If you heard or read something earlier today about the Seattle City Council taking a vote on whether to cut 101 police officers from SPD, I want you to forget what you think you know, take a deep breath, and start again. Because what you heard or read is almost certainly wrong.
Let’s go back to Budget School for a moment and review how hiring works: at the City of Seattle, at large corporations, and indeed in most medium to large organizations. In the standard organizational budgeting system, in order to hire an employee you need to have two things: position authority, and the money to pay your employee. “Position authority” is the maximum number of employees you’re allowed to have on your payroll. But separate from that is your actual dollar budget to pay the people who work for you. In large organizations, the budgeting process involves setting both of these numbers.
For example, in a stable, fully-hired organization, you might have a position authority for 1,000 employees and funding to pay all of them. If someone leaves, you can then hire someone to replace them and get your total employees back up to 1,000.
This seems like a complicated way to run a budget, and from my past experience in corporate America, I can attest that it is. But there are good reasons to do it this way. Position authority is important because when you hire an employee you are usually making a commitment not just to pay them this year, but also next year. If you managed your hiring solely on this year’s payroll budget, then you could create a large financial liability for future years by hiring as many people as this year’s budget allows; position authority is a way of planning for future financial burdens. You could also have more position authority than you have money to pay people; for example if you fill junior positions with senior people, or if you pay ridiculously high salaries.
In most stable organizations, however, it’s not nearly this complicated in practice: position authority and payroll budget are closely aligned, and there’s just enough money to pay everyone. But organizations that are growing and organizations that are shrinking are much more challenging to budget correctly. An organization that is expected to grow from 150 employees to 200 over the course of a year needs more payroll than for the 150 people it starts the year with, but less than 200 employees’ salaries: those 50 new people won’t all start on January 1, so each of them will only need to be paid part of a year’s full salary. If you budgeted payroll for 200 full-year salaries, you would overbudget substantially. Similarly, if an organization is expected to shrink over the course of the year then neither the starting employee count nor the end-of-year employee count is the right basis for calculating how much payroll the organization will need.
Because of SPD’s very high attrition the last two years, it finds itself now in the situation where the actual number of sworn officers on its payroll is well below its position authority. Its current 2021 position authority is 1,357 sworn officers, but based upon the projection for the number of officers it will have at the end of December, and its staffing plan for 2022 (the number of officers SPD believes it can hire and its prediction for officer separations) the department says that it will need payroll for only 1,223 officers next year.
Here’s the catch: the way the City of Seattle calculates baseline payroll budgets is based on the position authority, not the actual number of hired employees. So SPD’s baseline officer payroll budget for 2022 was calculated for 1,357 officers, 134 more than it actually needed. Under the default calculation, SPD would start the year with $19 million in “salary savings” — excess payroll budget that it would not be spending on payroll even if it fully met its hiring goals. Organizations often end a year with salary savings if attrition was higher than expected or hiring went slower; they aren’t supposed to start the year with salary savings, however.
Mayor Durkan’s budget took that $19 million in salary savings and repurposed $17.9 million for a variety of other things, some in SPD and some outside the department. She left just enough payroll budget in SPD to pay for the 1,223 FTEs. But she kept SPD’s officer position authority at 1,357. That has no practical effect over the course of 2022, since SPD’s actual number of officers won’t reach anywhere near that number, but it means that next fall when Mayor Harrell proposes his 2023 budget, he will be playing exactly the same game: salary calculated off a baseline of 1,357, well above the actual employee count, and a huge slush fund of “salary savings” to spend on other priorities.
For all of you who think that government should be run more like a business, this is the time for you to speak up, because no well-run business would budget payroll this way. Specifically, no CFO would allow a business unit to have a position authority and payroll well above their actual needs the way that SPD does. In fact, no other City of Seattle department is allowed to do this; only SPD enjoys this privilege.
Today Council President Gonzalez proposed in a budget amendment to lower SPD’s position authority from 1,357 to 1,256 — 101 employees lower, but still 33 above SPD’s expected level of 1,223 next year. It has no practical effect in 2022 — everyone still gets paid, no one gets laid off — but next fall the baseline payroll for SPD officers in the 2023 budget will be calculated from 1,256 instead of 1,357. Everyone will still get paid and no one will get laid off, but there won’t be $19 million of salary savings for the Mayor to throw at other things. He can propose additional spending in SPD and in other departments, but he will need to go through the regular budget process and negotiate it with the Council rather than having the extra funds automatically built into SPD’s budget.
Just to be doubly clear on this: Gonzalez’s amendment did not eliminate any police officers from SPD. In fact, because it leaves the position authority at 1,256 instead of cutting it all the way down to 1,223, if SPD has a sudden influx of officers from other law enforcement agencies who want to join up, it has 33 more slots that the department can use to hire them. SPD has said that it would take until at least 2024 for it to possibly exceed a position authority of 1,256 given its current expectations for hiring and attrition.
Gonzalez and her colleagues were also very clear this afternoon that they are not making a statement that they believe 1,256 is the “right” long-term size for SPD’s officer ranks. They acknowledged that is an ongoing and evolving policy question, one that will continue to be discussed and debated over the coming years.
If you find all of this confusing, you’re in good company. SPD Chief Adrian Diaz issued an inflammatory press release this afternoon that accused Gonzalez of proposing to cut 101 officers, completely misrepresenting her proposed amendment. His press release was in turn picked up by local news media, who fanned the flames and spread misinformation widely. Here’s what Diaz said:
About an hour from now, the City Council will vote on whether to eliminate 101 police officer positions. This would be devastating to our city’s already overwhelmed public safety system and demoralizing to the hardworking officers who have continued to serve our community through an increasingly difficult time.
Over the past year we have already lost 325 officers to retirements, resignations, and cuts. That’s essentially like cutting our entire North, West and Southwest precincts.
But the Council President’s amendment would permanently eliminate another 101 officers. This would greatly jeopardize the safety of our communities and have long term impacts on investigating violent crimes and caring for our most vulnerable.
So, today, in a city with more than 163,000 people than 10 years ago, we cannot have fewer officers than we had in 2012.
More cuts mean longer 911 response times, no staffing to adequately investigate violent crime, support large scale events, and if there is a natural disaster or major crisis, we cannot offer support to our local, state, and federal partners.
I know we can retain and hire amazing officers – I see it every day – but the continuing message from some that less officers is the right path to public safety makes that nearly impossible. Right now, we have less officers than we need – and even if there were alternative response models – they currently aren’t in place, and are at least a year away. It is irresponsible to significantly undercut the police department before we have any solid plan, or evidence, about what number of officers we need. Cutting from SPD to fund other projects ignores a Charter responsibility of this city.
The dedicated members of the SPD will continue to respond to calls for help, investigate crimes, and strive to provide the highest level of police services in the country. The idea that less resources is the way to fulfill that promise has no basis in reality.
I can’t read minds, so I don’t know if Chief Diaz intentionally misrepresented the proposed budget amendment or if he simply misunderstood it. But in either case, he was completely wrong today, and he created an unnecessary and undeserved firestorm. And needless to say, he owes Gonzalez an apology.
But his press release did the trick: despite multiple lengthy explanations this afternoon of exactly what the proposed amendment did and did not do, the optics were too scary for some of the Councilmembers, and the amendment failed to pass by a 4-5 vote. So SPD’s position authority remains at 1,357 going into 2022, and unless the Council modifies it before next August we’ll be repeating this conversation a year from now.
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