With reporting from Seattle City Council Insight
The march to complete Seattle’s 2019-2020 budget is proving a real slog at the top as the process now has about 95% of the plan in place after an epic nine-hour Seattle City Council meeting earlier this week that included votes on a mind-numbing 188 agenda items.
The final pushes around polishing the Durkan administration’s first budget proposal and setting Seattle’s next nearly $6 billion city budget pivot –unsurprisingly — around how to spend the small portion available out of those millions on improving the city’s approach to homelessness and affordable housing.
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This week’s fine tuning follows the establishment of the council’s “balancing package” which included funding for homelessness outreach in neighborhoods including Capitol Hill, and a push for Mayor Jenny Durkan to select a safe consumption “Community Health Engagement Location” at some point next year.
Buried in that nine-hour session and its aftermath are some key decisions sure to shape Durkan’s city for years to come:
- Navigation Team Funding: Council member Mosqueda proposed a variation of her earlier budget amendment that increased pay 2.5% for the employees of HSD’s contracted providers. In her new proposal, there would be a 2% raise for all workers under the city’s General Fund contracts — a smaller raise, but spread much more widely. Mosqueda had received feedback that parity is important to the city’s contractors, many of whom are delivering on multiple contracts simultaneously. The change would require an additional $480,000 in 2019 and $244,000 in 2020, which Mosqueda proposed would come from a cut to the Navigation Team’s planned expansion: instead of adding nine FTEs in 2019, it would only add six (plus another one in 2020). The idea of changing the pay increase was not controversial, but the cut to the Navigation Team caused some concern (except to Sawant, who would gladly cut the entire team as part of a larger effort to “stop the sweeps”). Herbold has added a proviso to the Navigation Team’s budget that requires the team to deliver data-driven reports on its activities on a quarterly basis in order for its budget to be released, and expressed concern that Mosqueda’s proposed cuts would eliminate the data analysts required to deliver those reports. While Mosqueda’s proposed change was approved, Herbold committed to working with the Mayor’s office and Bagshaw to try to find an alternate funding source so the Navigation Team’s funding can be restored.
- Sweetened beverage tax funds and food banks: Council members Juarez and O’Brien had a standoff on how to spend excess sweetened beverage tax revenues. Juarez believes that it should be largely spent on food banks, which are severely underfunded in Seattle — and are written into the SBT legislation as a top funding priority. O’Brien noted that while there is a Community Advisory Board tasked with providing recommendations on how a portion of the SBT revenues should be spent, the Mayor’s budget only partially implemented those recommendations, and tried to modify Juarez’s budget proposal to more accurately meet the CAB’s recommendations. After a long, somewhat heated debate, the matter was tabled with the hope that Juarez and O’Brien can bring back a compromise on Monday before the budget is finalized.
- Vacant building monitoring: The vacant building monitoring program. Included in the budget is legislation from Herbold to expand the vacant building monitoring program. But SDCI, the department tasked with running the program, send a memo to Council members last night raising several issues with Herbold’s proposal, including that the public database of vacant buildings it requires would effectively advertise vacant buildings to squatters and thieves. It also would add to the cost and hassle of a building remodel project that required the owner to vacate the building. Johnson wanted to pull the program out of the budget and take it up early next year in his committee for a more thorough legislative review. Instead, the Council members moved back the effective date from April 1 to June 1, so that Johnson can still review it in his committee and propose additional changes before it goes into effect.
- The red-light camera revenue: The Council has come under fire for its proposal to siphon off some funds from the Red Light Camera Fund to cover other budget needs. (note: this is distinct from the school-zone camera fund, which the Council didn’t touch). 20% of the revenues are supposed to go to “safe paths to schools” projects, and according to Council member Rob Johnson, there were plans in place to fund a specific set of projects based on projected revenues. But the revenues are coming in higher than those projections, so the Mayor and Council decided to continue to fund all the projects in the original plan but redirect excess dollars to other uses instead of funding additional projects. While Johnson defended it as a “prudent” approach, Council member O’Brien expressed his belief that when the city passes fees and taxes intended to change behavior, the money should be reinvested to avoid that behavior. That said, he said he couldn’t figure out a way to fix that in the 2019 budget, but wants to revisit it for 2020 to use the funds for Vision Zero projects across the city. Council member Herbold noted that the city will shortly be asking the state legislature to extend the authority for cities to install traffic cameras to enforce transit lanes and blocked intersections, but that Seattle needs to signal to Olympia that it can be trusted to use the funds appropriately so she too wants to revisit the issue next year.
- Urban villages: Council member Mosqueda requested that several departments jointly prepare a racial equity analysis of the city’s “urban village” growth strategy. she hopes that it will inform work leading up to the next update of the city’s Comprehensive Plan in 2024.
- Sawant proposals dismissed: Sawant had a much longer list of potential ways to fund additional affordable housing investments, including reinstating the employee head tax, and making cuts in several other programs including the downtown “congestion pricing” study; slowing SPD’s hiring of new police officers; capping city employee salaries; abrogating several vacant positions; reducing salaries for the Mayor and Council members; and eliminating new in-car-video computers in police cars. None of her proposals gained the support of her Council colleagues.
CHS reported in October on Mayor Durkan’s 2019-2020 budget proposal, the first budget submitted under her administration, and its Seattle-style austerity with little or no growth and belt tightening across much of City Hall to make way for increased hiring and spending for core services like Seattle Police and Seattle Fire.
These final elements above set the table for closure on the long process. At the final budget committee meeting Monday morning, the council is slated to vote the final budget out of committee. Then Monday afternoon, the full City Council will meet to formally ratify the budget, and send it on to the mayor for her signature.