The Seattle City Council finished heated negotiations to reconfigure the 2020 budget to account for coronavirus-related shortfalls and an uprising against police brutality one week and began tangling with Mayor Jenny Durkan’s proposed 2021 budget the next.
Durkan’s budget, introduced Sept. 29, addressed dire financial predictions from drops in tax collection to increases in needed services, due to the coronavirus. It outlined cuts to most departments but beefed up funding to the Human Services Department (HSD), which will be taking on a new division to bolster public safety without police.
While the proposal aims to move certain functions out of the Seattle Police Department (SPD), it falls short of community’s core demands to slash the department’s funding by 50 percent and left open questions about how the city would handle sweeps of homeless encampments after the City Council ended the Navigation Team, a blend of police officers and outreach workers that dealt with unauthorized homeless encampments.
The budget proposal paints a bleak picture of Seattle’s finances. The unemployment rate in the city is 8.5 percent — better than the national average, but high for a town that had been riding a tech boom for the better part of a decade.
Projected revenue shortfalls exceeded $300 million. Sales tax collections decreased 15 percent in the first six months of 2020 and are expected to fall by 16 to 21 percent by the end of the year. Business and occupation taxes, another sizable portion of government funds, are expected to be down by nearly 20 percent over the same period.
The next year does not look much better. Under normal circumstances, the 2021 general fund budget would have been slightly higher than the previous year’s, totalling roughly $1.45 billion. Instead, the city’s executive accounted for $1.28 billion.
“Our work and community needs have grown. But our revenue is shrinking,” Durkan said in a slickly produced video, introducing her budget. “This year, we saw hundreds of millions of dollars in lost revenues to the city. And we face similar losses next year.”
There was one bright spot: a payroll tax on pay exceeding $150,000, shepherded through the council by Councilmember and budget chair Teresa Mosqueda. It was meant to fund coronavirus relief efforts in its initial year and affordable housing in the future, but the money flows to the general fund. Durkan highlighted it as a source of funds that can repair some of the damage the economic downturn has caused in the budget.
“This new tax is projected to generate $214 million in 2021, and thus can offset much of the revenue declines relative to 2020,” the budget document reads.
Durkan also promised to invest $100 million in new spending in Black, Indigenous and persons of color (bipoc) communities in 2021. Erica C. Barnett, of Publicola, reported that much of that money could stem from the payroll tax.
According to the budget document, that investment relies on $75 million from the general fund and another $52.5 million from the “rainy day” and emergency funds. The latter funds started 2020 at $126 million and will be spent down to just $5 million in the rainy day fund, if the new budget is approved.
The investment in bipoc communities is meant to start the process of rightsizing the amount of money that flows to them in comparison to white, affluent neighborhoods.
That investment was one of the demands of the movement to defund SPD, which gained traction after the Minneapolis police killed George Floyd and the ensuing protests gripped Seattle for months and, nationally, won massive popular support for Black Lives Matter.
Locally, calls to defund SPD by “at least 50 percent” became rallying cries heard during public comment at public meetings and in the streets. The council managed to peel off roughly $3 million in the revised 2020 budget despite Durkan’s objections and veto with promises for m ore substantive change in the 2021 budget.
However, the SPD presentation on Oct. 1 showed a reduction of 12 percent from $409 million approved in 2020 to roughly $360 million in 2021 and resulted in the loss of roughly 22 officers.
The officer corps cannot drop beneath 1,400 without impacts to service, argued Interim Chief Adrian Diaz. The department only has 25 more officers than it did in 2010, despite Seattle’s growing population.
Continuing the citywide hiring freeze could further stunt the police force, and it might be hard to hire new officers if they’re needed, said Angela Socci, executive director of SPD’s budget and finance.
“At some point, if we decrease staffing by 100 or 200 and change our minds, it will take many years to recruit, or we will have to live with the service impact for the time in between,” Socci said.
The struggle is how to maintain services with fewer officers, Councilmember Debora Juarez said.
“This is a new day,” Juarez said. “What’s being required of us and what we should be held accountable to is that we’re marching in the direction of dismantling and reallocating resources out of SPD, and now we’re talking about how to get this plan done.”
The city has promised to invest in alternatives to policing that don’t require an armed officer to respond to calls for which they are ill-equipped, like mental health concerns. Those alternatives need funding and support to build capacity, a process that community has asked that the government support through technical assistance and a research process.
In an executive order, Durkan laid out a timeline to “evaluate [SPD] functions and identify areas of SPD response” to transition to community and civilian responses, and her budget creates a new “Safe and Thriving Communities division” in HSD and a “Seattle Emergency Communication Center” for 911 calls, a function expected to be moved out of the police department.
Durkan also sought to establish two working groups: the “Community Safety Workgroup” and an interdepartmental team that will analyze SPD functions.
Decriminalize Seattle, a community group that has taken a lead role in the fight to defund SPD, called the mayor’s plan a waste of time and a “fatal combination of liberal rhetoric and bureaucratic delay tactics.”
“We don’t need months of study by city employees to tell us policing [has] failed to keep us safe,” the group wrote in their response. “We have all of the evidence that we need.”
The council also removed police from the city’s homelessness outreach and response arm, zeroing out funding to the Navigation Team in the 2020 rebalancing package.
Advocates have long held that the team was unable to do its job of connecting homeless people with services and was instead a destructive force used to sweep homeless people around the city, destroying belongings and causing trauma along the way. reach, an outreach organization that had contracted with the Navigation Team, eventually refused to send outreach workers to sweeps because of the detrimental impact on relationships with their clients.
The day after she transmitted her budget, Durkan sent a press release signaling her intent to end all actions by the Navigation Team.
“While I continue to hope Council may choose to address many of the legal and operational concerns raised by stripping funding for the Navigation Team, the City will move forward with elements of the budget that can be implemented,” Durkan said in the release.
The council had difficulty pinning down what it will mean to discontinue the Navigation Team, which conducted sweeps of homeless people.
The mayor’s budget creates a specific team housed within HSD to conduct outreach to people experiencing homelessness alongside a group of nonprofit organizations that the city contracts to perform outreach as well.
However, city money will still be spent on encampment sweeps, said Deputy Mayor Casey Sixkiller.
Sweeps have slowed during the coronavirus pandemic, dropping from 451 between April and September 2019 to seven in the same time period in 2020, Sixkiller said.
With the first week of budget meetings over, the City Council will now have a chance to dive in and propose changes to mold it, a painstaking process that will lead to a vote expected on Nov. 23.
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Ashley on Twitter @AshleyA_RC.
Read more in the Oct. 7-13, 2020 issue.