Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan hopes she and the City Council have “turned a corner” on the crises and the political clashes that have characterized this year, Durkan said Tuesday as she signed the city’s 2021 budget into law.
Adopted by the council last week, the budget had to respond to COVID-19, the Black Lives Matter uprising and the West Seattle Bridge closure — all unexpected. It also had to address a persistent homelessness crisis, with tent encampments growing during the pandemic.
“This year’s budget process was unprecedented,” partly because COVID-19 economic disruptions have constricted tax revenues, Durkan said in a news conference, touting “historic investments” despite the city’s challenges.
Tensions eased as they hammered out the 2021 budget this fall. They reached a compromise on COVID-19 relief and agreed to reduce police spending somewhat (15% to 20%, depending on hiring and layoff results), mostly by transferring civilian 911 call-center and parking-enforcement employees to another department and by eliminating vacant officer positions.
Most council members in the summer said they would try to defund the police by 50%, under pressure from activists. “We see now … that a much more deliberate process has to be done,” Durkan said Tuesday.
The 2021 budget will spend a record sum to alleviate homelessness. It will allow the Police Department and Fire Department to hire more social workers and mental-health specialists. It will direct tens of millions of dollars toward programs and projects meant to address racial inequities, the mayor said.
Durkan initially proposed a $100 million equity initiative, convening a task force to recommend investments. Council members reallocated $70 million for other uses they said would promote equity, including $30 million that will be disbursed based on recommendations by community members via “participatory budgeting.”
Some of that money likely will be spent on non-police responses to certain 911 calls. “Police officers themselves will tell you there are many situations where an armed person” isn’t appropriate, Durkan said.
The mayor touted a $3 million increase in spending on trash cleanup and parks upkeep. Seattle’s open spaces have deteriorated recently, Durkan acknowledged. The mayor credited such budget outcomes to “collaborative work” with the council and an updated forecast last month that improved the city’s revenue projections.
She didn’t mention the budget’s reductions, which will delay some infrastructure projects across the city. Nor did she mention a new tax on big businesses that the council passed in July, which is expected to raise more than $200 million next year, preventing deeper cuts. Durkan criticized the tax over the summer.
While the budget may be complete, “COVID is not done with us,” the mayor noted Tuesday. The Fire Department is carrying out no-cost tests at sites around the city, with more than 425,000 conducted to-date, Durkan said.
The budget calls for $22 million in spending next year on COVID-19 relief programs such as small-business grants and grocery vouchers.
2021 budget spending
- Total: $6.5 billion, with $1.5 billion general fund, the same as this year (most money outside the general fund is restricted to utilities and transportation)
- Homelessness: $167 million, up from about $109 million this year
- Police Department: $346 million or less (the actual budget will list a higher number, because the transfers of parking enforcement officers and 911 call-center workers may not be completed right away), down from $409 million this year
- COVID-19 relief: $22 million