also received about $240 million in federal aid.
The county also funds mental illness and drug addiction services through a sales tax, and cut $12 million from those programs earlier this year.
The move to add the two holidays, unlike the budget, was not unanimous. Indigenous Peoples’ Day passed 6-3 and Juneteenth passed 7-2. Councilmembers Reagan Dunn and Kathy Lambert opposed both measures and Councilmember Pete von Reichbauer split his vote.
The County Council approved Juneteenth — June 19, the day Union soldiers arrived in Texas in 1865 and announced that all enslaved people had been freed — as a paid holiday after discussing it for several months.
Making Juneteenth a paid holiday for the county’s approximately 15,000 employees will cost about $4.3 million a year, according to a county analysis, mostly in overtime costs for bus drivers, correctional officers and other employees who will need to continue to work through the holiday. The county also estimates the losses in employee productivity due to the new day off at $6.3 million.
The council also added Indigenous Peoples’ Day, likely on Oct. 12, when Columbus Day has been traditionally celebrated, to the list of paid holidays but not until 2022 and only contingent on funding being available.
“We tell ourselves the story of who we are via our holidays,” Balducci said. “I believe that it is important and high time that we acknowledge other aspects of this country’s history.”
Balducci called it “a moral reflection on who we are and who we have been.”
More conservative County Council members said they were supportive of recognizing the holidays, but couldn’t support making them paid while the county is in the midst of a pandemic and economic crisis.
“I just think it sends exactly the wrong message that county government is so bloated we can vote ourselves one, possibly two holidays,” Dunn said. He called the move “tone deaf” considering the economic struggles of many in the region.