On Sept. 26, Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell gave a speech unveiling his revisions for the city’s 2024 budget. The original budget was approved last November and has been updated with a new, more optimistic economic forecast.
Due to a revival of the leisure and hospitality sector, the city is now projected to take in an extra $47.6 million in taxes in 2024. Harrell’s office was tasked with coming up with the best way to spend that cash.
Public safety and policing
In last year’s budget deliberations, the Seattle City Council declined to pay for the Seattle Police Department (SPD) to acquire ShotSpotter, an acoustic surveillance tool that can detect gunshots, due to concerns over efficacy and privacy and how the technology could further racial inequities. Not content with that decision, Harrell and his public safety advisor Tim Burgess have repurposed $1.8 million in SPD salary savings (because the department hasn’t been able to recruit new cops) for the SPD to try out what the budget calls a “crime prevention pilot project.”
According to the city’s budget, police would “activate automatic license plate readers, CCTV cameras, and acoustic gunshot locator system” in locations that have high reported levels of crime.
Mayor Harrell has also boosted funding for the new Community Assisted Response and Engagement (CARE) department. CARE will combine the 911 call center and the new dual-dispatch pilot, a program which would assign six social workers to accompany cops to respond to some lower-risk calls. The department will also hire three additional dispatchers to speed up response times.
Boosting pay and housing
In explaining the new budget, city budget office director Julie Dingley expressed pride that Seattle is the only municipality in all of Washington to guarantee contracted human services workers a cost-of-living adjustment. In the revised budget, these workers will receive a 7.5% increase to account for inflation. Harrell has also proposed a 2% increase to human services workers to help close the pay equity gap with other sectors. The 2% raise is far less than the immediate 7% pay increase that the Seattle Human Services Coalition has asked for.
According to a study commissioned by the city that was published in February, social services workers are paid roughly 37% less than workers in other fields.
The revised budget will also include $2.9 million for retention bonuses to Seattle child care workers. Since 2021, the city has given out $8 million to child care providers to help mitigate staffing shortages.
The city budget also allocated a record $334 million for affordable housing development, rent vouchers and support for low income homeowners. About half will come from the JumpStart payroll tax on big corporations. One third of this money is contingent on the new Seattle Housing Levy, which will be voted on in the November local elections, with the remainder coming from a variety of smaller taxes and funding mechanisms.
Crucially, Harrell has also allocated $850,000 from the JumpStart tax toward the new Seattle Social Housing Developer. The developer was formed after voters approved a ballot initiative backed by the House Our Neighbors! coalition, which was a political committee of Real Change. Earlier this year, the Seattle Social Housing Developer was awarded $200,000 from the Washington Legislature to help hire its first staff.
The revised 2024 proposed budget left a number of loose ends. In his budget speech, Harrell did not mention the elephant in the room: the looming $250 million gap in the city’s general fund for 2025 and onwards. It appears that, for now, Harrell is content with punting that responsibility to the new crop of city council members who will be elected in November.
So far, candidates have discussed a few different approaches, including raising new taxes on the rich, cutting back some city services and raiding JumpStart revenues like the city did in 2023 and 2024. While diverting JumpStart funds could help avoid some of the most painful cuts, it would effectively starve new investments in affordable housing, anti-displacement initiatives and climate change adaptations.
Another worry for the city will be the likelihood of City Councilmember and budget chair Teresa Mosqueda leaving office at the end of the year to take up a seat on the King County Council. Mosqueda, who won nearly 58% of the vote in the August primaries, had a pivotal role in balancing the city budget in the last four years. Her departure could be a big blow for the city’s long-term strategic decision making.
Harrell has also allocated $17 million to replenish Seattle’s emergency funds, anticipating that in future years the city will have fewer available funds to save. Refilling these reserves will also help bolster the city’s reputation to investors. However, it also raises the question of why Seattle isn’t spending down that fund to address the homelessness crisis, which the city first declared a state of emergency almost eight years ago.
In September, more than a thousand city workers rallied outside of City Hall to express their frustration about the poor terms they have been offered in contract negotiations. The city has refused to disclose the amount of money it is setting aside to pay for proposed wage increases and conditions for city employees. City budget staff said this secrecy was meant to protect the confidentiality of the labor bargaining process.
The Seattle City Council is expected to make amendments to the budget in the coming weeks, with final approval scheduled in November.
Read more of the Oct. 4-10, 2023 issue.