As budget process draws to conclusion, fight over SPD budget becomes open (memo) warfare

Call it the “War of the Memos.” Rather than actually get in a room and talk, the stakeholders in the debate over SPD’s 2022 budget have spent the last two weeks firing off terse (and often tense) memos at each other. But an editorial in the Seattle Times last Friday has pushed the argument out into the open and exposed the rationalizations and PR spin reinforcing entrenched positions.

The Revenue Shortfall

Let’s begin by shedding some light on a meme repeatedly spoken by City Council members over the past week: that a recently-revealed $15 million revenue shortfall left the Council no choice but to cut SPD’s budget.

Here is the revenue report that the Council received from the City Budget Office two weeks ago. It lists about twenty revenues sources feeding into the unrestricted General Fund, and another seven restricted-use revenue sources. As is nearly always the case toward the end of the year, some are up, some are down. It’s a bit confusing to read because a $65 million one-time windfall expected this year when the sale of the Mercer Megablock closes has been delayed into the first quarter of 2022, so there is a $65 million shortfall in 2021 offset by a $65 million boost in 2022; but we can safely ignore all of that for the purposes of this discussion, as it’s an isolated event that balances itself out.  Excluding the Mercer Megablock sale, the city now expects a $14.2 million shortfall in General Fund revenues in 2021 and a $4.9 million GF shortfall in 2022, for a total of $19.1 million.  It also expects a $12.8 million increase in restricted-use revenues in 2021 and another $6.2 million increase in 2022, for a total of $19.0 million. If not for the restricted uses, it would simply be a wash. And in practice, it pretty much is a wash, because the city is expert at “dollar swaps”: finding places where restricted-use funds can be substituted in for general-fund dollars.

Mosqueda has done exactly that with her balancing package: she included several Council budget amendments (aka “CBAs”) that effectuate about $10.5 million of dollar-swaps of REET revenues for general fund revenues.

Mosqueda also has several other direct uses of REET to fund CBAs proposed by her colleagues, in total about $8.5 million:

So the notion that a net revenue shortfall in the November forecast is driving Council decisions about the SPD budget — or any other part of the budget — simply doesn’t hold water.  Of course, the Council has a long list of its own spending priorities, so it is highly motivated to find other places to cut so that it has money to spend. Money that is “sitting on the table,” budgeted but is unlikely to be spent, is certainly a fair target, and it is well within the Council’s right to scour the Mayor’s proposed budget to make sure that money won’t go unspent — and reallocate it if it looks like it will.

The Police Monitor

Last week when Councilmember Mosqueda presented her balancing package, she specifically noted that they had consulted with the court-appointed police monitor, Dr. Antonio Oftelie, on proposed cuts to some SPD technology projects. Last Friday the Seattle Times ran an editorial in which it revealed that Oftelie had sent a memo to the Council raising concerns with some of their proposed cuts to the Mayor’s proposed budget for SPD, specifically that some of the technology projects on the cutting block were critical to the department’s obligations under the Consent Decree. The Times editorial board quoted Oftelie as saying that the Council had not reached out to him about his memo.

Mosqueda said an amendment to cut technology projects was vetted by the monitor of the federal consent decree overseeing SPD reform. “We did make sure to ask the police accountability monitor to make sure the items we were considering reducing from technology were not of concern,” she said.

But in an email to The Times editorial board after the council presentation, the monitor, Dr. Antonio Oftelie, shared a letter he sent to the council on Nov. 8 warning that proposed cuts to data collection and analysis “may place the City at further risk of noncompliance” with the consent decree.

Oftelie noted: “Contrary to statements made, no member of the City Council has reached out or discussed this with me.”

As part of the Mayor’s budget, SPD had proposed $5 million in technology project investments. However, the department didn’t do a particularly good job of explaining why they needed the projects, so a skeptical Council President Gonzalez originally proposed putting a proviso on half the money until SPD provided a better explanation of the projects. Here is a fuller description of the six proposed projects, provided to SCC Insight by SPD.

Mosqueda read the Seattle Times editorial as suggesting that the Council had not sought input from Oftelie at all, and took offense at what she saw as a misrepresentation. In fact, while none of the Councilmembers themselves briefed Oftelie, Greg Doss, a member of their central staff who handles police-related issues, did brief the police monitor on November 1st on the collection of CBAs originally proposed by Councilmembers. Oftelie did not provide immediate feedback on the CBAs; instead, he sent his memo a week later on November 8th — the day before Mosqueda was due to release her balancing package.

At the direction of Mosqueda, the Director of the Council’s central staff wrote a memo documenting their interactions with the police monitor. Mosqueda published that memo as part of a press release she issued this afternoon; in it she says that she and Council staff scrambled to incorporate Oftelie’s feedback, which focused only on certain of the technology projects that the Councilmembers were skeptical of, to ensure that those projects could move forward unfettered.

In an email to SCC Insight this afternoon, Oftelie reiterated, perhaps in clearer terms, what he had told the Seattle Times: “no one from City Council acknowledged receiving the memorandum or connected with me to discuss it before their Tuesday meeting.”

So there’s clearly miscommunication here where Oftelie is saying that no one followed up with him after he sent his memo, and Mosqueda is misreading it and defending herself against an accusation (that no one is making) that the Council never sought any input from the Monitor. And the Seattle Times stirred the pot a bit; technically what they said in their editorial is accurate, but one can understand how Mosqueda could have misconstrued it. Especially since Mosqueda has been taking fire from multiple directions over the SPD budget, including from Mayor Durkan, Mayor-elect Harrell, and from some (though certainly not all) constituents. Last week Chief Diaz sent a sharply-worded memo of his own criticizing the Council’s proposed cuts to SPD:

And of course Mosqueda returned fire with a memo of her own.

But let’s return to the interactions with the police monitor because there’s more to unpack here, and more reasons for Oftelie to be unhappy. He was briefed by Council central staff on November 1 on the seven SPD-related budget amendments (of which two are simply requests for reports), and Oftelie’s memo only raised concerns about a portion of one of the CBAs (a proviso on technology projects). One could read that to mean that he had no concerns about any of the other proposed amendments in the balancing package. And that is arguably a fair reading of his memo — except that the substantive CBAs that made it into the balancing package look very different from what was presented to Oftelie.

A proviso on $5 million of salary savings turned into a proviso on all of SPD’s salary and benefits budget so that none of it could be spent on anything other than salary and benefits. The proviso on technology projects that attracted Oftelie’s attention turned into a $1.24 million cut, though it spared the specific projects he was concerned about. A proviso on a portion of the CSO budget became a $1.3 million cut to the entire CSO expansion plan. An amendment that moved the proposed $1.09 million for an SPD hiring incentive program into a reserve fund and put a proviso on it until a plan for a city-wide hiring incentive program could be written morphed into a cut of the entire hiring incentive program. The only substantive amendment that went through unchanged was a cut of $4.53 million for salary savings and “efficiency” savings. But in addition to all of the changes, the Council added one more CBA that it never discussed with Oftelie at all: a cut of $2.7 million in salary savings under the assumption that attrition would be higher than in SPD’s staffing plan.

We’ll walk through these CBAs one by one, but it’s hard to argue against the impression that the Council pulled a “bait and switch” on Oftelie. He was not briefed on the the substantive police-related CBAs that went into the balancing package; he was briefed on an incomplete and much milder set, and his complaint that no one from the Council followed up with him after his memo (or at the point when Mosqueda decided to include more severe versions of what he had been briefed on) is valid. There were big changes, and he was not informed of them. Certainly it’s difficult for Mosqueda to maintain that the Council had consulted with Oftelie meaningfully and in good faith on her plans for the balancing package. And of course this must be put into the context of Oftelie’s prior feedback to the Council that cuts to SPD staffing could jeopardize the city’s compliance with the consent decree for failure to adequately staff the city’s police function; not telling him about the extent of the cuts that they were contemplating, when they knew from previous interactions that he had concerns about staffing cuts, is disingenuous at best and perhaps rises to the level of outright deception.

The Cuts

Let’s walk through the CBAs one-by-one to understand what effect they have on SPD, and the reasoning behind them (the full set of CBAs in the balancing package are here).

SPD-003-B-001: This puts a proviso on salary savings in SPD.  The original version of this CBA put a proviso on $5 million of SPD’s salary budget, on the assumption that attrition would be higher than SPD’s prediction and there would be at least $5 million for the Council to claw back and redirect to other uses. If attrition isn’t higher, however, SPD would still need to come back to the Council late in the year to release the funds. The revised version that is in the balancing package places a proviso on all of SPD’s salary budget so that it may only be used for salary and benefits and may not be redirected for any other use. This does something very different: it would effectively allow the Council to recapture every last cent of underspend on salary and benefits, without requiring SPD to come back and ask for money to be freed up for wages at the end of the year. But it wouldn’t allow SPD to redirect any of it to other uses with in SPD without the Council’s approval.

SPD-006-A-001: This cuts $4.53 million of salary savings and “efficiency savings” from SPD’s budget, in several pieces:

  • $850,000 of unprogrammed salary savings;
  • $3.2 million of overtime. The Council’s CBA gives the following reasoning for why it believes SPD can find “efficiencies” to make this money unnecessary: “This CBA would cut $3.2 million GF from SPD’s Overtime budget because the Council expects that the department will implement service efficiencies that will reduce demand for Overtime dollars. The Council expects SPD to implement such efficiencies without: (1) causing any degradation to existing services; or (2) reducing the number of activities that are typically funded with SPD’s Overtime budget.” This year SPD’s overtime budget was originally $21.8 million but mid-year the Council bumped it up to $24.4 million at SPD’s request as it relied more heavily on overtime because of the return of public sports events. Mayor Durkan proposed a $29.6 million overtime budget for 2022; this cut brings it down to $26.4 million.
  • $175,000 from SPD’s travel and training budget, “because the Council expects that the department will implement service efficiencies that will reduce demand for Travel and Training dollars. SPD is expected to implement such efficiencies without: (1) affecting certifications necessary for job requirements; and (2) reducing the training necessary for compliance to fulfill requirements of the
    Consent Decree.”  This would bring SPD’s budget down from $1.1 million to $935,000.
  • $300,000 from the department’s discretionary purchases budget “because the Council expects that the department will implement service efficiencies that will reduce demand for Discretionary Purchase dollars. It is the intent of the Council that this CBA will not impede the department from fulfilling requirements of the Consent Decree. This would reduce the budget from $4.4 million to $4.1 million.

SPD-009-A-001: Mayor Durkan had proposed expanding the very popular civilian Community Service Officers program by adding another squad of six CSOs at a cost of $1.3 million; this CBA cuts that. The Council and the CSOs have an ongoing dispute about where the program should be housed: the Council wants it in the CSCC, but the CSOs want to stay in SPD. Councilmembers have spun this cut as “placing expansion of the CSO program on hold” until the dispute is resolved; but let’s be honest, what they are really doing is taking the program expansion hostage until the CSOs agree to move to the CSCC. The CSO program has essentially no critics; everyone loves it and praises it. And it’s working where it is right now, seated in SPD. There is no logical reason to place a hold on expanding the program until the SPD/CSCC dispute is resolved, and no one has suggested why expansion of the program now would be a potential impediment to moving it to CSCC at a later date. This looks like just a thin excuse to cut and repurpose some money for other things the Council wants to fund.

SPD-010-A-001: Mayor Durkan proposed $1.09 million for a hiring bonus program for new sworn-officer recruits and “lateral” hires from other departments. Most local law enforcement agencies offer hiring bonuses, and the lack of such a program puts SPD at a hiring disadvantage. But the Councilmembers hated this idea from the beginning (even though they approved a hiring bonus program in 2019); Councilmember Herbold originally tried to argue that many city departments have staffing shortages at the moment so any hiring bonus program should cover all city departments (though few if any have the staffing crisis that SPD does at the moment), but the Council seems to be past that argument now and are simply cutting the hiring bonus program altogether.

SPD-011-A-001: This cuts $1.24 million for some of the six technology projects that SPD proposed. There are six altogether, as outlined in this list supplied by SPD; the Active Workforce Wellness Management project is not funded, and the EAQ Forum project is only funded for $250,000 instead of the full $1 million requested; all the rest are fully funded. This aligns with the police monitor’s feedback on which projects were critical to the department meeting its ongoing responsibilities under the 2012 Consent Decree.

SPD-008-A-001: This cuts $2.7 million from SPD’s salary budget by assuming that attrition will be higher than SPD’s staffing plan suggests. The staffing plan for 2022 predicts that there will be 125 hires, and 94 separations. 125 would be a high-water mark for hiring, and 94 a recent low-water mark for separations, so there are good reasons to be skeptical of both numbers; though as the Council and their staff discussed in a recent budget discussion, neither SPD nor the Council have shown any ability to accurately predict SPD’s attrition. Nevertheless, the Council is effectively rewriting the staffing plan to assume 125 separations instead of 94. It’s unclear if there is any hard justification for that number, but it’s very convenient for the Council because it allows them to tell community activists that they are not allowing SPD to grow back in 2022; the number of sworn officers will at best be flat. The Council is also playing word games with their positioning of this CBA: for over a year they have been claiming that they are “fully funding SPD’s staffing plan,” but with this change they are now saying that they are “fully funding SPD’s hiring plan” — and hoping no one notices their sleight of hand. The truth is actually more serious than word games: because they are cutting the funds and not simply placing a proviso on them, if SPD’s proposed staffing plan is right, they make their hiring goal, and attrition is less than 125, the Council will have underfunded SPD’s salary budget for the year. Again, neither the Council nor SPD have shown any ability to predict SPD attrition, so in essence the Council is declaring that their made-up number is better than SPD’s made-up number.

When is a Cut Not a Cut?

The final bit of rhetorical back-and-forth between the Council and SPD’s proponents is whether the Council’s actions represent a “cut” to the department’s budget at all. On paper, SPD’s proposed 2022 budget increases by $2.5 million over the 2021 adopted budget ($365.4 million vs. $362.9 million). But the Council points out that the Mayor’s proposed budget increases SPD’s budget by $17.7 million over the 2021 adopted budget on “new items,” repurposing salary savings to pay for them. As Mosqueda put it in her press release today:

The Mayor’s approach required Council and Central Staff to grapple with a budget that was appropriating nearly $19M of salary funding for officers that would not be needed, because there are not officers there to take the salaries — and that is in the proposed budget — but is instead being redirected other places. The city normally operates under a process known as incremental budgeting, whereby salary funding that may no longer be needed for the purpose it was intended, might normally be reduced and taken back to the General Fund, and if a new item was needed they could be re-examined as distinct policy choices — such as items that are on that list. But that is not how the Mayor wrote this budget, nor how it was presented to this Council. Instead, she retained approximately $19M in savings in SPD, and redirected that savings to these items, so when Council received the budget and decided to reduce these increased items, it appears as though Council is making a cut. And that is not a fair way to portray it — if indeed these were proposed as new, distinct items to consider, [Council] would be rejecting new items — which is more true than the case that the Council is cutting the SPD base budget.

That’s partially, but not entirely, true. As with other departments, SPD took COVID-era cuts to travel/training and discretionary purchase budgets; as other departments are seeing similar cuts restored in 2022, SPD’s should be viewed through the same lens. Similarly, SPD’s overtime budget was cut largely because of the city-wide shutdown in sports and other large public events that drive a good chunk of officer overtime; now that those events are back, the money needs to be there (and most of it is not only contractually obligated with the sports teams and other event organizers, but it’s paid for by the organizers). The hiring incentive program and the CSO program expansion are fair game, and are worthy of substantive policy discussions.

But that brings us full-circle to the problem that we started with: Seattle City Hall doesn’t have substantive policy discussions, or even real meetings, to discuss these issues. Now they just fire memos and angry letters at each other. The Council didn’t discuss the proposed SPD cuts with the police monitor: it sent a staff member to brief him, and then turned around and did something very different without even updating him.

And whether it is or isn’t a “cut” is only something you care about if you’re an activist dedicated to seeing SPD’s budget decrease every year. The real measure of the budget is whether the city is delivering on its responsibility to provide public safety. Again, there are important and substantive policy discussions to be had about the form that should take, but those discussions transcend battles over a specific bottom-line dollar figure for SPD’s annual budget — just as “Defund SPD by 50%” turned out to be a hollow, unworkable notion. This isn’t about ultimately meaningless metrics regarding whether the Council is cutting $10 million from SPD, or headcount stays flat, or the 2022 budget is bigger or smaller than the 2021 budget. It’s about whether the Mayor and the Council are proposing and funding what Seattle needs its police force to be able to do next year.

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