Seattle City Council members raised some questions and concerns about Mayor Jenny Durkan’s 2021 budget plan Wednesday and Thursday, indicating that debates over the summer about COVID-19 relief, police spending and community input are likely to continue in the coming weeks.
Durkan’s proposal, unveiled and sent to the council for review Tuesday, would close a budget gap opened by the COVID-19 crisis, while reserving $100 million in investments across communities of color. She promised the $100 million months ago, initially for programs serving Black residents specifically, in response to the uprising for Black lives and equity.
The mayor’s budget would accomplish her aims with cuts across departments, money from emergency reserves and an estimated $214 million in proceeds from the “JumpStart Seattle” tax on big businesses that the council approved in July.
Durkan opposed JumpStart — a tax on pay by large companies to employees who make at least $150,000 per year, warning the measure could hurt the economy. Now the mayor is relying on the tax, Councilmember Kshama Sawant noted as she and her colleagues dug into the mayor’s plan Wednesday. Without JumpStart, “there would have been an additional $214 million in budget cuts,” Sawant said during a budget-committee meeting.
Durkan also is using the JumpStart proceeds in a way the council didn’t intend, said Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda, who chairs the budget committee. The council earmarked the proceeds in 2021 to preserve programs and jobs that would otherwise see reductions from the COVID-19 crisis; expand services for low-income communities and small businesses; and extend funding for pandemic-relief programs like rental assistance and grocery vouchers.
Durkan’s plan would meet those commitments, to some extent, budget director Ben Noble told the committee. But the JumpStart proceeds also would help balance a budget that includes the $100 million for communities of color, reducing potential resources for vulnerable households with one hand to increase them with the other, Mosqueda said. Durkan’s $100 million promise was a check the mayor “couldn’t cash” until she “swiped” JumpStart proceeds, the council member said.
While the mayor has expressed interest in proposing an income tax on households to bankroll subsequent, annual investments of $100 million in communities of color, her 2021 plan includes no such measure.
Council members concur with the basic idea behind Durkan’s $100 million pledge, they said Wednesday, though the exact nature of the investments has yet to be determined. What some council members object to is the source of the money, they said, echoing the case made by some advocates that the city should invest in communities of color with dollars taken from the police.
“The money needs to come from SPD, not other programs,” public commenter Leah Lucid told the budget committee Thursday before a presentation on the Seattle Police Department’s budget.
The mayor’s 2021 plan would shed about 22 officers through attrition and reduce the department’s annual budget by about $60 million, mostly by moving civilian units outside the department.
Durkan also announced Wednesday she would initiate union bargaining for about 70 officer layoffs, as directed by the council during 2020 budget adjustments.
But the mayor remains critical of the layoffs, which she vetoed, but was overridden, and which are not accounted for in her 2021 budget plan.
“I support [the $100 million] in principle,” Council President M. Lorena González said. “What I’m concerned about is investment decisions being made in a vacuum in which we don’t acknowledge” calls for divestment from “carceral and law-enforcement systems.”
During Thursday’s presentation, interim police Chief Adrian Diaz agreed that some duties now handled by officers with guns could be handled by other professionals. More than half of the 911 calls that officers responded to last year were noncriminal in nature. The Durkan administration and some council members still disagree about the timeline for such changes, however.
The mayor’s budget assumes that alternative 911 responses won’t be ready on a large scale when 2021 begins and assumes that 1,400 officers will be needed to maintain current service levels until alternatives are better developed, Diaz said.
Two interdepartmental teams within the Durkan administration, established in an executive order Thursday, will work to “reimagine” community safety in Seattle and analyze the Police Department’s functions, with an eye toward making additional changes in six months or a year.
Councilmember Lisa Herbold says that’s too slow, arguing City Hall must use the 2021 budget to start switching more duties and dollars from the Police Department to community organizations. The council recently appropriated $14 million to help those organizations prepare, Herbold noted.
“Where I’m hearing the most disconnect is on timing and schedule,” she said.
King County Equity Now, a Black-led community coalition that this summer pushed for Police Department cuts, launched a project this week to connect ordinary Seattle residents with the City Hall budget process. The project is likely to receive $3 million from the council, though the allocation must pass through a competitive solicitation process.
The mayor, meanwhile, is pulling together a task force of community leaders to engage residents about the $100 million for communities of color and issue recommendations for how the money should be spent. In her plan, the actual appropriations wouldn’t be decided until next spring.
The task force, whose members Durkan has yet to name, will be independent from the interdepartmental teams that the mayor has directed to work on community safety and policing. But the three groups will exchange ideas, Senior Deputy Mayor Mike Fong told the council Thursday, amid some confusion.
Multiple council members urged the Durkan administration to align the groups with King County Equity Now’s “Black Brilliance” project. Councilmember Tammy Morales said City Hall must work to “avoid any perception of an attempt to divide our neighbors.”
Deputy Mayor Shefali Ranganathan said she believed the mayor’s groups and King County Equity Now’s project could interact with and complement each other.
“With this Executive Order and real community investments, we’re committing ourselves to a rigorous, transparent, and community-led discussion on issues of policing and community safety,” Durkan said in a news release.
Some people active with the coalition already have declined to serve on Durkan’s task force, describing the panel as not truly grassroots.
The coalition Decriminalize Seattle, which has partnered with King County Equity Now on advocacy this year, released a statement Thursday calling the mayor’s executive order an “obstruction tactic” and power play meant to delay major Police Department changes, maintain control and divert attention from efforts to elevate voices outside City Hall.
“She insists on running the show,” the statement said of the mayor.
Digging into details
Council members will spend October delving into Durkan’s budget proposal, department by department. In November, they’ll hash out amendments.
The Parks Department would take a hard hit under the mayor’s plan, with most swimming pools closed throughout 2021, major park maintenance reduced and athletic-field renovations deferred. The Transportation Department also would postpone many projects, including bike and pedestrian improvements.
Durkan’s plan would cancel raises planned for city executives and strategic advisers; Councilmember Alex Pedersen said Wednesday he would like to also cancel or reduce $30 million in raises planned for other city workers. The money would be better spent on other needs, Pedersen said. But that move would require bargaining with various unions, Noble said.
The council has scheduled public hearings on the 2021 budget for Oct. 6 and Oct. 27.