The community coalition King County Equity Now (KCEN) launched a project Monday to research public safety and racial equity solutions and to help Seattle budget for those solutions, charting an independent course from Mayor Jenny Durkan.
A team of more than 100 “community researchers,” coordinated by the coalition, will over several months survey needs, conduct interviews, track City Hall deliberations and develop a process allowing people not otherwise connected to politics to participate in budget decisions, KCEN research director Shaun Glaze said during a virtual news conference.
The City Council appropriated $3 million for the project last month, drawing on emergency reserves. Durkan vetoed the allocation and other 2020 budget adjustments made by the council in response to the Black Lives Matter uprising, including Police Department cuts. But the council overrode the mayor’s veto last week, cementing the research investment.
The council is working to disburse the money as soon as possible, council spokesperson Dana Robinson Slote said in an email. KCEN has begun hiring researchers on the assumption that the money will come through, said Glaze, chief consulting officer at Inclusive Data.
The researchers will represent the diversity of “Black brilliance” in Seattle, including: young people and elders; people with deep roots here and new immigrants; educators, entrepreneurs, tech workers, artists and health care workers; people who have been exposed to the criminal-legal system, people with disabilities and people who speak multiple languages, KCEN research lead LéTania Severe said. They’ll look at public safety, public health and equity matters, said Severe, co-owner of Plumb Research.
“What’s important to me about this opportunity is that it finally gives us a voice,” said Jermaine Williams, one of a dozen community researchers who spoke in the news conference. “The people who’ve been directly impacted by oppression, by mass incarceration, by abject poverty.”
KCEN is partnering with some other Black-led organizations on the project, including Bridging Cultural Gaps, East African Community Services, Freedom Project and Wa Na Wari, organizers said.
Nura Ahmed, another community researcher, said her contribution will include making sure East African people are heard from; “We want to have the agency to make decisions for our own community,” she said.
While KCEN, the council and Durkan all have said Seattle should boost spending on Black-led programs and services, including alternatives to the Police Department, there are disagreements about how.
KCEN pressed City Hall this summer to redirect 50% of the Police Department’s $400 million annual budget, and most council members vowed to support that aim. The city’s initial trims totaled only about $3 million. Durkan opposed quickly shrinking the police force. Instead, she promised to add $100 million for Black community needs in her 2021 budget plan, which the mayor is due to release Tuesday and send to the council for review.
“We must significantly redefine community safety … build up community-based alternatives and most importantly, actually invest in parts of the system that have failed our communities for far too long,” the mayor wrote in a South Seattle Emerald op-ed.
The mayor has yet to reveal how exactly she will scrape up the $100 million, but the coronavirus crisis has created a massive budget gap for 2021, stirring concern about Durkan slashing nonpolice services. Though she recently has expressed interest in proposing a new tax on household income, she won’t be proposing any such measure Tuesday; the $100 million will come from the city’s general fund, her office said last week.
Durkan announced Friday that she would be convening a task force of community members to recommend how the $100 million should be spent, arguing the panel would include diverse voices and extending the scope of the spending across Black, Indigenous and other people of color (BIPOC) communities. The mayor didn’t immediately name the people on the task force, however, and the approach immediately drew criticism from KCEN.
“The mayor refuses to contemplate serious cuts to the city’s bloated policing budget, leaving BIPOC communities to fight each other for $100 million while SPD receives that amount nearly four times over,” youth-program director Sean Goode wrote in an Emerald op-ed Sunday.
Goode said Friday he had declined an invitation to co-chair the panel. Under Durkan’s approach, City Hall will ultimately select where to cut and spend. Under the “participatory budgeting process” that KCEN is mapping out, organizers said, many community members would weigh in more directly.
“We need community voice to lead the way,” Glaze said. “We don’t mean some task force cherry-picked by white wealthy people who already have access to political power.”
Building a 2021 budget would have been even more challenging for Durkan had the council not passed a new “JumpStart” tax on big businesses over the summer. The mayor objected to the tax, which is expected to inject more than $200 million next year into the general fund, warning it could hurt the economy.
Durkan critics may slam the mayor for using revenue from a tax she opposed to help make good on her $100 million pledge. The mayor’s office initially denied she was doing so Friday, then retracted that assertion, describing the budget question as too complicated to answer unequivocally.
Starting in 2022, the JumpStart tax’s proceeds are supposed to be spent on housing and Green New Deal programs. The council earmarked the proceeds in 2021 to replenish emergency reserves and 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.
It can be hard to connect a particular revenue source in the general-fund pot with a particular expense ladled out, and hard to connect a particular reduction with a particular need, Durkan’s office argued. What’s clear, however, is that Durkan intends to use the JumpStart proceeds to help balance her budget, including the $100 million, which will have to be paid for — one way or another.