The Seattle City Council’s final $6.5 billion dollar 2021 budget cuts the Seattle Police Department (SPD) and other departments, allocates millions of dollars for community-based alternatives to public safety, replaces the Navigation Team, and expands tiny house villages and other services for unhoused people.
The budget cuts SPD by almost 20%, falling short of demands from activists, founded in a summer of protest, to cut police funding in half. It was a demand that seven councilmembers initially pledged to carry out following the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd and uprisings against policing and systemic racism.
The budget passed 8-1, with Councilmember Kshama Sawant voting against it, as she has every year while in office.
Much of the 20% cut to SPD was accomplished by moving services like parking enforcement and 911 dispatch into another department, and eliminating vacant positions.
The Council also allowed SPD to hire more than 100 new officers next year, while expecting even more will leave the department. This year, more officers left the department than any year since 2012, The Seattle Times reported in October.
On Monday, a last-minute amendment from Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda cut a further $2 million from SPD, based on new estimates that 114 officers will leave in 2021, and their positions will not be filled. This amendment, which was approved by all councilmembers except Alex Pederson, came after an outcry from activists last week who were displeased that the cuts did not amount to 50% and that the Council declined to implement a hiring freeze for SPD — sentiments also shared by most commenters who called in during the Monday meeting.
Council President Lorena González expressed concern that a hiring freeze, combined with attrition at SPD, could have negative impacts on public safety because alternative systems have not been set up to replace police responses.
Councilmembers Tammy Morales and Lisa Herbold said the police budget reductions, and investments in community public safety, signified the beginning of a new way to achieve public safety in Seattle, while calling for more cuts to SPD’s budget next year.
After feuding with the Council for months during the re-balancing of the 2020 budget, clashing with the Council over the big business tax and vetoing cuts to the police in 2020, Mayor Jenny Durkan signalled she was satisfied with the Council’s compromise, promising to sign the 2021 budget into law next week. In a statement, Durkan praised the budget as “the largest single-year investment in homeless services in Seattle’s history.”
One of the biggest changes the Council made to Durkan’s budget proposal was reducing her $100 million Equitable Communities Initiative. This $100 million was earmarked for unspecified spending for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) communities, guided by a task force appointed by the mayor. This proposal, which came after demonstrations against policing and for racial equity over the summer, was opposed by groups like King County Equity Now, a Black-led coalition pushing for defunding the police and investing in Black communities. King County Equity Now distrusted that the mayor’s proposal would come up with necessary solutions, and leaders active with the coalition turned down invitations to join the task force.
The Council’s budget preserved the Equitable Communities Initiative in the budget, but cut it down to $30 million, while spending on BIPOC communities elsewhere.
The Council used the remaining $70 million, as well as millions from the JumpStart Seattle big business tax, and revenue from a better than expected economic forecast, to invest in a variety of measures, including $30 million in affordable housing and anti-displacement measures, restoring a funding commitment Durkan promised but abandoned after the sale of the Mercer Megablock — three acres of publicly-owned land in South Lake Union — to a developer. Community organizations were wary of this sale, but heartened that $30 million would be used to combat displacement, until Durkan reversed course and proposed using the money to fill holes in the budget.
The Council’s budget also allocated $37 million to replenish the city’s emergency reserves, $30 million for a participatory budgeting process for community groups to determine investments in alternative public safety, $12 million for community safety initiatives based in harm-reduction and restorative justice, and $550,000 for a restorative justice pilot program.
The Council made new investments in homelessness and human services; in a significant shift, the budget finalized the replacement of the Navigation Team with a new homelessness outreach team called HOPE (Homeless Outreach Provider Ecosystem). As the South Seattle Emerald reported, this team would not include police officers, instead sending housing and social service providers to help unhoused people move into shelter.
The new budget allocates $2.8 million to contract with a homelessness service organization for two new tiny home villages, and $1.4 million for a temporary tiny home village in the University District.
It also allocates $1 million more for homelessness outreach, $1 million to boost the Downtown Emergency Center mobile crisis team of mental health and substance abuse specialists who can respond to people in crisis. It includes $750,000 in extra funding for rapid re-housing, $655,000 to help basic shelters continue offering 24-hour operations and $100,000 for a network of public sinks for unhoused people.
The budget also includes funding to collect trash from encampments, and $1.8 million more to the Fresh Bucks program to help low-income people buy fruits and vegetables.
It includes Durkan’s proposal to double the Fire Department’s Health One program, and funding for an additional three case workers and an additional vehicle for that program.
The budget introduces a new $20 dollar tax for vehicle owners, which will pay for transit needs yet to be determined, including possible bridge maintenance or other transit projects, The Seattle Times reported. Combined with the $20 dollars levied by the Transportation Benefit District tax that voters approved in November to fund transit service, drivers will pay $40 dollars per year. This is a decrease from the $60 car tabs measure that expires this year. Sawant voted against this measure, saying it would hurt poor and working class people who rely on cars.
The budget reflects difficult economic times, as departments such as the Department of Transportation and Parks and Recreation saw budget cuts.
Referencing these cuts, and saying the budget does not fund enough for affordable housing and transit, Sawant called it a budget of “brutal austerity” that “deeply fails working people and marginalized communities.”
Sawant’s proposed amendments to increase the size of the big business tax, and thereby avoid cuts across the budget, failed to gain traction in last week’s budget committee deliberations.
The majority of councilmembers said they were proud of the budget, believing it effectively addresses the many crises of 2020, including the COVID-19 pandemic, the resulting economic fallout, racial justice uprisings demanding cuts to the police budget and the collapse of the West Seattle Bridge.
Mosqueda highlighted what she said were “historic investments in helping those living unsheltered in our community” and said she was proud of the budget as a whole.
“We are stepping up to make sure that there is a hand, a hand to hold through this crisis,” Mosqueda said. Looking toward the future, Mosqueda said, “We need to be bold, we need to be courageous and we need to keep pushing ourselves outside of our comfort zone.”
Read more of the Nov 25 - Dec 1, 2020 issue.