Last week the City Council collectively offered 190 separate potential amendments to the Mayor’s proposed 2022 city budget, then spend 18 hours over three days discussing them all. I listened to it all, so you didn’t have to. Here’s what I learned.
By the Numbers
Let’s start by cataloguing this a bit. Of the 190 amendments, as usual the majority of them were for relatively small dollar amounts; only 16 were for $5 million or more.
Here’s a table looking at some of the Councilmembers’ individual contributions. Morales, Herbold and Strauss were the most prolific, each the primary sponsor on at least thirty amendments. Not surprisingly, Mosqueda had the fewest at seven, as she serves as Budget Chair and also holds one of the two city-wide Council positions that relieves her of the responsibility of championing a specific district.
|Big Asks (over $5M)
Juarez offered by far the most amendments for her district, which is not at all surprising given her celebrated penchant for going to bat for “D5”. This year she also had by far the most amendments that earmarked dollars for specific organizations.
Looking across the set of amendments (and across city departments), I found eight interesting themes worthy of discussion:
- Public safety, policing, and criminal justice reform: 38 amendments
- Homelessness: 23
- Housing: 17
- BIPOC communities: 17
- Food programs: 8
- Behavioral health: 6
- Workforce and workers: 5
- Green New Deal: 5
The amendments were published in three installments, one for each of the three days of meetings.
Investments in BIPOC Communities
The one big amendment this year is Councilmember Mosqueda’s “omnibus” that claws back the payroll tax revenues where the Mayor departed from the Council’s approved spending plan. In the end, it turned out not to be a big deal: Mosqueda simply swapped $60 million of payroll tax dollars with $60 million of federal ARPA funding, and paid for essentially all the same things. It doesn’t look simple on paper because in practice it’s $60 million of smaller dollar swaps in a long list, but the practical effect is essentially nothing.
But her omnibus amendment does several other things as well, the most notable of which is that it cuts $47 million of funding to (collectively) the Equitable Communities Initiative, Participatory Budgeting, and two programs making investments in community-based public safety programs. Mosqueda did a fair amount of scare-mongering about a “fiscal cliff” to try to obscure what she was doing and in fact spin it as a Good Thing, but here’s a simple summary:
- The Mayor’s budget carries over about $54 million of unspent 2021 funds from these four programs. It then renews the original 2022 budgets for three of the four programs on top of that, with an understanding that the new dollars in 2022 are the baseline for ongoing funding in future years. So for example, PB would carry over $27,000, get an additional $30 million, and can expect $30 million per year in 2023 and beyond. In total, that’s $124 million and change. (One note: the Mayor’s budget as transmitted did not renew the Community Safety Initiative’s $4 million 2021 budget for 2022; the Budget Office has since said that was an error on their part, they intended to fund it, and they fully support the Council fixing their mistake)
Mosqueda’s omnibus amendment carries over the full $54 million underspend from 2021, but instead of allocating a full year’s budget on top of that, it only “trues up” the carryover amounts to the 2021 budget amounts. Including the $4 million for the Community Safety Initiative and an additional $3 million for the Community Safety RFP that the Council added mid-2021, that brings the total to $77 million — $47 million less than the Mayor’s proposal.
Mosqueda has justified this by claiming that the Mayor’s budget created a “fiscal cliff” because it the total funds available will be reduced in 2023. That’s nonsense for three reasons: first, she has no idea how much might be unspent at the end of 2022 and carry over to 2023; second, the same logic would apply to every other city program that is allowed to carry over funds, and Mosqueda isn’t rigorously cutting every one of them back the same way; and third, it assumes an ignorance and naivete on the part of those overseeing the programs that they can’t fathom what’s going on and can’t appropriately divide the money between one-time and ongoing expenditures to match the expected ongoing funding (they can and regularly do). The truth is that Mosqueda wants $47 million more to spend on “other Council priorities” in a year where the Council has a lot of ambitions but not a lot of available money to spend. It may be that the policy decision to pull the money back and spend it on other priorities is the right one; certainly $57 million is a huge sum to spend on participatory budgeting given that it’s a new program that as of today has no staff, no contract in place to run it, and no track record. But Mosqueda should own her policy decision and not try to shift the blame onto the Mayor by stoking fears of an impending “fiscal cliff.” People are smart, and they see what is going on.
That said, the Council is proposing adding another $11 million to the Equitable Development Initiative, a relatively new program that is receiving good reviews so far. It is also pushing hard on Seattle Municipal Court to delve deeper into understanding ongoing racial biases in the criminal justice system, including funding the Office for Civil Rights to do a Race and Social Justice Initiative analysis of the court. The Council may get some pushback on that, however, as the Municipal Court has already been fairly aggressive in addressing racial bias, and in general the judicial branch does not appreciate being strong-armed by the legislative branch.
In what might be seen as a window into how the Council views investments in the BIPOC community, Councilmembers have proposed several fairly small earmarks for specific programs that are tailored to sub-communities: Black LGBTQ youth, East African, Vietnamese, Indigenous, and CID communities in Seattle.
Finally, the is an amendments that would fund Juneteenth as a holiday for city employees.
As we have discussed in previous articles on the 2022 budget, the upcoming year will be an important one for the city’s homelessness response, as the new Regional Homeless Authority is poised to assume responsibility of most of the city’s contracts with homeless providers — and the city will be cutting the RHA a big check to pay for them. However, two issues seem to be arising. First, the RHA and the city are out of synch with their respective budget cycles, so three RHA budget requests came in late and are being addressed as budget amendments instead of in the Mayor’s base budget:
- a $19.4 million request for establishing a new 150-bed “high acuity” shelter for homeless individuals in crisis;
- $7.6 million for a new “peer navigator” program;
- $600,000 for additional administrative expenses.
Adding to the confusion is that King County’s budget on its own independent cycle as well, so city officials are unable to negotiate with the county on how much it would contribute to these new expenses as Seattle’s partner in funding the RHA.
Second, over the past few years the Council has ratcheted up its micro-management of the homeless response, through a combination of provisos on the budget and earmarks for specific providers and programs that it favors. Now the Council is coming to terms with the reality of delegating decision-making authority to the RHA, and it’s finding it difficult to back away. In past years it has taken its cue mainly from the Seattle Human Services Coalition, which every fall presents the Council with a document full of budget requests from its member organizations. This year is no exception, and the Council has once again submitted several amendments parroting the Coalition’s requests. It is unclear, however, to what extent the RHA will cooperate with the Council’s intended earmarks, assuming that the city attempts to mandate them in an agreement between the parties. Some of those earmarks relate to “tiny home” villages, which the Council is enamored with while the RHA’s CEO, Marc Dones, and the “Lived Experience Coalition” have both recently expressed reservations about embracing THV’s as a central tenet of the region’s response to the homelessness crisis. The Council’s earmarks attempt to prevent the funding from being siphoned off for other uses, as well as to “upgrade” some of the village sites — in particular Camp Second Chance, which Councilmember Herbold has proposed should get a permanent sewer line connection and other infrastructure upgrades that will allow it to add more tiny homes.
The Council’s homeless-related amendments also cover some investments in other city departments, most notably Seattle Public Utilities, which runs the RV remediation and pump-out program, and the Parks Department, which together with SPU manages the “Clean City” initiative to clean up the impacts of unsanctioned encampments.
There are several proposed amendments related to expanding the city’s investments in behavioral health treatment and services, including crisis response. This is a bit surprising, because officially the responsibility for behavioral health lies with King County and the State of Washington, not with the city. It has, however, become clear over the past few years that both the county and state have struggled to meet their responsibilities in this area — and apparently the Council has run out of patience. Unfortunately, the Council’s amendments seem a bit scattershot; there isn’t much sense of an organized plan or active coordination with the county or state. The proposed amendments include $32 million of one-time funding for a voluntary crisis stabilization center; $13.9 million to expand the mental health crisis system; $1 million to expand mental health services, and $1.5 million to expand mental health service offerings specifically to the Duwamish tribe. Rounding off the set in perhaps a fitting way is a request for the executive branch to develop a plan for a city-wide 24/7 mental health response system.
Policing, public safety, and criminal justice
There is no doubt that a supermajority of the Council is committed to the concept of spinning up civilian alternatives to armed police response to a subset of 911 calls, and in tandem reducing SPD’s footprint (and headcount and budget). What became apparent in last week’s discussion is the extent to which those Councilmembers are losing patience with the process of establishing those civilian alternatives. The city’s initial surveys of community-based organizations found none who were willing to take over 911 response for certain kinds, which leaves the city to choose between creating new civilian city departments, or trying to encourage the creation of new community-based organizations that will step up. The executive branch so far has opted for the former, creating the Health One units and now proposing a “Triage One” unit in addition; while the Council seems to prefer the latter, and is offering earmarks to push more money to organizations that it believes can be part of the eventual solution. At the moment, however, it looks like a jigsaw puzzle with a number of pieces missing, no plan for how to fill those holes, no overarching vision for what a complete solution looks like, and no one clearly in charge of building that vision. The Council, led by community advocacy organizations, has latched on to the NICJR report that claimed that almost half of 911 calls to SPD could be handled by alternative responses, and SPD’s response to the report admitting that was true for at least 11% of their calls; Councilmembers are demanding that the city move with all haste to establish an alternative response and divert the calls as son as possible. SPD is proceeding far more cautiously, pointing out that a hindsight declaration that 11% of SPD calls should be handled by other means doesn’t mean that the 911 dispatchers can correctly identify those 11% of calls — and there is no existing model for determining how much harm could be caused if a dispatcher guesses wrong. Nevertheless, the Council is earmarking funds to continue to grow alternatives, and pushing the new CSCC to prepare to plug in those alternatives into its dispatch protocols sooner rather than later.
The Council is also throwing its weight behind diversion programs, both pre-arrest and pre-filing. It has offered an amendment to fully fund LEAD to grow large enough to be able to accept all eligible referrals from across the entire city, at a cost of $14.6 million. The Council, without naming names, also seems to be very concerned that if Ann Davison wins this week’s election for City Attorney she may back away from the city’s current commitment to pre-filing diversion in favor of more aggressive prosecution of misdemeanors; they are looking at ways that they can use budget mechanisms to mandate the pre-filing diversion program in spite of the City Attorney’s preferences, or barring that at least protect the funds they budget for pre-filing diversion to prevent them from being repurposed.
And, of course, the Council is gearing up to turn the thumbscrews another notch on SPD’s budget and headcount. Of the $19 million in salary savings expected in 2022, Councilmembers have proposed a cut or proviso on $5 million, plus a proviso on $2.5 million of technology investments until SPD can give a better explanation of the value of the projects, and a cut or proviso on $1.09 million in the Mayor’s proposed budget for officer hiring incentives. On the flip side, Councilmember Pedersen has proposed adding $2 million for retention bonuses for SPD officers to try to stem the ongoing high attrition levels.
Finally, the Council is placing the police accountability system under the microscope. Councilmember Herbold has proposed $100,00 to stand up a community-based task force to assist in an audit of the police accountability system. In addition, Councilmember Sawant has proposed stripping out the 2022 budget increase for the Office of the Inspector General that the Mayor proposed, arguing that the OIG has done nothing to hold SPD accountable (Sawant has repeatedly called for a new, elected board of civilian overseers that would hold hiring and firing power over SPD).
Other notable amendments
Rounding out our whirlwind tour through the Council’s collection of proposed budget amendments is this eclectic set of the notable, the eyebrow-raising, and the occasionally weird.
- $750,000 to develop a guaranteed basic income program.
- $750,000 for a “comparable worth” analysis of human services job, to try to identify how valuable they are to society compared to other jobs requiring comparable skill sets.
- A request for the Mayor’s Office to develop a recommendation on whether to create a Chief Arborist position for the city.
- $2.5 million to attract large conventions to the city, given the recent expansion of the Washington State Convention Center.
- A request to develop a plan to phase out gas-powered leaf blowers.
- A request to convene a “small landlord stakeholder group.”
- A request for the city to look at establishing a city-run long-term electric bicycle rental service.
- Cutting the full $2.4 million in the Mayor’s budget to restart planning for the Center City Connector streetcar line.
- $50,000 to add pickleball court lines to the city’s existing tennis courts.
Building the Balancing Package
Now that the Councilmembers have submitted their amendments, it’s the job of the budget chair, Councilmember Mosqueda, to try to build a “balancing package” that assembles a set of amendments with consensus support that represent the Councilmembers’ highest priorities while staying within available funding. Which means it’s time to break out the crystal ball and try to predict what will make it through.
Mosqueda’s omnibus bill will almost certainly move forward: the dollar-swap is non-controversial, and the cuts to the BIPOC programs will give the Council another $47 million to spend on its priorities. It’s unlikely that community advocates will rally to defend the Mayor’s proposed allocations to the BIPOC-focused programs.
The extra spending on food assistance programs will also sail through — though it might be subject to some paring back.
The tiny home village spending will also be a high priority, as many Councilmembers are fans of tiny home villages. The fact that neither the Mayor nor the Council proposed a substantial expansion of emergency homeless shelter in 2022 makes these investments even more important: they will be some of the very few new units coming online next year.
There are a handful of childcare investments in the collection of budget amendments, and they will also likely sail through.
An amendment that provides for a one-time wage boost for employees of human-services providers under contract to the city will also be a high priority. Providers, like many other organizations, are having great difficulty hiring and retaining staff, especially given the high workload and stress and the low pay for front-line human services jobs.
As we’ve discussed, there are many earmarks and district-based investments in the set of amendments. They won’t all make it through, but Mosqueda will ensure that every Councilmember will get some. That is the price to pay to build a consensus budget: every Councilmember knows that in order to get some of what they want, they need to support their colleagues in getting some of what they want.
And finally, there will undoubtedly be some cuts to SPD’s budget, and some provisos in addition. This Council is hyper-sensitive to how it is perceived by its political base, and it will not allow itself to be seen as anything other than tough on SPD. However, it is also aware that there are credible (or at least plausible) critiques that its actions have contributed to the high attrition of SPD officers, and by association the rise of property and violent crime in Seattle. The Councilmembers (most of them, anyway) are attempting to navigate a difficult balance between appearing tough on SPD and not taking concrete actions that further exacerbate attrition. Expect to hear a regular refrain that the Council is “fully funding SPD’s staffing plan,” while avoiding any discussion as to what message it sends to SPD when the Council continues to chip away at its budget while also making clear that its long-term plan is to downsize the department.
On the flip side, here are some of the amendments that are likely to be controversial; don’t be surprised if some or all of them don’t make it into the balancing package are and deliberated upon separately at the end:
- The RHA’s proposal for a “high acuity” shelter, both for the size of the funding request and questions over whether the brand-new RHA can actually succeed at standing it up.
- The sizable additions to the affordable housing budget. Putting more money into affordable housing, as a general concept, will have no opposition; where it gets challenging is how much, and the “opportunity cost” lost when the money isn’t available for other potential uses. The need for more affordable housing is so large right now that in practical terms it is insatiable; the Council will never have “enough” money in that pot and will simply need to pick a number.
- The $100 million bond for bridge maintenance. In theory, all the Councilmembers will tell you that addressing the large backlog of major maintenance on Seattle’s bridges is important. But issuing a $100 million bond will commit up to $7 million a year in debt service for the next 20 years. And it isn’t clear that SDOT has $100 million of bridge maintenance projects ready to go, so it might make sense to issue a smaller bond now and another one in a few years. However, last week Councilmember Pedersen countered that the extremely low interest rate the city can likely obtain on a bond makes it attractive to go get the full $100 million now, even if some sits in the bank for a while until the city is ready to spend it. But there are two other factors complicating the decision: first, SDOT isn’t firmly behind the plan; earlier this year SDOT Director Sam Zimbabwe said that he would prefer to have $7 million per year of ongoing maintenance funding that he can depend on than $100 million up-front. Second, just last week the City Auditor released a report finding that there is an estimated $500 million backlog of sidewalk repairs in the city — and in progressive circles pedestrian infrastructure is a higher priority than vehicle infrastructure (despite much of the city’s bridges handling transit, bicycle and pedestrian traffic in addition to other vehicles). Whether Pedersen (with help from Herbold) can get this over the finish line is still unclear.
- How to spend SPD’s salary savings. Assuming that the Council does claw back some of SPD’s salary savings, it’s not obvious how that money should be spent. Some community advocates have lobbied hard to tie investments in community-based programs that increase public safety to cuts in SPD’s budget; Councilmembers Morales and Sawant have voiced strong support for that. But as we have discussed previously, even following that principle the city does not have a coherent vision of the landscape of investments that need to be made in order to continue divesting from SPD. In the absence of a clear and consensus roadmap, there will likely be fights over how to prioritize programs and services.
- Behavioral health / crisis center investments. As discussed previously, this is another area where the Council has ambitions but lacks a plan — not to mention a consensus with King County and the State of Washington on how to move forward. But the Council is impatient to move forward given what is happening daily on the streets of Seattle, and it probably won’t wait for a consensus to emerge.
Here are some parting thoughts on what we know and have learned from the Council’s deliberations on 2022 budget amendments last week.
- As always, there are more spending proposals than spending. Many things will not get funded.
- The Council is wary of delegating decisions to the Regional Homeless Authority. That portends rough patches ahead for the relationship.
- The Council’s desire to make some big investments in behavioral health programs is a striking indictment of the county and state’s efforts in this area. And yet, given the challenges inherent in the domain, if Seattle dives in it’s just as likely that in a few years its own efforts will be the subject of harsh criticism. Councilmembers have yet to explain why Seattle will be successful when King County and Washington have not.
- The Council wants to micro-manage investments in the city’s BIPOC communities, following its pattern with earmarking other human-services investments, while also getting credit for following the community’s lead. That will be an interesting dance to watch.
- The Council is walking a tightrope with SPD, trying to satisfy the progressive base by taking a tough stand with SPD while also recognizing that there are genuine public safety concerns in Seattle that they are not yet in a position to solve by downsizing SPD and substituting civilian and community-based alternatives. Some of their actions to weaken SPD may turn out to strengthen it politically.
- The Council is impatient with the time it is taking to stand up alternative 911 response mechanisms. That feeds its worst impulses, and we have all seen what happens when this Council acts impulsively.
- During COVID the city rightfully increased funding for food assistance programs. Mayor Durkan proposed starting to “ramp down” the increased funding starting in 2022, and the Council balked at that. Given the uncertiainty of COVID and the pace of economic recovery, that’s a credible response — there is still an enormous need out there for food assistance. But it does raise the question as to whether it will ever be politically palatable for the Council to ramp it down, especially given its political ties to human service organizations. This may turn out to be a one-way street, for better or worse.
- The Council has big ambitions for continued and increased investments in affordable housing, both construction and acquisition. Given that the city will never have the resources to invest “enough,” given the economic disparities and the huge housing affordability issues we face, one has to wonder how it will decide (in the 2022 budget and beyond) when other priorities supercede.
- There has been very little discussion of the dearth of new homeless shelter investments planned for 2022. There is, of course, a difficult tradeoff between the short-term investment in emergency shelter and the long-term investment in creating more housing, but we’re about to see an enormous shift between the two in 2022, and we’re not talking about it.
- There are several amendments proposing bicycle and pedestrian improvements, many to address specific issues in neighborhoods and segments of our transportation grid. Bicycle and pedestrian improvements are visible and easily touted by elected officials, while many necessary infrastructure investments are not. The city’s backlog of major maintenance on infrastructure continues to grow, and the condition of the city’s bridges and major structures continues to deteriorate. More likely than not, City Hall (both the Mayor and the City Council) are going to continue kicking the can down the road.
Councilmember Mosqueda will unveil her balancing package on November 10th, in time for a public hearing on the budget that evening. The Council will then discuss the balancing package on November 12, and the following week on November 18th and 19th it will vote on the package and any last-minute amendments (which must be “self-balancing”). The Council will vote the budget on the morning of November 22, and give its final approval that afternoon at the weekly full Council meeting.
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