Welcome to Budget Season

Between now and Thanksgiving, the Seattle City Council will be almost singularly focused on one task: writing the city’s budget for the 2017–2018 biennium. Budget chair Tim Burgess, in his first year in the position, has made some tweaks to the process and schedule in the hopes of making it more efficient, transparent, and open to new and interesting proposals.

The first phase of the budget process kicks off on Monday at 2:00pm, when the Mayor presents his proposed budget package to the Council with a rare live speech in Council Chambers. On Thursday the City Budget Office gives its overview of the Mayor’s proposal.

The Council's budget development schedule
The Council’s budget development schedule

Then there are three days of “department overviews,” October, 6,7, and 10, in which the Council gets to crawl through the detailed plans for each city department. In past years those were presented by department heads and their staff; this year Burgess decided to have Council’s own central staff lead those sessions instead, with department staff on hand to answer questions. One can assume the intent was to structure the presentations around the things that the Council members want to hear about rather than what the department heads want to talk about.

The first round of true budget deliberations, where proposals to modify the Mayor’s budget proposal are discussed, runs from October 17 through 24. In the past, any proposal needed three Council members to co-sponsor it in order to be considered. This year, Burgess’s new rules say that in the first round any Council member may submit a proposal without the need for co-sponsors.

On October 31, The City Budget Office will present an update on revenue projections based on 2016 actual data to-date. That tells the Council how much money it may spend while still balancing the budget.

On November 2, Burgess presents an “initial balancing package,” which you can think of as a “substitute bill” to replace the Mayor’s proposal in its entirety. He creates this by incorporating the updated revenue forecast and the proposals from the Council’s budget deliberations where there was broad consensus. The hope is that this will save a great deal of time by immediately taking all the non-controversial items off the table, and focus their time on the more complex issues.

A week later, on November 9 and 10, the Council has its second round of budget discussions, with the “initial balancing package” version of the budget as the starting point. The only proposals that wil be discussed in this round are ones with at least three Council member co-sponsors. They also must be “self-balancing” in that any additional expenses must be matched wth either additional revenues or a cut in expenses elsewhere.

Based on the second round of discussions, Burgess will propose a “revised balancing package” on November 15th, followed by two days of voting on amendments.

The Council takes its final budget committee vote Monday morning, November 21, and the final full council vote that afternoon.

Here’s a handy chart with the day-by-day schedule, and here is Burgess’s memo to the Council with the details of the process. Given the recent level of organized activism at the Council’s meetings, we should expect those two hearings to be well attended with strong opinions being shared.

There are two public comment hearing scheduled: the first is on Wednesday October 5 at 5:30pm, and the second is on Tuesday October 25 at 5:30pm.

It is interesting that the first official vote on anything budget-related doesn’t occur until November 15, less than one week before the end of the eight-week marathon. The process is wholly dependent upon Burgess’ ability to accurately gauge which proposals have consensus support through the two iterations of “balancing packages,” and on his colleagues’ trust that he is faithfully and objectively exercising that responsibility.

There are sure to be several contorversial topics, including:

  • Funding for continuing to hire more police officers.
  • Council member Sawant’s proposal to scrap the North Precinct police station plan entirely and instead build 1000 new units of affordable housing.
  • All the issues tied up with the city’s homeless response: emergency shelters; providing services to unsanctioned encampments; setting up additional sanctioned encampments; expanding treatment services, transitional housing, rapid rehousing, and diversion; and safe consumption sites.
  • Increased funding for the Office of Labor Standards to enforce the city’s new labor laws.
  • Increased funding for the Department of Construction and Inspections to enforce new tenant protection laws.
  • Funding to continue to build out the network of protected bike paths along the city’s arterials.
  • Funding for the Pronto bike-share system.
  • Programs to expand affordable housing.

Burgess promises that the Council’s budget web page will be kept up to date with a variety of information so we can all follow along.