In the next few days, the Seattle City Council will be churning out final details of the city’s biennial (2023-24) budget. The sausage-making won’t be pretty. The November revenue forecast showed that councilmembers must contend with a giant shortfall – some $145 million — between estimated income and urgent city needs.
On Monday, Budget Chair Teresa Mosqueda unveiled her proposed plan for the $7.4 billion budget. She called her package “a not feel-good budget.” As expected, Mosqueda proposes trimming the mayor’s proposed public-safety budget. Her plan leaves in place bonuses for hiring 30 new officers, but it reduces the number of unfilled police positions from 200 to 120. That’s a large hit for the department, leaving police staffing far less flexible.
Mosqueda’s package didn’t curtail funding for the mayor’s United Care Team, which cleans up and removes illegal encampments. However, it left parking enforcement officers in the Seattle Transportation Department rather than (as Mayor Bruce Harrell proposed) returning that unit to the police department — a move that would save $8 million in administrative expenses. Mosqueda also gutted the mayor’s plan for graffiti removal and slashed his proposal to invest in gun-shot-detection technology.
The Mosqueda budget would fund full inflationary wage hikes for human-service workers at an added cost of $7.4 million. The increases were something the mayor’s proposal failed to do—never mind his vote supporting adjusted wages when he served on the council. Mosqueda also proposes spending an added $3 million in response to student demands for more mental health providers following the Ingraham High School shooting.
Although she approved using JumpStart taxes to fill the revenue shortfall, the budget chair was unwilling to change the council ordinance that restricts those funds to council-specified priorities except during revenue shortfalls.
Despite all these alternative proposals, Mosqueda’s balancing package did show there has been better teamwork and increased cooperation between the second (City Council offices) and seventh (Mayor’s office) floors at City Hall than in the past.
In the next few days, the City Council will be discussing the 100 amendments to the budget that councilmembers proposed in October. As usual, there’s no shortage of these proposals. Councilmember Tammy Morales is seeking $2.5 million for clean-energy pre-apprenticeship programs, while Councilmember Dan Strauss wants a chunk for seaplane public safety awareness and Councilmember Andrew Lewis is asking $50,000 to remove predacious fish from Lake Washington and $3 million to attract conventions to Seattle.
Council President Debora Juarez is looking for $200,000 to provide therapeutic services for survivors of commercial sexual exploitation, domestic abuse, and sexual assault. Councilmember Kshama Sawant wants $150,000 to help the local community plan a Garfield High School superblock, while Councilmember Alex Pedersen proposes $1.5 million for 45th Street bridge crossing improvements and Councilmember Sara Nelson wants $2 million to fund a pilot program for addiction treatment. Not to be outdone, budget chair Mosqueda is asking $120,000 for the on-line MLK Labor Council’s hiring hall.
Not content simply to propose amendments, Councilmembers Pedersen and Nelson issued a Seattle Times op-ed demanding the city make faster progress in reducing crime and homelessness. The authors of the op-ed cited a survey showing that 70 percent of the citizens believe the quality of life in Seattle has gone downhill. Contending that the city “faces a fork in the road,” the two councilmembers are adamant about the return of parking enforcement to the SPD and implementation of addiction treatment and the highly controversial gun-shot detection service.
Still it’s highly unlikely that those insistent demands and few if any of the proposed adjustments (many of them worthy) will alter the basic balancing package. The city’s financial situation is too shaky and, by state law, city budgets must balance. In the wise words of a former city councilmember, “A tight budget is one that can’t cover every councilmember’s pet project.”
There is so much non-core spending by the city that is designed to pander to various constituencies. For example, monies dedicated to immigrants and refugees, including funds to pay for legal counsel for those in immigration proceedings. Setting aside the merits of a given case, is this an appropriate expenditure for the city? It is certainly optional. Those who are immigrants in general count their blessings, especially those from developing and conflict laden nations, and do not need the city to pay money on their behalf. They should draw on their own earnings and that of private entities including their own communities as has been the history of immigrant groups – to help subsequent arrivals. Those who are refugees may be in hard-luck situations, but the city should stand down on paying for them. There is a whole department – the Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs, that could be eliminated as a good start. But likewise look at all spending by the city that is not commonly the focus of city government if one were to benchmark across other regions.
The city, county and state would be wise to stick to basics, including enforcing existing laws. How many unlicensed or registration expired vehicles roam our streets that could be ticketed and forced to pay the confiscatory Sound Transit fees that us rubes write checks for annually? Let’s fund the police and prosecutors to get the bad guys into jail or treatment, and raise the morale of the rest of us. Likewise lets get graffiti removed before the paint dries so that the taggers might see the futility of their efforts and stop. And how about catching, prosecuting and punishing some taggers in a meaningful and demonstrable way (like putting them on cleanup teams and publicizing it for their friends to see).
Nelson and now apparently Pederson have it right in terms of priorities. Our city is a feral mess with those of us who have our eyes open are saddened and demoralized.
There are always going to be economic ups and downs in any city, and that’s not the real problem here. Seattle has underinvested in areas like affordable housing, juvenile justice and physical infrastructure for decades and the quality of life for residents is currently suffering from that. Even if the City budget wasn’t in free fall, the underlying issues of fiscal irresponsibility for decades tie the current government from making actual progress. Those tents on the sidewalks aren’t going away any time soon.
Does anybody believe that our City is going to be measurably better under Harrell’s budget verses Mosqueda’s?
Typically, the mayor submitting a budget puts in some fat so that councilmembers can carve that off and fund some of their pet projects — accepting 95 percent of the mayor’s priorities. This year, there is more at stake: how well the rapport with mayor and council will hold up, and whether the city gives a clear signal of moving from generous funding of social-justice spending and back to basic services. I predict a muddled signal, but there could be a philosophical and political vector in the outcome. At least until the next surplus arrives.
Not accurate to say that the city has underinvested in affordable housing; the city has built 100s of units of housing, more than comparable cities. But, given the numbers of the unsheltered, we haven’t been able to meet the demand. Would that the state, which has surplus revenues, were ready to help more.
No, just because California has done a worse job than Seattle on low income housing, senior housing and housing in general, doesn’t let the City off the hook. Simple demographics pointed to needing more housing 25 years ago. But then there were bridges that needed replacing 25 years ago, and that also didn’t happen. Seattle government has a long history of being shortsighted and cheap. Harrell and City Council are dealing with legacy here.
But it’s not only housing Seattle cheaped out on….
Look at the numbers of people housed at Western State Hospital in 1960 and how many beds are available now. If you’re for a more European response to mental health and drug addiction, face the fact that after years of under investment, it will cost the City and State billions now. And what’s Harrell’s solution? Herd the Great Unwashed into garden sheds? (tiny homes) Parking lots for broken down RVs? Tacoma has a tent camp with chain link fence around it, Portland is planning the same… cheap non-solutions to real problems.
This sort of crap would never fly in a place like Germany because that nation decided on building infrastructure to handle mental health and addiction issues 40 years ago. It cost a lot of money and took decades to do. Seattle? Nope, the work wasn’t done, and money wasn’t spent. Why should the State bail out Seattle’s lack of budget control? Even if the State did pitch in…. Seattle City Government (or Tacoma or Bellevue) is planning on a thousand new beds in mental hospitals… and a thousand beds wouldn’t be enough for the mess the City is in,