Washington

Budget Crunch Forces Compromise on Seattle’s Public Safety Budget

Faced with a projected shortfall of $145 million in the next two years and $250 million in the following budget cycle, Seattle’s city leaders have largely aligned on how to spend the City’s limited funds on public safety.

The council’s edit of Mayor Bruce Harrell’s budget proposal grants his request to eliminate funding for 80 full-time positions within the Seattle Police Department that the cops have been unable to fill for several years, but some disagreements remain on relatively minor programs and on technical restrictions for hiring cops in the future.

At the public hearing where the Council released its counter-proposal, Budget Committee Chair Teresa Mosqueda repeatedly stressed that her compromises represented an effort to “bring down the temperature” on contentious issues surrounding the “defund” movement while trying to avoid austerity measures. If her strategy works, it could refocus next year’s city council elections on the productive question of how best to close the City’s revenue gap rather than subjecting us all to yet another round of hysteria about the department’s violent response to the 2020 protests. 

To Defund, or Not to Defund? That Is No Longer the Question.

As I have written many times, the city council never really defunded SPD in 2020 despite pledging to do so in response to pressure from protesters. The one “major” move they made in the wake of citywide protests over police violence was to shift Parking Enforcement Officers (PEOs) from SPD to the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT).

Despite general agreement on SPD’s budget, the Mayor and the Council are still beefing over this largely symbolic move. The Mayor wants to return PEOs to their former home within SPD, a change that his office said the PEOs themselves want. But the Council sort of refused to go along with this request. 

Instead, the Council proposal keeps PEOs within SDOT, providing funding to buy new uniforms and to fix some administrative issues that restricted their ability to earn overtime. Mosqueda explained that the Council hopes these proposals will help with reported morale issues, but she also clarified that the Council wants to give the PEOs more time to adjust to the changes before making a final decision on whether to send them back to SPD. 

As for the rest of the police budget, the Council’s package mostly chimes with the Mayor’s proposals with one small exception. The Mayor’s budget called for a one-time cut of $11.3 million from the SPD budget by eliminating funding for 80 full-time positions that cops have left vacant for years. The office projects a net addition of just 15 more cops next year amid a national shortage of police officers.

The Council agreed with that move, but they made the cut an ongoing reduction to SPD’s budget to reflect the reality that hiring trends show no signs of improving. They also restricted the “positional authority” of the department so that they would need permission from the Council to use any unexpected savings to fill those positions. If the cops can somehow overcome those trends and find a bunch of new recruits, the Council’s package retains SPD’s authority to hire as many as 120 new cops in the 2025-2026 biennium. The Council also preserved funding for SPD’s hiring and retention bonuses they passed over the summer.

Those cuts fall far short of what activists called for in response to the murder of George Floyd and SPD’s violent response to the following protests, which could earn the sitting council members challengers from the left in next year’s elections. On the other hand, the moves may help undercut whatever hilarious arguments against the Council’s track record on policing Mayor Harrell laid out in “private” conversations with the cops back in August.

Council Bucks Bruce on ShotSpotter Funding

As I reported in September, Mayor Harrell still wants to spend $1 million of the City’s limited budget on ShotSpotter, an audio surveillance system that uses microphones to listen for gunshots and, incidentally, picks up countless conversations among law-abiding residents. The City would install the system, which Harrell has supported for years, in neighborhoods experiencing the most gun violence. 

In the wake of last week’s fatal shooting at Ingraham High School, the Council had no patience for this foolishness and eliminated funding for the program. Since studies of the system’s use in other American cities show the technology basically has no effect on reducing gun violence, the Council’s package instead preserved funding for other violence-reduction programs, such as the King County Regional Peacekeepers Collective.

In a late addition to the proposal driven by the Ingraham shooting, Mosqueda diverted $3 million from the administrative overhead in the City’s payroll tax on large employers to fund more mental health counselors in schools. As my esteemed colleague, Hannah Krieg, reported this morning, Mosqueda called that investment a “downpayment” on the City’s efforts to prevent youth gun violence. 

With the council’s proposal out in the wild, members now have until noon tomorrow to file amendments tweaking any of the compromises Mosqueda and the Council’s central staff worked out in the last couple of weeks. The Council will hear from the public today at 5 pm, and you can testify remotely by signing up here once the queue opens up at 3 pm.



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