Today was Round 2 of the 2016 budget development process, in morning and afternoon sessions.
The first hour of the morning session was dedicated to public comments. Kshama Sawant’s supporters answered her call and took up most of the time speaking to the need for funds to deal with homelessness, the lack of affordable housing, municipal broadband, and a handful of other pet issues.
Once the public comment session was complete, the first order of business was finalizing the agenda for the meeting. The starting place was a long list of over 120 individual items to be considered, and on top of that there were a handful of additional items that council members wished to add into consideration. Adding an item to the agenda required 5 council members to vote “yes” (independent of whether they would eventually vote yes on the item itself when it comes up for consideration).
The first item proposed to be added to the agenda (by committee chair Licata) was item 136-1-C-1, which allocates $2.3 million from the general fund to a special reserve fund that would be spent to address homelessness in Seattle. The Council voted unanimously to add it to the agenda.
The second item was proposed by Council member Sawant: a proposal to allocate $10 million from the city’s emergency fund (aka the “rainy day fund”) to address homelessness — the bulk of which would go to opening up shelters for 1000 additional people.
It’s worth taking a moment to recap the funds already allocated, and proposed to address homelessness.
The base budget has $40 million to address homelessness. Last week the Council redirected $5 million additional from the 2015 budget, which will carry over into 2016. Item 136-1-c-1 listed above would add $2.3 million, and one other item would add another $1.5 million — so even before the $10 million Sawant proposed from the emergency fund, there is over $48 million allocated and under consideration.
There was clearly discomfort among many of the council members to Sawant’s proposal — even putting it on the agenda. The most vocal were Council member Bagshaw, who dug into the numbers, compared it to Portland’s similar efforts, and complained that this was last minute; and Council member Burgess, who pointed out that the council policy is to repay withdrawals from the emergency fund within the same calendar year, and Sawant’s proposal has no plan to do so. Sawant responded that the proposal wasn’t “last minute” because it was a scaled-down version of a version from round 1 that was rejected, and that a business head tax should be put in place to raise the fund to pay it back. Council member Godden also pointed out that the emergency fund is primarily for buffering the city budget during economic recessions and thanked Licata for not using it in his $2.3 million proposal. Sawant kept hammering on the point that this is a real emergency from the point of view of homeless people as we go into winter. In the end, only Sawant and Licata voted to add it to the agenda — even Council member O’Brien didn’t support it.
Sawant’s next proposed amendment was for municipal broadband. It allocates $4.8 million for a pilot project, and funds it by adding a business head tax. Sawant pointed out that the business head tax was repealed by the city during the recession, so she believed it was justified to bring it back. She listed all the benefits to Seattle citizens and businesses of broadband Internet access. Her earlier version of this proposal failed in round 1, and she modified the round 2 version to add the business head tax in order to make it pay for itself. Same vote: Licata and Sawant in favor, all others opposed.
(an aside: Council member Harrell was excused from the meeting and did note participate in any votes)
Council member Rasmussen brought for a proposal to fund a study about requiring employers to fund transit benefits to employees. It was added to the agenda by a vote of 8-0.
Thus began the long process of listing each individual item and asking whether any council member wished to have it considered separately rather than have it packaged up and voted on with other non-controversial items.
Among the “Statements of Legislative Intent” (SLIs), only one was pulled out: a proposal to evaluate the feasibility of creating an LGBTQ community center. Council member Rasmussen (the only openly gay member of the City Council) pulled it, and offered a substitute which, instead of creating a separate LGBTQ community center on Capitol Hill, requires the city to evaluate how well the existing Capitol Hill community center (and the other ones) serve their neighborhoods and propose how to improve it. He noted that an LGBTQ community had been tried before and failed — more than once — and he preferred a model that ensures that the existing community centers serve their neighborhoods and let the LGBTQ community grow organically rather than top-down. Council member Sawant opposed Rasmussen’s substitution; she argued that it was important to have an LGBTQ-focused community center not for recreational purposes but to focus on services that are particularly critical for people in the LGBTQ community. She also pointed out that past (failed) LGBTQ community centers were established and run separate from the rest of the city’s community centers, and her proposal is to have the parks department study and make recommendations because they have the track record of successfully running community centers. Council member Bagshaw expressed concern that the parks department is the wrong department to provide the human services that the LGBTQ community require in a community center, and that the human services department should be in the lead. Council member Rasmussen amplified that point: that the parks department is the wrong department to provide human services; he also observed that the LGBTQ community is distributed well beyond the Capitol Hill neighborhood now. Rasmussen and Sawant played “dueling letters” as they took turns quoting authoritative community members who support their point of view. The council voted 5-3 to substitute Rasmussen’s proposal for Sawant’s (Licata, Sawant and O’Brien voted against), and then voted 8-0 to approve it.
The vast majority of budget items were uncontroversial and approved as a bundle in a single vote. Eight items were considered separately: seven items that council members asked to be pulled from the bundle, and Licata’s proposal to allocate $2.3M to address homelessness.
The separate items were:
14-1-A-1: Add $50,000 from GSF to OED to provide business assistance services to small local manufacturers and producers. Rasmussen recused himself; it passed 7-0.
27-2-B-1: Increase GSF appropriation in the Legislative Department by $47,000 in 2016 to fund consultant services for a housing study. This was a Sawant proposal. Council member Burgess pointed out that it doesn’t specify what the money would be used for. It was clarified that this was to study the use of debt financing for public housing. It failed 4-4; Rasmussen, Licata, O’Brien and Sawant voted for it; Okamoto, Bagshaw, Burgess and Godden voted against it.
72-1-A-2: Pass C.B. 118536 to change the terms of the interfund loan for the JTF and recognize a $9.6 million repayment from CRS; use $2.7 million of GF to lower the remaining balance further. Council member Sawant offered a substitution that reallocates $1.5 million to fund additional parental leave time for city employees. It would be a one-time source of funds — the original proposal was to use the funds (which came into being because excess revenues were produced from one source) to pay down an existing debt. It doesn’t actually enact an increase in paid parental leave, but it sets aside funds to pay for it if the Council chooses to do so next year. Council member Okamoto asked whether labor and management representative have indicated that parental leave was the priority, or whether there were other issues were higher. Council member Godden expressed concern that there wasn’t a clear plan since paid parental leave has only been in place for 6 months. Council member Bagshaw raised questions about the long-term plan since this was one-time funds (though she and other council members have a strong interest in getting to a 12-week parental leave plan). Council member Burgess had harsh comments on the proposal because it’s outside of the collective bargaining process and it does nothing for establishing a long-term policy. Council member O’Brien expressed his support for Sawant’s proposal as a good step that gives the council more flexibility next year. Sawant got the final word: she piped up with “you can tell the election is over” as a shot at her fellow council members, followed by arguing that labor had expressed their support and that this was a good first step towards a 12-week policy. The council voted 4-4 on Sawant’s substitution; Bagshaw, Licata, O’Brien and Sawant voted for it. The council then voted 8-0 to approve the original version.
102-1-A-1: Reduce GSF funding by $718,000 in HSD for excess minimum wage mitigation funding. Council member Burgess asked about a tentative plan to use some of the funds to support childcare; it was clarified that it was being looked at but hadn’t been formalized. It was approved 8-0.
109-2-A-1: Add $200,000 GSF to HSD for job assistance and impose a budget proviso. In round 1, $400,000 was allocated to CareerBridge. In round 2, $200,000 was allocated to CareerBridge, and this additional $200,000 would be available through a competitive grant process that CareerBridge and others could apply for. Council member Burgess asked to pull it out separately so he could understand how the money was being allocated. The item was approved 8-0.
116-1-A-1: Add $40,000 GSF to HSD to support food banks primarily serving the American Indian / Alaska Native Community. Burgess wanted to clarify that the funds are not intended for a specific organization, but for a specific population, and HSD has the freedom to identify the best way to serve that population. The item passed 8-0.
136-1-C-1: Licata’s proposal to allocate an additional $2.3 million to address homelessness. It passed 8-0.
138-1-B-1: Add position authority in SPD for 25 police officer positions. Burgess opposes it because the police department has not met the requirement to complete its management and deployment study which was a prerequisite to additional funding for officers. He pointed out that an additional allocation could be made in January once the study is complete and delivered. The money and positions would be left in the general fund for later allocation. The council voted 0-8 to approve it, thus removing it from the budget (again, holding the money and positions for later allocation).
Next Monday, the full package (with all the numbers ground through to completion) will come back to the budget committee for any corrections or further amendments. Later in the day, the full Council will need to approve the budget (and the underlying ordinances).
It was interesting to watch the dynamics among the council members. Clearly there was not much love for Sawant, though she didn’t do herself many favors either. She seems to like a quick-and-dirty approach to legislation, without much thought for long-term implications. She also prefers to skip coalition-building within the council (outside of Licata and O’Brien), and uses her populist reputation and devoted following to try to put pressure on her fellow council members to support her efforts (and you can imagine how much they enjoy that). Unfortunately for her, the weaknesses in her proposals give her opposition plenty of ammunition to fight back without looking petty. In fact, Rasmussen was the only council member today who showed any outward signs of irritation at Sawant (something fairly common). It’s interesting to compare and contrast Sawant with O’Brien, who also leans heavily to the left but understands the importance of coalition-building and was unwilling to back Sawant on some of her proposals today. It’s also interesting to speculate on whether Licata would have been more vocal in his support for Sawant if he were not in the chair’s seat today and attempting to moderate discussions and keep things moving forward — especially since he didn’t run for re-election and will shortly be out of his job.
At the end of the day, they got the job done: they have a draft budget that with a bit more spit and polish will keep Seattle moving forward next year. How much it will help the homelessness crisis is unknown; more resources will be available, but will they be enough? There are also funds set aside for affordable housing. The Move Seattle levy was passed, which will start a major push forward with improving transportation infrastructure. Other than that, there aren’t huge new initiatives like Sawant’s municipal broadband proposal, just a myriad of small efforts. But that’s how large modern cities run: a lot of people doing a lot of small jobs that need to get done.