Don’t look now if you have a weak stomach, but the Seattle City Council has pulled off a shameless power grab. Earlier this month, the council passed a pair of bills meant to alter how City Hall will put together city budgets in coming years. The bills give the council a stronger hand spending tax dollars, harking back to the days in the 1950s, when the stingy city council, not the mayor, controlled the civic purse.
When the council sent the legislation to Mayor Jenny Durkan, she had practical as well as legal objections. But, given the council’s unanimous approval, she chose not to veto, letting the two unwelcome bills become law unsigned. She knew her veto would have been overridden and, with only months to go in her term, she opted to avoid an unwinnable fight. Instead Durkan sent two strong-worded letters of protest.
The first bill created a separate fund for “jump start” high-end payroll-tax receipts, limiting how these funds can be spent and tying the hands of future mayors and city councils. That tactic — the “ring fencing” of certain tax receipts — flies in the face of responsible budgeting.
In her letter, Durkan wrote, “Our budget history demonstrates the importance of flexibility and the obligation of every elected official to make budget decisions for any year based on the priorities and demands of that year.” She noted how the 2021 budget was altered to respond to the unforeseen emergencies of covid-19 and economic recovery. Citing the commercial property tax, soda tax and admission taxes, Durkan argued that so-called “dedicated funds” do not work well in challenging times.
The second bill passed by the council creates an entirely new Office of Economic and Revenue Forecasts. At present forecasting work is done by the City Budget Office (CBO). Analysts use economic indicators to calculate how much revenue the city is likely to collect. The number crunchers then share their predictions with both mayor and council. Those calculations matter greatly since Washington law requires that cities pass balanced budgets.
Unlike the CBO which is under the mayor, the new office would be jointly overseen by both mayor and city council. Creation of such a jointly-supervised office reflects the political tussles between the progressive wing of the council and the mayor. It has some serious legal concerns, and Mayor Durkan was forthright in underlining them.
For starters, the new forecasting department, unlike other city departments, doesn’t follow the city charter which says that the mayor “shall direct and control all subordinate officers of the city” unless the city charter stipulates otherwise.
Further, state law specifies that the city budget director “must assemble revenue estimates.” At the very least, assembly of revenue estimates by the new office (created at an added cost of an estimated $500,000 annually) would duplicate work done by CBO and the city’s budget director. Mayor Durkan objected that “it is a waste of resources at a time we have so many critical needs. It shows contempt for the people’s right to vote on any charter change.”
Durkan castigated the council for taking “a shortcut to solve a problem that doesn’t exist.” However, she concluded saying she’s leaving the decision of whether to contest the new office’s creation to the next mayor. Seattle’s next mayor will be one of two primary finalists: either former councilmember Bruce Harrell or the present City Council president, M. Lorena Gonzalez, who ironically just voted to approve the law giving the council a larger role and restricting the mayor’s freedom of action.
In response to Durkan’s objections to the legislation, Gonzalez told The Seattle Times that she’d had the law reviewed by the city attorney’s office. But other than pointing to the charter’s vesting budget powers jointly with mayor and council, she declined to provide the city attorney’s analysis.
It’s obvious to most observers that the City Council has taken advantage of the mayor’s lame duck status to engineer a naked power grab. The two laws would give the council more say over how the city spends its resources. And here’s the final comic twist: If forecasts from the newly created office don’t meet with mayor or council approval, the law says they can simply ignore them.
Durkan concluded: “In other words, the legislation spends significant money to create a new office that likely violates state and city law and provides in the legislation that the key work of the office can be disregarded.”
It’s no exaggeration to say that passing the city budget is the most important work the city accomplishes. Ideally it’s the mayor and City Council working together, once the Mayor proposes the budget for the coming fiscal year. Building a budget is as basic as fixing potholes and covering 9-1-1 calls. It’s one place where petty politics ought not prevail and where the executive authority should not be diluted. As President Biden once said, “Don’t tell me what you value; show me your budget and I’ll tell you what you value.”