What to look for in this week’s budget discussions

Last week the City Council had a series of “issue identification” discussions as a precursor for this week’s deliberations on specific proposals for modifications to the Mayor’s proposed budget. Here’s what to pay attention to this week as the Council members pitch their “green sheet” proposals.

Overall

  • Revenues. The Mayor’s proposed budget added little in new revenues, and committed what little there was to sustained funding for programs that were funded in 2018 with one-time funds. That leaves few dollars for the Council to hand out, unless they are willing to cut funding elsewhere.¬† But they may get a bit of a reprieve: tomorrow (Monday) the City Budget Office will deliver an update projected revenues and spending in 2018, as well as a new projection for 2019 revenues. The city almost always estimates revenues conservatively, and underspends its budget; that generates a fund balance that the City Council can spend in the following year — though preferably just on one-time expenses. As for 2019 revenues, it’s unclear at this point whether the updated projection will go up; but if it does, that may represent sustained dollars that the Council could spend as well.
  • Lots and lots of earmarks. This is the point in the process where Council members go to bat for their pet causes and for programs, projects and community-based organizations in their districts. Last week’s discussion gave us a preview of the earmarks to expect, which are heavily concentrated in four departments: transportation, human services, parks & recreation, and arts & culture. How many make it through to the final budget will depend on how much money is available (see above), as well as the broad appeal of the programs, the political power of the organizations advocating for them, and the pull that each Council member has with their colleagues. The easy path is to get them into the Budget chair’s “initial balancing package” that will be unveiled next week; the harder path is to get them added after that point, when any new expense will need to be offset with either new revenues or a cut elsewhere in the budget.
  • The Sweetened Beverage Tax. The Council members seemed to be glad of the extra revenues the soda tax is bringing in, but unhappy that the Mayor is siphoning much of it off to fund programs outside the original intent expressed when the tax was passed. However, since the Mayor is using the funds to sustain homeless response programs, the Council will need to wrestle with how to fix the issues with the soda tax without cutting needed homeless programs.
  • Affordable Housing. Mayor Durkan’s budget doesn’t invest additional funds into building affordable housing, one of the most critical problems the city is facing; it relies upon funds from the Seattle Housing Levy, incentive zoning, and MHA to continue the current level of investment. Many in the community, and some of the Council members (most notably Sawant and Mosqueda) believe that isn’t enough. Sawant has pitched $48 million in additional funding, paid for either by reintroducing the “head tax” repealed last June, or by making a series of cuts to the Mayor’s budget. But Sawant hasn’t socialized her plan with any of her colleagues, and if last week’s budget hearing is a guide, it’s going nowhere. But don’t be surprised if other proposals are pitched for how to increase the investment in affordable housing.

Office of Civil Rights

  • The Office of Civil Rights claims to be severely understaffed, particularly given a large increase in requests from other city departments for assistance in conducting Racial Equity Toolkit evaluations of programs. Yet none of the Council members’ proposals last week addressed that issue.

Office of the Employee Ombud

  • This new department, proposed by Mayor Durkan to help city employees navigate through the city bureaucracy to raise complaints of harassment or misconduct, seems to have the general support of the Council. But Council members worry about its independence given that it would report to the Mayor directly. They would also like to see it serve all of city government, and not just the executive branch, as proposed.

Human Services

  • The Mayor’s budget proposes an incremental expansion of the successful LEAD program into other parts of the city, though there is general agreement that the proposed increase in staff and funding won’t truly make it city-wide. This may be the year that the Council goes all-in on LEAD.
  • Several Council members want to push ahead on the controversial CHEL (aka “supervised consumption site”) proposal. There are proposals on the table to move forward with a plan for a mobile-fixed CHEL, and to require the executive branch to identify a location for the CHEL.
  • The Mayor’s budget calls for an increase in payments to human-service provider organizations to cover a 2% increase in wages to their employees. However, there is no way to ensure that the providers will actually pass the money through to their employees as raises, and even if they did, 2% is still below the local CPI.

Homeless response

  • The fight over “basic” emergency shelter continues. They have been shown to be ineffective in moving people from homelessness into permanent housing, yet there is a humanitarian argument that as a “harm reduction” measure they are still taking people off the streets — and probably saving lives. The executive branch continue to try to cut funding for basic shelters while expanding enhanced shelters, but the basic shelter providers — most notably SHARE/WHEEL — have considerable sway with some members of the City Council and are loudly demanding that the City Council restore their funding.
  • The Mayor’s budget allocates funds for a new program addressing people living in their vehicles (including RVs). Past efforts have been expensive and unsuccessful, but this year’s Point-in-Time count of the homeless population showed a huge increase in people living in vehicles, and the city government is under pressure to so something to address the situation as it spills over into commercial, industrial and residential neighborhoods. The Mayor’s Office doesn’t have an actual plan yet for what its new program would do, and what parts of the city it would serve. We’ll see how involved the Council wants to be in designing the program (hint: probably a lot).
  • The Navigation Team is proposed to have an increase in staff, including some “back office” staff to help with the increased scrutiny and reporting requirements the team is dealing with, and a handful of additional police officers. That raises questions about what kind of investments would have the most positive impact: more officers, more outreach personnel, or perhaps more “paraprofessionals” such as paramedics, nurses, or mental health professionals whose presence in the field could help get people the help they need, and off the streets and into programs to help them faster. Expect the Council to tweak the Mayor’s proposal here.
  • SPU’s “Clean City” program of cleaning up garbage at and around homeless encampments has been a success in the limited places it has deployed, but the Council seems to be impatient to see it grow and have more equitable coverage across the city. We’ll see if they are willing to fund that growth.
  • Council member Mosqueda is proposing that the city build a “Bridge to housing” enhanced shelter tent, as she has recently seen used in southern California. The Mayor’s Office is studying the idea, but at a cost of $3 million to set it up and an additional $2 million for annual operations to provide 75-100 beds, there is some skepticism of the model.

Criminal/legal system reform

  • Council member Sawant has put forward a proposal to dramatically cut the Seattle Municipal Court probation system, and divert the funding to community-based organizations providing diversion and other programs to keep people out of the criminal justice system. Several Municipal Court judges have objected to the proposal. Council member O’Brien is offering a toned-down version as an alternative.
  • The Council noted last week that there are now at least twenty separate programs aimed to address issues with the criminal justice and legal system, but there is little coordination among them. They will look at whether to create a structure to provide some guidance along those lines.

SPD

  • The Council now has better data on how much the city is undercharging for police and other support for special events. Look for a proposal to raise its chargeback rates.
  • The Mayor’s budget calls for a net increase in sworn police offices of 10 in 2019, and another 30 in 2020. But it also updates the baseline staffing level, taking into consideration the net loss of officers this year. There are debates among Council members about how realistic SPD’s hiring projections are, which are intertwined with the tentative SPOG contract as well as the ongoing police accountability¬† efforts. Council member Sawant is also arguing that the city should significantly reduce the number of police officers.
  • The Mayor’s budget proposes re-introducing the Community Service Officer (CSO) program in 2019, with 10 CSOs and two supervisors. However, Council members have already recognized that this will provide sparse coverage over the city and are concerned about how much their own districts will benefit. It’s unclear how they will address this issue: perhaps asking for a clearer plan from SPD on how CSOs will be deployed, and perhaps increasing the budget.

Other proposals

  • Council member Sawant is proposing that the city take the next steps in investigating creating its own municipal bank, in light of its failure this year to replace Wells Fargo Bank for the city’s banking services. A city-funded study on the idea is due to be released this coming week.
  • Sawant is also proposing that the city look at creating a free public 5G wireless broadband system city-wide.

After this week’s “green sheet” discussions, Budget Committee chair Sally Bagshaw will attempt to build a “chair’s balancing package” that combines a subset of green sheets that have consensus support among the Council members, along with the updated revenue projections from the City Budget Office. That balancing package will be unveiled on November 7th.