Council starts deliberations on amendments to proposed 2020 rebalanced budget

On Wednesday afternoon and Thursday morning the Council began discussing proposed amendments to Mayor Durkan’s 2020 budget rebalancing package, covering areas unrelated to SPD’s budget (which will come next week).  And the mutual hostility between the Council and the Mayor continued to be on full display.


The sixteen amendments that the Council members offered fell into two categories: small tweaks to the budget to undo cuts in the Mayor’s proposal; and standard-fare budget provisos and dollar-shifts that would normally wait for the usual fall budget process but are opportunistically being offered now as long as the budget is up for rewriting.

There are two reasons why it’s turned out this way. First, while the Council just enacted a new payroll tax that is expected to bring in over $200 million per year in new revenues, it devoted it all to new spending, leaving no large sums to undo the Mayor’s proposed cuts. Second, the way the Mayor structured the “rebalancing package” has restricted the Council’s ability to look for money to redirect.

In a normal budget process, the Mayor’s Office sends over a comprehensive accounting for all funds and all spending.However, this is far from a normal budget process, and the Mayor didn’t do that; instead she transmitted only the legislation required to legally authorize budget cuts and/or re-allocations she wants to make, and only for those that explicitly require legislative authorization. Any that could be done administratively, such as payroll savings from the hiring freeze that the Mayor enacted earlier this year, have been presented to the Council as a high-level summary without the details of which departments and functions are getting cut. The is a feature of a system where the Council writes the budget and the executive branch spends it: the Mayor can’t spend money that the Council hasn’t appropriated, but the Council can’t actually force the Mayor to spend the money tat it has (though it can pass provisos that condition funding that the Mayor wants to spend on actions that the Council wants to happen). The Mayor is choosing not to spend some of the money that the Council has appropriated in order to help cover the 2020 budget deficit, but has been less than transparent with the Council about exactly where those savings are. If the Council had all that information, it might (and almost certainly would) make some different choices; it can’t force the Mayor to spend money, but it can take the money back that the Mayor doesn’t intend to spend.

Part of this is understandable; in the current environment, the budget deficit is a moving target as changes in the COVID re-opening plan — and the public-health responses necessary to combat the virus — continue to affect both projected revenues and expenses. The city is also rushing to get this done because it is already behind schedule on developing the Mayor’s proposed 2021 budget, to be submitted to the Council in late September.

The Council is not taking this sitting down, however. Their central staff are now moving forward on two actions:

1. They are building a “comprehensive balancing tool” that details all of the Mayor’s proposed cuts and re-allocations in detail, as of a specific point in time, including the administrative cuts.

2. They are writing a new bill that codifies the Mayor’s administrative cuts, giving the Council an opportunity to review and change them.

Both the balancing tool and the new bill are expected to be available for next Wednesday’s budget meeting, hopefully keeping the Council on track to finish up its 2020 budget work the first week of August.

In the meantime, here are the substantive edits that the Council is considering for the Mayor’s budget so far that undo proposed cuts (remember, SPD-related items are up for debate next week):

  • Dipping in to SDOT’s transportation fund balance for $2.45 million to revive a “Safe Routes to School” project along Sand Point Way that would add sidewalks, pedestrian crossings, and bike lanes near Sand Point Elementary School. According to staff, and Council member Pedersen, the project was pushed out by SDOT because it had not yet been started, whereas others already underway were preserved.
  • $250,000 for a shoreline restoration project in Rainier Beach that is the first phase in a larger park project. The project as a whole will cost $650,000; according to Council member Morales, a partial grant has been secured from King County, and the community is fundraising for the balance.
  • Restoring $65,000 for the Aids Memorial Pathway project at Cal Anderson Park.
  • Restoring $72,000 to the Office of Civil Rights for a dispute-resolution mediator position. However, there was some discussion today as to whether this was the top priority for the office, versus hiring another investigator.
  • Restoring $75,000 for the Office of Labor Standards to hire three senior investigators for October through December. There were questions today about whether the positions would likely carry over into 2021, however, since next year’s budget is also expected to be problematic.
  • Restoring $15,000 for translating informational materials about the city’s ADU program into additional languages.

Other amendments discussed today include:

  • Moving $1.1 million in under-spent funds from the city’s contract to lease rooms at the Executive Pacific Hotel for isolating essential workers as necessary, to be spent renting hotel rooms for homeless individuals as part of de-intensifying the city’s congregate shelters.
  • Moving an additional $100,000 from the Executive Pacific Hotel contract to fund a new program to combat isolation for seniors. $50,000 would go towards plans to reopen senors centers, and the other $50,000 would be used to create additional free wifi drive-up hotspots at senior centers and other locations with high concentrations of seniors.
  • Capping salaries for non-union-represented city officials at $150,000. This is a perennial budget add by Council member Sawant. The Council’s staff are still investigating whether the city has the legal authority to make such cuts. If it applied to all city departments then it would save about $2.5 million, though some of those funds would be restricted in their use based on the original source of the funds used to pay for the positions. If it only applied to positions paid for with unrestricted “general fund” dollars, it would only save $687,000.
  • Adding a proviso on the city’s contract with King County for jail services until the county and city agree to enter into re-negotiations on the current contract. Currently the contract requires the city to pay for a minimum amount of jail space (180 beds) regardless of whether that space is actually used — and the city uses far less than that. Also, according to Council member Morales, the contract contains no standards of care, no metrics, and no resources for assisting released inmates with re-entry into the community.
  • A proviso on appropriations for the LEAD program that takes SPD out of the loop on approving new referrals into the program. SPD has acknowledged that it currently does not have capacity to process referrals, and is holding up the LEAD program. SPD Chief Best has gone on record in support of making this change.
  • Redirecting $120,000 in funds from a study of the LEAD program to a new Human Services Department “Stay Connected” pilot program, in cooperation with UW.
  • A proviso preventing the city from using any funds to remove the Northlake tiny home village without majority approval of the current residents of the village.
  • Redirecting $25,000 from the jail contract to complete a racial equity toolkit analysis on expanding the pre-filing diversion program to adults 25 and over. The current program is only for those aged 18-24.
  • A proviso on the City Attorney’s budget that would prohibit funds from being used to prosecute protesters for any actions during the recent protests in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd. Council member Sawant offered this item and said that she will offer a parallel one constraining SPD from supporting or participating in prosecution of protesters, which received pushback from some of her colleagues. Council member Lewis, who formerly worked in the City Attorney’s office, said that the issue isn’t with the City Attorney’s office, which only prosecutes misdemeanors; the issue is with the King County Prosecutor, who deals with felony prosecutions. Lewis noted that the City Attorney’s Office has declined or dismissed 72 referrals from SPD, diverted 3 to the Choose 180 program, and has only charged one person who brandished weapons at demonstrators. Lewis also questioned the legality of the City Council dictating the rules for prosecutorial discretion to the City Attorney, an elected official, and suggested that it might violate separation-of-powers rules in the City Charter.

You can find longer descriptions of these proposed amendments in the memos posted here. In all, this is pocket change in a $1.5 billion budget.

The Council is expected to formally vote on these amendments at next week’s budget committee meeting. Following that will come the big fight: changes to SPD’s budget.

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