The Council spent nearly the entire day today finishing up the city’s 2021 budget, between the final Budget Committee Meeting this morning, and then a final stamp of approval this afternoon at the weekly City Council meeting. Most of it was routine procedure — except for about an hour spent on one last-minute proposal to trim a bit more out of SPD’s budget.
As reported last week, when the dust settled after the Council had plowed through its proposed 169 budget amendments it had trimmed SPD funded FTEs from 1,400 down to 1,322. But it had declined to approve a “hiring freeze” for next year, meaning that the department could continue with its hiring plan. On paper, SPD projected that it would bring on board 114 new officers next year while losing 89, a net increase of 25. That net increase, however, is on top of a huge drop in officers this year due to higher than expected attrition, so while SPD would end 2021 with slightly more officers than it started the year, the end number would still be well below where the department originally projected to be at the end of this year — and even below the revised SPD budget that came out of the “rebalanced budget” approved by the Council earlier this year (here’s my deep dive on the SPD staffing numbers). Nonetheless, advocates for defunding SPD, already unhappy that the Council was not defunding SPD by 50% this year, were up in arms late last week when they found out that SPD might grow in size next year. Some pushed for a “net zero” SPD budget in 2021 while the plan for community-based community safety programs is assembled; others argued for a “no new cops” approach, the equivalent of a hiring freeze, that would prevent SPD from rehiring to fill any positions left vacant by attrition.
On Friday, the Council members received updated SPD attrition statistics for October. While originally expected to lose seven officers over the course of the month, in reality they lost 23. Budget chair Teresa Mosqueda explained this morning that based upon those numbers she believes that SPD is underestimating next year’s actual attrition, and thus she proposed an additional, last-minute budget amendment for the Council members to consider that would change the attrition projection from 89 to 114. That would make SPD “net zero” in 2021, with equal numbers of new hires and departures. Recognizing that SPD would have fewer officers, the amendment also reduces the department’s staffing budget by $2 million and transfers the funds over to increase investments in community-led safety programs.
In spite of Mosqueda’s explanation, it was clear to the other Council members (and quite frankly everyone else in Seattle) that this was a fairly transparent attempt to assuage critics by tweaking the numbers just enough that SPD wouldn’t be growing next year, and they raised several concerns. Many groused about the last-minute nature of this proposal, after Mosqueda promised last week that only minor technical amendments would be considered this morning. Council member Herbold said that it was “too cute” that the new attrition estimate just happened to be 114, the same as the hiring estimate, shining a light on the fact that there is no hard justification for that number. Given the unpredictable month-to-month numbers in late 2020, there’s no reason to believe any attrition prediction for next year.
Others expressed concern that when SPD is short-staffed it often uses the salary savings to pay additional overtime to existing employees to ensure that they can appropriately staff all shifts, but if the $2 million is taken away then SPD may be unable to cover under-staffing with overtime. This raised a familiar refrain from Council member Morales and a few others: that there is no evidence showing that hiring more officers increases community safety.
Over the weekend the Mayor’s Office let the Council know that because of the higher attrition this year, SPD has stepped up its recruiting efforts and now believes it can hire more than 114 people next year, further complicating any attempts by the Council to keep the department at “net zero”. It seems that both the number of hires and the number of departures are moving targets.
Also further complicating matters: the Council already has a proviso in the 2021 budget, holding back $5 million of SPD’s staffing budget on the assumption that attrition would be higher than projected next year. Herbold pushed hard on the question of whether the Council would be double-counting by passing this additional cut. Staff explained that the two could be considered separate: the unexpected attrition of 16 positions in October would result in a savings of $2.3 million in 2021 if the positions are not refilled, and then any additional attrition next year above the 89 originally predicted will generate even more savings that could be recaptured by the proviso. Technically that’s true, but that’s not what Mosqueda’s last-minute budget amendment says: it’s very clear that it is changing the projection for 2021 attrition from 89 to 114.
Despite the concerns raised, eight of the nine Council members — all except Pedersen — voted in favor of the budget amendment. It’s not a hiring freeze, and it’s not a guarantee that SPD won’t hire more people than it loses next year, but it’s likely that police department staffing will be approximately flat in 2021.
With that settled, the Council wrapped up the rest of the loose ends this morning and voted the 2021 budget out of committee. Then this afternoon it gave final approval to each of the 38 separate components that make up the budget package, and after eight lengthy speeches (Juarez apparently got it out of her system this morning) it closed out the 2021 budget process.
Shortly after the Council’s final vote, Mayor Durkan issued a press release praising the Council members for their work on their budget and implying that she will sign it into law.
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