The Urbanist joined more than 40 community organizations in signing a letter urging Mayor Jenny Durkan and the Seattle City Council to reject austerity as they craft the budget for the coming year.

We urge you to reject an austerity approach and instead seek new progressive revenue to sustain and expand city services during this difficult time,” the letter states.

Mayor Durkan is promising to release her budget on Tuesday. In the following weeks, the City Council will dig into its contents in a series of presentations and hearings, and propose budget amendments.

These budget deliberations start with relations between the Mayor and City Council more frayed than any time in recent memory. In August, Mayor Durkan vetoed the City Council’s 2020 budget rebalancing package, citing worries about crime spiking after the City Council proposed laying off a few police officers and targeting those with a history of misconduct. She also vetoed two resolutions–one making new investments in community safety programs and another funding a participatory budgeting process.

On Tuesday, the City Council voted 7-2 to override the Mayor’s rebalancing veto. The City Council also unanimously overrode the other two vetoes. Several Councilmembers expressed frustration at the Mayor’s tactics, which included “negotiating by veto” and refusing to put her pledges in writing.

“This veto has occupied the time we could have been working together toward a better future, rather than continuing to grandstand via press releases,” Councilmember Strauss said just before the override vote.

The Mayor also disagreed with the City Council over its “JumpStart Seattle” payroll tax passed in July. She did not sign that law, but let it go into law without her signature. The Mayor did veto the year one spending plan that focused on Covid relief and was able to convince a decrease its size in the second version they passed.

The letter stresses the suffering that an austerity budget would inflict on struggling Seattleites and the risk of worsening the economic recession.

“Cuts in any of these areas will make the pandemic-recession and its impacts even worse, especially for Black, brown and low-income communities. Damage done now will be harder and more expensive to reverse in the future,” the letter states. “Adding to this challenge is the urgent need to invest in community-led health and safety systems as alternatives to policing.” 

While the Mayor’s has stressed budget restraint in her tenure, she also promised $100 million of new investment to communities of color in her upcoming budget–while not promising to decrease the police budget. That pledge came in reaction to the Black-led national uprising this summer following the police murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor–and a violent crackdown on protests by her police department. She also butted heads with the City Council over its ban of chemical weapons for crowd control. The Mayor hasn’t said where that money will come from, but she did outline a taskforce and process for spending it today. Finding $100 million will be a tall order since the Covid recession has blown a big hole in the City’s revenues. Meeting the $100 million pledge may mean the Mayor has even steeper cuts in mind for other programs.

“We urge you to make the fullest use possible of Jumpstart Seattle funds and to put all new progressive revenue options on the table to craft a budget that sustains rather than starves our city in 2021,” the letter states, noting Mayor Durkan’s “expressed support for a city income tax.”

It could be that the Mayor does have an income tax in mind to fund her priorities. We’ll find out next week.

The income tax path has been forged by the “Trump-Proof Seattle” city income tax effort in 2017 that the Superior Court struck down but did upon appeal established that a flat income tax at a rate up to 1% would be possible under current state law. John Burbank, executive director of the Economic Policy Institute–a progressive think tank instrumental in crafting the bill and its legal defense–estimated a 1% income tax could raise $400 million in Seattle. The question is how fast the income tax could get up an running–it may not be a feasible 2021 budget solution–particularly if it’s appealed again and courts pause implementation.

Without new revenue, an austerity budget runs the risk of deepening a recession as government layoffs starve the local economy of expendable income and demand. The other unknown for policymakers is if a relief package for cash-strapped local governments would be in the offing if Vice President Joe Biden prevails in the presidential election. Trump and the Republican congressional delegation have shown little interest in helping sustain local governments through this recession.

Below is the anti-austerity letter submitted yesterday in full. Signatories include many Move All Seattle Sustainably (MASS) coalition members, unions, local Democratic organizations, and housing and social service providers.


Anti-Austerity Letter

Mayor Durkan and Seattle City Councilmembers: 

As deliberations over the 2021 Seattle city budget approach, we are deeply concerned that revenue shortfalls will lead to vital programs and services being pitted against each other in competition for scarce resources. Spending cuts, in turn, dampen economic activity and stall recovery. People are depending on local governments more than ever, and our local economy depends in this moment on renewed investments. We urge you to reject an austerity approach and instead seek new progressive revenue to sustain and expand city services during this difficult time.

A July 2020 report from the Roosevelt Institute explains that state and local budget cuts “have the potential to devastate communities and local economies, causing unnecessary hardship, deepening the recession, and hampering the eventual economic recovery.” In addition to advocating federal action, the report recommends that “states and localities should also move quickly to stave off cuts and expand services and employment by raising revenue progressively.” 

The Jumpstart Seattle legislation passed earlier this year is an important first step toward supporting Seattle communities and bolstering our local economy. However, more must be done to protect and expand the city’s investments in transportation, housing and human services, Black and brown communities, families, neighborhoods and small businesses. Cuts in any of these areas will make the pandemic-recession and its impacts even worse, especially for Black, brown and low-income communities. Damage done now will be harder and more expensive to reverse in the future. Adding to this challenge is the urgent need to invest in community-led health and safety systems as alternatives to policing. 

We understand that you face a difficult budget process with massive recession-driven revenue shortfalls. We are encouraged that Mayor Durkan has expressed support for a city income tax as a potential new revenue stream. We urge you to make the fullest use possible of Jumpstart Seattle funds and to put all new progressive revenue options on the table to craft a budget that sustains rather than starves our city in 2021. 

Sincerely,

350 Seattle 

36th District Democrats 

43rd District Democrats 

All in for Washington 

Be:Seattle 

Cafe Red 

Casa Latina 

Cascade Bicycle Club 

Civic Ventures 

Disability Rights Washington 

Economic Opportunity Institute 

Faith Action Network 

Food & Water Action 

International Union of Painters & Allied Trades, District Council 5 Lake City Taskforce on Homelessness 

Low Income Housing Institute

Neighborhood House 

North Helpline 

OneAmerica 

Positive Spin Pole Dance Fitness 

PROTEC17 – Professional & Technical Employees, Local 17 

Queen Anne Helpline 

Rainier Valley Greenways Safe Streets 

Real Change 

Resident & Fellow Physician Union – Northwest (formerly UW Housestaff Assoc.)

Seattle Subway 

Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness 

SHARE – Seattle Housing and Resource Effort 

Share The Cities 

Sierra Club Seattle Group 

Solid Ground 

Standing Against Foreclosures and Evictions (S.A.F.E.) 

Tenants Union of Washington State 

The Urbanist 

Transit Riders Union 

Transportation Choices Coalition 

UAW 4121 

Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility 

WHEEL (Women’s Housing, Equality & Enhancement League)

Working Washington/Fair Work Center

YouthCare

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Doug Trumm is The Urbanist's Executive Director. An Urbanist writer since 2015, he dreams of pedestrianizing streets, blanketing the city in bus lanes, and unleashing a mass timber building spree to end the affordable housing shortage and avert our coming climate catastrophe. He graduated from the Evans School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Washington. He lives in East Fremont and loves to explore the city on his bike.

1 COMMENT

  1. A common rule of thumb is the farther the radius from Seattle you go the more likely a referendum to repeal any tax increase will pass.

    If it is a statewide tax increase, in the middle of a recession, it will likely be repealed. A three country regional tax including Pierce and Snohomish Counties will likely be repealed, and difficult to negotiate. A King Co. tax has better chances, but then areas other than Seattle are getting smarter in making sure their share of any country wide tax is dedicated, and they don’t need the revenue as badly as Seattle.

    The best hope for a tax increase that will withstand a referendum or legal challenge is a Seattle only tax, and of course the council just enacted a head tax that presumably will raise $200 million/year, although these tax estimates are usually inflated as citizens and businesses learn to avoid the tax. Remember the ammunition tax, as if anyone buys ammo in Seattle.

    The bigger issue for Seattle IMO is the future decline in total gross revenue, or GDP, which determines tax revenue. Some of this is Covid-19 related like working from home and the closure of many businesses and restaurants, but some is self-inflicted like ignoring bridge and road infrastructure during the good economic times, and an anti-business and unpleasant street atmosphere. I think this will really hurt tourism, which in the past when Seattle was a different city was a cash cow. From what I have heard cruise lines now plan on having their passengers stay in Bellevue on both sides of the cruise. Ouch.

    If sales taxes including commercial development, hotel taxes, property taxes on commercial property, and B&O taxes don’t recover then raising taxes won’t make much of a difference in Seattle. My guess is on top of working from home that will remove tens of thousands of commuters out of Seattle, Seattle’s new residential zoning and general street crime, plus of course public schools (22% of Seattle parents send their kids to private schools, the second highest percentage in the nation) there will be a migration out of Seattle like the one in the 1970’s that effectively created the eastside.

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