Council plays Budget Bingo
By Jean Godden
Seattle City Councilmembers have proposed dozens of new programs for the city budget to undertake in 2019 and 2020. A complete shopping list would likely amount to a cool billion or so. Thinking big is in the Seattle tradition, even if it means that there are bound to be some disappointments.
Here's how the story begins: On September 24, Mayor Jenny Durkan delivered her 2019-20 budget proposal to the Seattle Council. It was a balanced budget, as all such budgets must be, projecting how much the city can expect to receive in taxes, licenses and fees as well as how to spend taxpayers' money.
Since then, the Seattle City Council has been assessing the mayor's $5.9 billion proposal ($300 million more than this year's budget) and deciding where -- and if -- to make any changes. That's the council's task and, as the pundits say, passing the city budget is the most important job the council does.
By Thanksgiving, councilmembers will produce a modified version, leaving the mayor with only three choices: To sign, reject or let the budget become law without her signature. Unlike the state budget, it's an all-or-nothing proposition.
Already there have been numbers of proposed departures from the mayor's budget. Councilmember Kshama Sawant, as is her custom, has unveiled a major reordering of the mayor's budget. She calls it "Plan B." It would cut $48 million from the proposed budget, an amount that Sawant wants spent on more affordable housing.
Among the cuts that Sawant proposes would be carving $7 million from the budget for homeless sweeps, $7 million from computer purchases for police cars, $5 million sliced from executive salaries, $12 million saved by hiring fewer police and $14.5 million spared by cutting the number of city executive positions. Councilmember Sawant justified reducing the number of executives saying there are "too many bosses."
While the council identifies issues, members are considering a bunch of alternatives. This is the point when councilmembers go to bat for pet causes and programs. Most councilmembers elected from districts are pushing for earmarked funds for their home communities. This is what some have called pork-barrel politics.
Take the list suggested by Councilmember Lisa Herbold, who represents District One. Her proposals include opening the Colman Pool for an extra month each year, winterizing cabins at Camp Long, enhancing trail access on Southwest Braden and spending several more on landslide mitigation. She also favors adding 22 wading pools to the Parks and Recreation budget, even though wading pools, which must be drained and cleaned daily, are one of Parks most expensive services.
Councilmember Sawant has put forward a proposal to dramatically cut the Seattle Municipal Court probation system by 90 percent and divert that funding to privately-run organizations that would institute programs designed to keep people out of the criminal justice system. Councilmember O'Brien has offered his own slimmed-down version. The city already has at least 20 separate programs aimed at addressing these issues, but not a lot of coordination.
Sawant also wants the city to take steps towards creating its own municipal bank and consider introducing a free public wireless broadband system. These are expensive proposals -- ideas she has entertained in the past -- but without any broad support.
Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda, elected at-large last year, is proposing the city build a "Bridge to Housing" shelter like the one she saw in Southern California. The mayor is studying the idea, but is skeptical because of cost. It would take $3 million to set up and an additional $2 million for annual operations to provide 75-100 beds.
The bad news for these proposals and others is that the latest city revenue forecast, the one councilmembers had been counting on for a windfall, was unveiled last week. Unfortunately, revenue predictions were almost flat. The only ray of sunshine was a $2.1 million increase in receipts from school zone ticket cameras in 2019 and $2.4 million more in 2020. However, that money must be spent on transportation projects around schools.
In other words, there is no hoped-for bonanza for councilmembers to spend on their wish lists. Barring some new source of revenue, councilmembers will have to live within the city's means or find cuts from the mayor's proposed budget. Prospects are for councilmembers to struggle to meet reduced expectations. Citizens, too, will have to adjust their dreams. Seattle is a city that thinks large but sometimes must settle for modest gains.