Council talks a lot, but makes few changes to its 2021 budget plan

It took a day and a half of deliberations, but in the end the City Council made just a handful of tweaks to its planned amendments to the 2021 city budget, and is now poised to give its final approval to the budget package.

 

As laid out in this preview of the final round of Council budget discussions, 161 of the 169 budget amendments were in two “consent packages,” and there were no last-minute additions. Council members only removed ten items from the two consent packages for separate consideration, so after the tedious process of reading them all into the record 151 items were approved with two quick unanimous votes.

That left eighteen items to be discussed: the ten removed from the consent packages, plus eight additional ones that didn’t have consensus support.  One was withdrawn, one was simply contingent on whether another amendment passed, and two just needed quick technical amendments. Fourteen.


 

Three were proposals by Council member Sawant to increase the recently-passed payroll tax:

  • one to increase it by $187 million to undo all the so-called “austerity budgeting” cuts in the Mayor’s proposed budget that the Council hadn’t already undone;
  • one to increase it by $7 million to expand the city’s “tiny home” villages;
  • one to increase it by $800,000 to increase the budget for the Office of Housing’s home weatherization program.

All three failed, with Sawant as the only supporter.  Eleven.  (to be clear, events didn’t happen in this order)


 

Five of the amendments related to SPD’s budget. Two of those were essentially lone protest votes by Council member Pedersen: clawing back hiring authority and payroll savings for currently vacant positions that SPD doesn’t expect to be able to fill next year. It seemed clear from the discussion on these two items that Pedersen didn’t fully understand the practical implications of these items — that they didn’t actually put any additional constraints on SPD’s hiring beyond the limitations they were already facing.

Let’s digress for a moment to talk about how SPD officer hiring works, because it not only explains the nuances of the these two items, but also sheds light on a third one that generated significant debate (and has been the subject of news reports and community anger for the past 24 hours).

In order for SPD (or any city department) to hire an employee, it needs two things: “position authority” to have that employee, and sufficient budget dollars to pay that person. For mostly arcane reasons, most large private and public organizations budget those two separately. But for this discussion, let’s focus on the position authority, which at the department level is represented as the total number of employees a department can have. The actual number of hired employees in a department can’t be greater than that number, but it’s often lower: there may be new positions that haven’t yet been filled, or some positions may currently be vacant due to recent departures (known in HR circles as “attrition”). Every organization has attrition: people retire, move to a different city, transfer to a different job, quit to work elsewhere, get fired, leave for personal/family reasons, or die. A really well-run organization with happy employees might have attrition as low as 2% per year, whereas in an organization with problems it could be 10% or higher. SPD has about 2,000 employees (officers + civilians), which means that even if everything was great and attrition was very low, they would still probably lose 40-50 people over the course of next year.

Because there is always some level of attrition, there also is always some amount of recruiting and hiring going on. SPD’s hiring is particularly complicated: recruits must pass a battery of tests, have extensive background checks, and go through months of training (slightly less so for “lateral transfers” from other jurisdictions). SPD’s hiring pipeline can take up to a year for a new recruit to make it all the way through to active duty. This has three important implications: first, SPD needs to plan far in advance for its hiring needs; second, SPD already knows how many new fully-trained officers it will have next year; third, SPD’s staffing levels are very sensitive to unplanned swings in attrition, since it is unable to hire quickly to fill vacancies.

For many years, SPD has consistently been unable to fill every vacant position and reach its total position authority. It has attributed this to a very competitive hiring market for law-enforcement officers nationwide.

Going into 2020, the department projected that its annual attrition would be about 90 officers (out of about 1,330), spread across the year, and had planned its recruiting activities accordingly. In March, when the COVID pandemic had hit and the economy was shutting down, SPD reported that its attrition had gone down to almost zero and with its newest recruits coming onboard it had actually reached its full position authority. Then there was George Floyd’s murder, the summer of protests, calls for defunding the police, and a chorus of voices leveling harsh criticism of SPD. Since September, attrition in the department has skyrocketed. The department’s best estimate is that it will end the year with 1,295 fully trained officers.

SPD projects that in 2021 it can hire 114 officers (based on its pipeline), and it will have 89 separations, for a net gain of 25 and a total of 1,311 by the end of the year. That is still below where SPD began in 2020, and well below SPD’s position authority for officers — though it is above where SPD will end this year.

That brings us back to the Council’s five SPD-related budget amendments this week. Two of those amendments clawed back SPD’s vacant headcount: reducing their position authority to 1,311 (since that is what the department believes it can hire), and taking back excess salary beyond what is needed to pay for the 1,311 officers (Pedersen’s protest votes mentioned above). Mayor Durkan’s proposed budget had left the money and position authority in SPD’s budget, even though by their own projections they wouldn’t be able to use it; the Council took it back and plowed the money into community-led safety investments.

Another budget amendment, proposed by Sawant and Morales, would impose a “hiring freeze” on SPD. The effect of that, if SPD’s attrition projections are correct, that SPD would lose another 89 officers over the course of 2021 because it would not be allowed to hire back from attrition. Moreover, because it would not be able to recruit into its pipeline, the hiring freeze would effectively continue into 2022 with an empty pipeline.

According to the projections of the Council’s central staff, placing a hiring freeze on SPD would leave them at about 1,260 fully trained officers at the end of 2021. At the end of 2022, the number goes down to 1,213.

First, it’s not at all clear that the Council has the authority to impose a hiring freeze on the executive branch. The Council is empowered to set the position authority and budget for SPD; it’s not clear that it can go further. But even if it can, it’s well established that the Chief of Police has authority to decide how those officers are deployed. Interim Chief Diaz has already moved 100 officers from specialty and investigative units into patrol functions in order to ensure that 911 call response times don’t drop because of the heavy attrition this fall. If there is further attrition under a hiring freeze, he is likely to choose to move more, which could leave some of the specialty units understaffed for their workload. Council member Herbold in particular has raised concerns about the effect that might have on the department’s ability to conduct investigations — something which much of the Council still supports. Morales countered that by asserting that adding more police officers has been shown not to improve community safety. Nevertheless, the majority of the Council (everyone except Sawant and Morales) voted against imposing a hiring freeze on SPD, and also against a “50% freeze.” So while technically the size of SPD at the end of 2021 (1,311) could be slightly larger than at the end of this year (1,295), it will still be significantly smaller than at the beginning of 2020. Those who believe that SPD should continue to be rapidly and aggressively downsized will find fault with the Council’s decision; however, the Council members assert that they are not done cutting SPD but are simply waiting for the plan to be finished and the community-based organizations expected to pick up responsibilities from SPD to scale up their capacity.

Council member Sawant also put forward an amendment that would cut an additional $151 million from SPD’s budget and invest the savings in affordable housing. That, she claimed, would reach the goal of a 50% cut in SPD when combined with the other cuts already in the budget package. That proposal got zero support from her colleagues and failed for lack of a second for the motion.

Finally, Sawant proposed that the Council request the City Attorney’s Office to research and propose legislation to create a new, elected community oversight board for SPD “with full powers over police accountability.” Some Council members, including Herbold and Gonzalez, noted that this would effectively be declaring that the 2017 police accountability ordinance, parts of which have not yet been allowed to go into effect, is no longer relevant — and they were not yet ready to jump to that conclusion or to “completely reinvent police accountability in Seattle” as Herbold described it. Sawant, however, went there: “the current system is absolutely broken,” she asserted, and needed to be scrapped and replaced. Sawant was the sole vote in favor of the amendment.

Six left.


 

Four budget amendments related to the homelessness response (or five, if we include the proposed payroll tax increase to expand tiny home villages).

One added $800,000 for so-called “self-managed” encampments, including SHARE/WHEEL and Nickelsville encampments and tiny-home villages. The issue with these organizations is that they are not set up to serve as their own “fiscal agent” to receive funds directly from the city (SHARE/WHEEL ran into trouble on this a few years back, and CCS stepped in to act as their fiscal agent) and so the budget proposal asks HSD “identify non-traditional ways of awarding these funds.” HSD explicitly does not fund these organizations directly for this issue, and Sawant made clear that her intent with this budget amendment was to fund the ones that HSD doesn’t fund now “because they don’t check al the boxes” such as having a fiscal agent. This was another protest vote of sorts for Council member Pedersen, who was the sole “no” vote. Don’t be surprised if the Durkan administration doesn’t end up paying this out.

Another amendment, this one proposed by Pedersen, asked for HSD to report out quarterly on activities responding to unsheltered homelessness. Some of his Council colleagues questioned his intent, with Morales accusing it of being “anti-homeless” in the choice of the metrics to be reported, which were modeled after the metrics that the Council demanded of the Navigation Team. However, Pedersen countered that the language in the amendment provided flexibility for HSD to propose alternative metrics, so it wasn’t necessarily tied to the specific ones named if there was a better model to capture the performance of the effort. It passed with a 6-3 vote; Sawant, Morales and Mosqueda voted “no”.

A third amendment, proposed by Sawant, imposed two provisos on SPD’s involvement in removing unsanctioned encampments. It reads:

“None of money appropriated in the 2021 budget of the Seattle Police Department may be used to support the removal of unauthorized encampments until all residents of the encampment have (1) accepted placement in shelter or housing; or (2) been clearly directed to a different location that is (a) no farther than one-half mile away where the residents can reestablish an unauthorized encampment with reduced harm to themselves and other community members; or (b) at a City-sanctioned encampment with garbage removal and portable toilets.”

“None of the money appropriated in the 2021 budget for the Seattle Police Department may be used to support the removal of unauthorized encampments whose residents have been directed to that location during a previous encampment removal.”

Morales threw her support behind it, saying, “Something has to be done to stop police from harassing people living outside.” But other Council members expressed concern that it would be unworkable in practice. It failed with a 2-7 vote.

The fourth amendment was a variation of Sawant’s earlier proposal to invest $7 million in expanding tiny home villages, this time taking the funds from the city’s emergency reserve — which budget chair Mosqueda has taken pride in building back up to almost $40 million in her proposed budget package. Sawant’s amendment gained no support, and failed for lack of a second to the motion.

Two left.


Council member Pedersen asked for separate consideration a budget amendment that would restore funding for safe drug consumption sites, under a new model that resourced them in existing facilities rather than establishing a new dedicated site. Pedersen said that he continues to have concerns about the safe consumption sites, largely stemming from the lack of evidence that they lead people toward treatment. Council member Herbold gave voice to the support that the rest of the Council has for safe consumption sites, noting that they are primarily about saving lives by avoiding overdose deaths, not getting people into treatment. The amendment was adopted by a 8-1 vote, with Pedersen the sole “no”.

And finally, the Council deliberated on a proposal by Pedersen, Lewis and Herbold to increase the city’s vehicle-license fee from $20 to $40 and use the proceeds to pay for additional bridge maintenance. A report by the city auditor earlier this year said that the city ought to be spending somewhere between $34 million and $100 million every year on maintenance for its portfolio of bridges, while this year the city is spending about $8 million; the city has been dramatically under-funding bridge maintenance for many years and has a substantial backlog of deferred maintenance. Mosqueda’s budget package would have increased the 2021 amount to about $12 million, and this amendment would bring that up to nearly $16 million, still less than half of the minimum recommended annual amount. To be clear, the city would still increase it backlog of deferred bridge maintenance; it would do so at a slightly slower rate though.

But Council President Gonzalez proposed an amendment that instead of dedicating the funds to bridge maintenance would call for a six-month stakeholder input process to decide how to spend the funds. This led to a long debate that more than anything proved why bridge and other infrastructure maintenance is so underfunded: because there are always other ways that people want to spend the money that serve more immediate — and visible — needs. After pushback Gonzalez changed her proposal to a three-month stakeholder process, and it barely squeaked by with a 5-4 vote (Herbold, Pedersen, Lewis and Juarez voted no).

Then Council member Sawant proposed substituting a payroll tax increase for the increase in the vehicle-license fee. That quickly failed by a 1-8 vote.

The modified budget amendment passed by a 7-1-1 vote, with Pedersen abstaining and Herbold voting “no”. The Seattle Process wins again; bridge maintenance loses again.

 


With that, the Council budget committee adjourned for the weekend. Monday morning they will likely pass a couple of minor technical amendments to do some last-minute cleanup of details, then vote the budget out of committee. Then Monday afternoon the Council will give final approval to the 2021 budget package and send it off to the Mayor for her signature.

 


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