Council assembles 95% of a budget

It took nearly nine hours today, but the City Council hammered together most of a budget for the next two years.

There were 188 items on today’s agenda to be discussed and voted on, including two that were added at the last minute. 137 of them were dealt with in three “consent packages” that allowed multiple uncontroversial items to be approved in a single vote. There was also nearly an hour of public comment to start the morning session. The other eight hours were a mix of debate on the virtues of proposals and a live demonstration that the nine City Council members need to brush up on the rules of parliamentary procedure.

And after all that, not much changed dramatically from the Budget Chair’s “balancing package” introduced last week as the basis for the Council’s budget.

The substantive part of their deliberations focused on a handful of specific issues:

  • The red-light camera fund. In the last week the Council has come under fire in the local press 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • O’Brien tried to pay for support for the statewide Poverty Action Network by eliminating a vacant position in the Mayor’s office. Gonzalez pointed out that the Council used that same trick last year too, just as Mayor Durkan was coming into office. The Council didn’t support O’Brien — though the funding will probably be found elsewhere.
  • Multiple Council members submitted proposed changes that would raid the same two sources of additional funds: an excess fund balance of $400,000 in the Fire Levy Fund, and $900,000 of additional B&O tax revenues (over 2 years) that would become available if the Council rejects a bill that would re-establish a tax exemption for federal grants to life sciences nonprofits. Juarez wanted to use some of the funds to pay for earmarks to Mother Nation (homelessness services for Native Americans) and Aurora Commons (homelessness navigation services); O’Brien wanted to fund a climate science director in the Office of Sustainability and Environment; and Sawant wanted to fund additional affordable housing investments, and an attorney to provide eviction legal defense. Juarez and O’Brien got what they wanted; Sawant got the eviction legal defense (but the least expensive version of three proposals she put forward), but not the affordable housing.
  • 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.
  • Council member Gonzalez requested that the Human Services Department conduct a study on geographical parity in the city’s provisioning of homelessness outreach services.
  • Council member Sawant requested that the Office of Civil Rights report on its review of authority and resources to more effectively investigate complaints of workplace harassment and discrimination, including whether the city needs an investigative department with complete independence from the other branches of government.
  • 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.

There are two or three issues that came out of today’s meeting that the Council and their staff will attempt to sort out by Monday morning, while the staff clean up all the paperwork, make final adjustments to the budget numbers, and prepare everything for final approval. At the final Budget committee meeting Monday morning, the Council will take up last-minute items (there are always a handful), and then vote the final budget out of committee. Then Monday afternoon at the full City Council meeting, the Council will formally ratify the budget and send it on to the Mayor for her signature.