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Seattle budget set for 2021: a new tax on big businesses, a new approach to encampments, and a 20% cut to $400M in annual police spending

An unprecedented budget in unprecedented times — Monday’s vote was conducted, like most proceedings during the COVID-19 crisis, virtually

Budget chair Mosqueda took issue with Sawant’s time with the mic and her characterization of how the city’s tax on big businesses came to be. “A really robust effort. I don’t want their effort to be erased by one person’s words and a revision of history,” Mosqueda said.

Challenged and inspired by months of Black Lives Matter protests — including a last minute Sunday night push, the Seattle City Council Monday approved an unprecedented new budget for a major American city including key revenue from a new tax on big businesses, tens of millions of dollars shifted to community and social services, an end to the city’s recent history of encampment sweeps, and a near 20% cut to the city’s police force spending including a last minute $2 million slice to further rein in the department’s growth — all while in the grip of a global pandemic.

“There are aspects of this Budget which are of critical importance, that a year ago we couldn’t have imagined as necessary as they are today,” citywide councilmember and the chair of the budget committee Teresa Mosqueda said in a statement. “I imagine we will have to continue to make tough choices next year, and ensure our Budget is fiscally responsible while providing funding that serves our most vulnerable residents.”

But it was also a day for the familiar. Kshama Sawant, council member for District 3 representing Capitol Hill and the Central District, voted against the massive $6.5 billion package as she has on every annual budget during her three terms of office.

“In the middle of a pandemic and a spike in COVID infections, in the context of the worst recession for working people since the Great Depression, Democratic Councilmembers will be carrying out brutal austerity,” Sawant said in a statement following the vote.

As usual, Sawant stood alone.

Approved 8-1, the 2021 budget will bring a cut of around a fifth of the city’s more than $400 million annual outlay in police spending along with important changes to reduce the size and power of the department by moving 911 and traffic enforcement operations outside of SPD and spending more money on social, community, and BIPOC services and programs. While a larger “No New Cops” bid was voted down in committee, Monday’s final budget package included another $2 million reduction to SPD designed to curtail the department’s hiring in the new year.

The compromises between the calls from months of Black Lives Matter protests and Mayor Jenny Durkan’s push to maintain SPD staffing levels have apparently resulted in a budget the administration can live with. Monday night, the mayor said she would sign the newly approved legislation.


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“I believe we are laying the groundwork to make systemic and lasting changes to policing. We have rightly put forward a plan that seeks to ensure SPD has enough officers to meet 911 response and investigative needs throughout the city, while acknowledging and addressing the disproportionate impacts policing has had on communities of color, particularly Black communities,” Durkan said in a statement following Monday’s vote. “I applaud the City Council for taking a more deliberate and measured approach to the 2021 Seattle Police Department budget than occurred this summer which led to the resignation of former SPD Chief Carmen Best.”

Mosqueda said Monday that the 2021 budget fits into her three longterm goals for Seattle spending:

  1. downsize the SPD’s budget,
  2. invest in community alternatives that produce healthy outcomes for our BIPOC communities, and
  3. not grow the size of the force in the wake of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor murders, and thanks to the amendment on Monday, the budget no longer reflects new net hires.

“We have much more work to do, and we must get to work on those next steps now,” Mosqueda said.

In the wake of mass protests against systemic racism in the city, Durkan also pushed a planned $100 million investment in communities of color and the creation of a task force of community leaders. The council downsized that investment to $30 million, but the other $70 million will still go toward services and investments in resources to help communities of color.

Money will also replenish the city’s emergency funds that have been tapped to fill coronavirus-induced budget deficits. The council plan brings these reserves back up to $35 million, compared to just $3 million under Durkan’s original proposal.

Around $30 million will be used for investments to blunt displacement through housing developments in areas near planned light rail stations and others; $18 million for a participatory budgeting process and the investments community members identify during that process; and $10 million for community-led public safety programs that will serve as an alternative to police response.

The council’s approval of a new tax on the city’s largest businesses helped make that spending possible along with improved economic forecasts despite the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. Sawant reminded the council of the tax’s importance following the vote saying there would have been an additional $214 million hole in the budget “had it not been for the powerful Tax Amazon movement over the summer.”

Advocates were also applauding the budget’s funding for a new team to replace the SPD-powered Navigation Team used to clear encampments in the city with a new process that is hoped to emphasize outreach and shelter — $1 million to increase outreach services, $1 million for mobile crisis teams, $750,000 for rapid rehousing programs, $655,000 for 24-hour operations at shelters and $100,000 for a public sink program.

Other homelessness spending includes $2.8 million to create two new villages to house people experiencing homelessness and $1.4 million in funding for a temporary tiny house village near a new light rail station in the U-District. Another $1.8 million will be added to the Fresh Bucks program, a voucher system that enables low-income residents to buy fruits and vegetables.

The city will also now have funding to add a third team to the city’s Health One program, a unit of social workers that work with firefighters to connect people in crisis with services, by next October.

In District 3, the new budget also includes $100,000 for a Department of Transportation study of Capitol Hill’s public spaces to see how they can be better activated that could be key to creating a Capitol Hill Super Block.

Drivers, meanwhile, will see some changes in car tabs after the council approved a new $20 fee that is expected to go toward helping the city cover maintenance of its ageing bridges and road infrastructure as well as resources for pedestrians and bicyclists. Combined with another $20 boost for the city’s Transportation Benefits District and the expiration of an $60 fee for bus service, the tab fees will eventually settle out at $40 for Seattle drivers. The council voted 8-1 to approve the new tab fees. D3’s Sawant, naturally, opposed the plan.


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RWK
RWK
4 months ago

“Advocates were also applauding the budget’s funding for a new team to replace the SPD-powered Navigation Team used to clear encampments in the city with a new process that is hoped to emphasize outreach and shelter…”

This is a mistake, because it means that the squalid/dangerous homeless camps will remain a very visible part of our urban landscape (including, apparently, in our city parks), and will continue to increase in size and number. Yes, of course, efforts to get the homeless into more humane housing are important, but these have really been a failure in the past, because many homeless people refuse offers of shelter. So, why does the City Council think that this “new approach” will be any more successful?

CityOfVagrants
CityOfVagrants
4 months ago
Reply to  RWK

They are using a different definition of success. By reducing the role the city plays and continuing to rely on non-profits, there is no incentive to ever fix the problem. If we solved homelessness tomorrow, none of these non-profits would need to exist.

It’s pathetic this crisis is being used as a leftist jobs program. Fund solutions that work. Stop wasting money on things that don’t. Stop letting a small minority of criminal homeless terrorize the city.

Anti-itnA
Anti-itnA
4 months ago
Reply to  CityOfVagrants

What solutions work?

CD Rez
CD Rez
4 months ago
Reply to  CityOfVagrants

That’s literally insane

Anti-itnA
Anti-itnA
4 months ago
Reply to  RWK

What will be more successful, then?

P.H.
P.H.
4 months ago
Reply to  RWK

They don’t stay in the shelters b/c their policies are so dehumanizing and infantilizing, and fail to accommodate trauma properly. I used to work at one. If I were homeless, I’d camp out too.

RWK
RWK
4 months ago
Reply to  P.H.

Possibly, but a major factor is that the homeless cannot continue to feed their addictions (drugs, alcohol) in the shelters.

JenMoon
JenMoon
4 months ago
Reply to  RWK

Someone who worked at one gave you reasons and you just kind of blew them off…wow.
Sure, it’s hard to jump into temp or permanent housing and go cold Turkey but often a shelter is one night and folks can do that.
It’s having your stuff stolen, treated like you aren’t human, separated from your partner, kicked out or banned if you react from trauma, and to the comment about folks refusing shelter…if you’re given an offer that doesn’t fit, why would you take it?

Anti-itnA
Anti-itnA
4 months ago
Reply to  JenMoon

Both can be true.
I’ve had family members who were substance abusers and they were willing to sacrifice everything else that the rest of us would consider important to feed their addictions.
It’s also true that shelters have their cons, along with their pros. My son and I went to an emergency shelter in Delaware during Sandy. The folks running it were doing their best. The other folks in the shelter seemed like upstanding citizens to me. But we were all sleeping on cots in the gym, so one night was enough and we went home the next day, even though it took another day to get power. Sure, if we had no other choice, we would have stayed longer, but the point is we DID have a choice, so I opted for more security at the price of less comfort.
Again, there was no one in the shelter whom I considered untrustworthy, but I had the option to not test it for long.

caphiller
caphiller
4 months ago

Who’s taking over traffic enforcement and 911?

Ryan Packer
Ryan Packer
4 months ago
Reply to  caphiller

SDOT and the Office of Emergency Management, respectively.

RWK
RWK
4 months ago
Reply to  caphiller

I don’t see the point of transferring these two operations out of the SPD, unless it’s to give the false impression that this is part of defunding the SPD. These operations still need to be funded (by taxpayers), so there is no net savings. What difference does it make if they are part of SPD, or not?

Ryan Packer
Ryan Packer
4 months ago
Reply to  RWK

They are no longer under the control of the chief of police, who has ultimate say over staffing within SPD. So, the chief couldn’t relocate parking employees to another segment of the department, skirting the ordinances passed by council.