Time to Follow the Money
By Jean Godden
Seattle City Councilmembers have some grandiose plans for how to spend the city's $6.5 billion budget next year. Some ideas councilmembers (CMs) are proposing make good sense, but other ideas leave citizens wondering what planet they're living on.
When the council's first 77 budget revisions were tallied, Budget Committee Chair Sally Bagshaw figured that suggested additions tallied $589,754,005. That's about a third the size of the city's general fund budget.
Take proposals from CM Kshama Sawant (who has a had come-from-behind victory). Among her proposals, she wants all public transit in Seattle -- buses, light rail and street cars -- to be free. She has a bunch of ideas for how to afford her various schemes. She proposes axing the Navigation Team that conducts cleanup of illegal encampments and helps find shelter for the homeless.
Sawant wants to slash the Seattle Police Department budget, wiping out money for hiring, recruitment and updated computers for police cars. She would carve nearly $1 million from emphasis safety patrols. She also figures to cut salaries of the mayor and councilmembers to $76,000 a year and eliminate some department managers and their salaries because, as she says, "we have too many bosses."
Then there's CM Mike O'Brien who didn't run for reelection and won't be around in 2020, but he wants to be remembered. He is proposing to "ring-fence" millions for bike lane improvements and construction. Ring-fence is a financial term like a barricade that keeps farm animals in and predators out; it restricts how money can be spent. O'Brien knows how to ring-fence. He's using it to prevent the mayor from spending sweetened sugar beverage taxes on city P-Patches and early childhood education.
CM Teresa Mosqueda wants $90,000 for tiny home villages, a more modest request than one from Sawant who wants $12 million for 20 more villages. Mosqueda also proposes adding $280,000 to the budget for harm reduction and outreach for sex workers. She and CM Lorena Gonzalez would earmark $200,000 for officer training on sex workers.
CM Lisa Herbold is all about readying the city to collect income tax if the Supreme Court decides it's okay for the city to impose one. Herbold is also keen on requiring the Navigation Team to report back to council each quarter before release of funding. She and CM Sawant have plans for five mobile restrooms and staffing at a cost of $1.28 million.
CM Abel Pacheco, appointed when former CM Rob Johnson quit to work for the new Hockey franchise, wants $1 million to continue the waterfront shuttle, as well as $1.4 million for scooter and bike parking. He has also been thinking about District 4, with a plan to extend emphasis patrols into the University District and money for safe overnight parking at University Heights Center.
This is just a sampling of what's been on the council's wish list. But it's clear from budget projections that there isn't going to be much latitude for councilmembers to add pet projects to the 2020 budget. The city's latest report showed parking meter revenues down, less than expected revenues from AirBnB tax and projections down for the heating oil tax.
In the next few days, things will get tougher as any proposal will require backing from five councilmembers, as well as a specific plan for offsetting reductions. If councilmembers want to spend money on favored projects, they must find a place where they can cut.
It's no exaggeration to say that passing the city budget is the most important work the city council accomplishes. The budget must cover priorities like clean water, sewer treatment and trash pickup, police and fire services, transportation, parks, libraries and homeless services. Building a budget is as basic as fixing potholes and answering 9-1-1 calls. As former Vice President Joe Biden once famously said: "Don't tell me what you value, show me your budget and I'll tell you what you value."