How much of SPD’s budget did the Mayor propose to cut?

It sounds like a straightforward question: in Mayor Durkan’s proposed “rebalancing” budget released yesterday, how much of SPD’s 2020 budget would be cut? But the devil is in the details.

The Mayor and City Budget Office announced a $20.3 million cut to SPD’s budget for this year, out of a total of $409 million. That would be about a 5% cut — far less than the 50% cut that advocates (and some Council members) are demanding.

But there is an important factor that isn’t being considered: it’s now the last week of June. The year is half over, and according to the city, SPD has already spent $195 million — about 48% of its budget. It can’t “un-spend” any of that, so the only part worth talking about is the second half of the year and the remaining $214 million in its budget.

From that perspective, the Mayor’s proposed cut is about 10%, not 5%.  It’s also worth pointing out that it would be impossible at this point to cut SPD’s 2020 annual budget by 50% — that would essentially zero it out. You could talk about (at least in theory) cutting the remaining part by 50%, what would equate to a 25% cut to the full-year budget, or about $107 million. But we need to make sure we’re doing apples-to-apples comparisons: no one should be spinning the Mayor’s proposal as a 5% cut while demanding a 50% cut: call it 5% vs. 25% for the full year, or 10% vs. 50% for the remainder of the year, but don’t mix them.

If SPD’s budget is cut by 50%, it would inevitably require large reductions in the workforce. At a City Council meeting today, SPD said that based upon its preliminary analysis if it maintained its current ratio of sworn officers to civilian staff, a 50% budget reduction would eliminate 755 sworn officers and supervisors and 281 civilian positions.

But wait — when we look at the Mayor’s proposed cuts, we see the picture is even more complicated. Of the $20 million in proposed cuts, $16 million of reductions had already been identified in advance of the protests and demands for defunding SPD, largely due to budget restrictions put in place in response to the COVID-19 crisis and the ensuing economic meltdown. The only cut that came later, in response to the protests, is $4 million of capital funding to start the planning for a new North Precinct facility this year — that project is now on hold again.

But wait, there’s more: a portion of the $20.3 million in reductions and savings has already been booked, largely because of the hiring freeze that has been in place since March, and because of the COVID-19 “stay at home” order. I asked SPD for details, and this is what they supplied (and thank you to SPD for being responsive and transparent on this):

Of the $20.3 million, $6.4 million has already been saved and is unlikely to be spent in the remainder of the year. So there’s about $13.9 million of additional cuts still to come that the Mayor and SPD have some measure of control over. That’s 6.4% of SPD’s remaining budget. And quite frankly, much of it is simply a projection of underspend that is likely to happen anyway: overtime costs to staff events will continue to be low as most public events are cancelled; city employees will continue to work from home and use less supplies; and few employees will be traveling or attending in-person trainings. So the two big savings that are directly under the Mayor’s control are payroll savings from a hiring freeze, and pausing the North Precinct replacement planning.

What are the learnings here?

  • We’re having a debate about $214 million of SPD budget, not $409 million, because we’re halfway through the year and the rest has already been spent.
  • When we’re talking about the Mayor’s proposed cuts, as well as the call to immediately defund SPD, we need to be careful to make apples-to-apples comparisons.
  • The Mayor is proposing to reduce the budget by $20.3 million — about 10% of the remaining SPD budget — but only $13.9 million of that would be spent in a normal 6 month period, and far less than that would be spent under the current COVID-19 restrictions. So there’s really about $5 million of cuts that the Mayor is actively choosing to make, about 2.3% of the remaining budget.

The bigger message from the Mayor seems to be that she is open to large cuts, but doesn’t want to rush into them. She has announced that she directed SPD and the City Budget Office to prepare scenarios for 2021 budget cuts of 20%, 30% and 50%, while setting aside $500,000 this year for support of community engagement around re-imagining SPD. But she did not announce any timeline (or any other details) for that process, and the City Council, which ultimately writes the SPD budget, may have its own ideas for how to develop a plan for “defunding” SPD. For that matter, the Council will likely want to make deeper cuts in SPD’s 2020 budget, and it continues its inquest into the department’s budget.

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