Keep following the money
By Jean Godden
Last week Mayor Jenny Durkan delivered her first city budget to the Seattle City Council. The mayor proposed spending $5.9 billion in 2019, an increase of $300 million above this year's spending. Now it's up to the council to examine the mayor's plan, make any modifications and approve a final version by Thanksgiving Day.
At that time, the mayor will have two choices: either sign the budget or reject it. Unlike some governors and mayors, Seattle's mayor does not have the power to veto individual items within the budget.
During the next two months, the council will go over city spending in detail. As we are often told -- rightly, I think -- this is the most important thing that our elected officials do. The mayor and council are charged with deciding how taxpayers' money will be spent and how the city will allocate its resources. It's a matter of priorities.
Citizens, as usual, will have several opportunities to weigh in and comment. And, as usual, there will be contention over specifics. Some will attack increased spending on public safety (40 more police officers, 35 more firefighter recruits); others will want to spend even more.
The same will be true regarding housing and homeless services. The 2019 budget calls for spending $89.5 million on these services, some $3 million more than this year. There will be some who will applaud the mayor's proposed $1.3 million for a safe drug injection site; just as there will be others who oppose a proposed pilot plan.
When campaigning last year, Mayor Durkan promised to "scrub" the city's budget, looking for savings. She has done some of that. She asked for and got departments to reduce spending by 2-5 percent. The 2019 budget calls for a reduction of 150 jobs, most of them currently vacant. The mayor also reduced departments' discretionary travel and consulting budgets.
But Durkan did call for one significant increase. She is proposing an Ombud, an independent office that will address complaints from city employees. The ombud will look into allegations of discrimination, sexism, harassment and sexual abuse. The office will annually report to the mayor -- and, one hopes, to the city council, too. This is much needed progress.
The mayor also wants to increase the city's spending on transit and transportation projects, adding $130 million in unspent funds from the Move Seattle levy. Another winner for the city is the mayor's plan to invest in youth by adding free Orca cards for all public high school students.
The mayor is selling her budget as an investment in the city's future, making Seattle "a more vibrant city." This is a good selling point, although it is difficult to conceive of how much more vibrant -- full of life -- this city can become when it already has the most cranes and most construction of any city in the country.
What would be a better selling point for the budget would be a renewed emphasis on trust in government. In past, the state's Open Public Meetings Act has worked well to keep Seattle city operations transparent. But, in recent months, there has been concern over secret contacts between elected officials.
Two lawsuits have been filed. Public records disclosures reveal that, when considering the head tax repeal, secret e-mail and phone conversations led to behind-door deliberations that could amount to an illegal serial meeting.
This is a dismaying turn of events. It goes without saying that Seattle rates higher in trust factor than most cities and states. But that is no excuse not to insist that, in future, official actions should be taken openly.
As they consider the 2019-20 budget over the next two months, councilmembers will do well to remember, in the words of the Open Meetings Act, that "the people do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know."
A well-crafted balanced budget for Seattle -- the first-stab proposal unveiled by Mayor Durkan last week -- can and should be the product of fully transparent deliberations. Citizens should be able to trust their officials and know that they have the information they need and can keep following public money.