The COVID-19 pandemic blasted a hole in Seattle’s projected revenues, but a new tax on big businesses will mostly close the gap. Protests put Mayor Jenny Durkan and the City Council under pressure to slash police spending by 50% and reallocate the funds to alternative solutions. Instead, they’ll transfer or reallocate nearly 20%. The mayor and council feuded over the summer, as tear gas clouded Capitol Hill. With winter approaching, they’ve called an uneasy truce.
There were more twists and turns on the way to Seattle’s 2021 budget than anyone could have predicted. But in the end, the council adopted a $6.5 billion plan Monday, including $130 million in changes to Durkan’s proposal.
The city’s overall budget will remain flat, compared to 2020. Most of the money is always restricted to utilities and transportation, with political action revolving around a general fund that will again total $1.5 billion next year.
“Your council, your city is working for you … making sure there is a hand to hold through this crisis,” said Teresa Mosqueda, the council’s budget chairperson.
The details weren’t completely set until the last minute, as council members debated whether more than 100 police officers should be hired in 2021. They ultimately voted to approve the hires while continuing to slice away dollars.
The budget “charts the first steps” towards a new approach to public safety in Seattle, with social workers, nurses and community helpers dispatched to more calls, Councilmember Lisa Herbold said, as Councilmember Tammy Morales asked her colleagues to “reject the premise that more officers leads to more safety.”
Meeting remotely, eight of nine council members voted for the legislation, which the mayor has indicated she will sign. In a statement Monday, Durkan said the budget would make “the largest single-year investment in homeless services in Seattle’s history.”
“I believe we’ve turned a corner and can make collaborative, data-driven decisions that advance our shared policy goals,” the mayor said, hailing the plan while urging President-elect Joe Biden to provide more aid.
Councilmember Kshama Sawant, who has opposed every annual budget since arriving at City Hall in 2014, objected once again Monday, labeling the plan’s reductions to programs and projects an exercise in austerity. The new budget “deeply fails working people and marginalized communities,” she said.
Reacting to the vote with an online “teach-in,” community organizers who have been pressing to defund the Police Department described the 2021 plan as a shift in the right direction.
The budget won’t redirect 50% from the department, as many sought, yet a “major concerted effort” by advocates and those in the streets should be credited for the initial results, said Nikkita Oliver, an organizer with King County Equity Now and Decriminalize Seattle who leads an arts program for youth involved in the court system.
The Downtown Seattle Association, meanwhile, criticized the council’s changes, contending Police Department reductions will jeopardize neighborhood safety as business and residents recover from the pandemic.
Though budget talks usually start in September, they began in June this year. Durkan and the council had to rebalance a 2020 plan ravaged by the COVID-19 shutdown, realizing the city would collect much less revenue than expected. They also had to provide relief during the pandemic while grappling with a historic Black Lives Matter uprising, as tens of thousands marched against discrimination and police brutality.
In each case, Durkan and the council clashed. The mayor criticized the council’s big-business tax, which passed in July, saying the measure could drive away corporations. She rejected a plan to use emergency reserves for COVID-19 relief, compelling the council to spend less. Then she vetoed the council’s other 2020 moves, objecting to several Police Department cuts, including a request for dozens of officer layoffs.
The discord, exacerbated when the Police Department’s heavy-handed crowd tactics led several council members to urge Durkan to resign and when police Chief Carmen Best stepped down, came to a head as the council overrode the mayor’s veto. It was too late in the year for most of the policing reductions to actually occur, but the action sent a message.
That was the state of play when Durkan released her 2021 proposal — using the big-business tax she’d opposed, the emergency reserves and significant cuts across departments to bridge a giant revenue gap and to earmark $100 million for undetermined investments in communities of color.
The mayor’s plan reduced the Police Department’s spending by more than $30 million through transfers, moving 911 call-center workers and parking officers outside the department. It also saved more than $20 million by trimming vacant positions and overtime.
Durkan cast her $100 million Equitable Communities Initiative and a task force convened to guide the investments as responsive to the uprising. But the initiative was opposed by some groups that held sway with protesters, including King County Equity Now, a coalition of Black-led community organizations. They said the money should come from the Police Department, rather than from reductions elsewhere, and said the investments should be guided by a “participatory budget process” with Black community members leading the way.
Weighing major cuts for the first time since the Great Recession, the council received good news with an updated economic forecast that somewhat brightened the city’s revenue picture.
That allowed the council to reverse all non-police layoffs, undo reductions to some programs and boost other services, ranging from sidewalks and first-responder social workers to homeless shelter space and trash abatement. Many non-union employees will go without raises next year and some capital projects will be postponed, but Seattle will escape the severe cuts that many other cities face.
The package of council changes Mosqueda put together shrunk the mayor’s $100 million initiative, diverting $70 million to participatory budgeting, community-safety programs and anti-displacement projects, while partly replenishing the city’s reserves.
The package also revamped how the city handles homeless encampments, providing contracted case workers more funding and responsibility for outreach.
Police cuts again threatened to spark conflict, with Durkan and interim Chief Adrian Diaz warning about accelerating officer attrition and about the force being stretched thin. Seattle has fewer officers now than when 2020 started.
Mosqueda’s package cut an additional $12 million from the force, mostly by eliminating more vacant positions, and asked Diaz to lay off a number of officers with records of misconduct. Those layoffs could save yet more money.
Still, the package stopped short of mass layoffs and allowed Durkan and Diaz to hire more than 100 officers in 2021, with 89 officers projected to leave. The mayor signaled she could accept Mosqueda’s package, easing tensions.
Debate sparked again last week, as community groups and activists urged the council to cut another $9 million and request an officer hiring freeze. Council members rejected that push, opting to trim only $2 million, based on the assumption that 114 officers will leave the force next year, rather than 89.
Some public commenters during Monday’s meeting accused council members of betraying their commitment to the 50% defunding target Mosqueda sought to avoid another veto battle, she said. The Police Department must keep hiring while alternative solutions are scaled up, Herbold and Council President M. Lorena González added.
“I applaud the City Council for taking a more deliberate and measured approach … than occurred this summer,” Durkan said. The call to defund by 50%, “was an empty and misleading slogan,” said Councilmember Debora Juarez, who urged a more cautious approach rather than committing to that target.
In an interview before Monday’s vote, Mosqueda disagreed. “You’ve got to have an inside strategy and an outside strategy that continues to push for more,” she said.
Clarification: An earlier version of this story incompletely described which non-union city employees will go without raises next year. While executives, managers and strategic advisors will go without raises, some other non-union employees will receive raises.