Mayor Durkan with Ferris wheel and Seattle waterfront in background
Mayor Durkan delivered her budget speech via pre-recorded video in 2020, citing the Covid risk. She is doing the same in 2021. (City of Seattle)

Mayor Jenny Durkan released her budget today and sent Deputy Mayor Shefali Ranganathan to deliver brief remarks on the proposal to the Seattle City Council. In brief, the budget funds more cops, but skimps elsewhere — casting aside lofty rhetoric about “the urgent need to scale the resources to shelter our unsheltered neighbors,” making “record investments in undoing generational harm that we’ve seen through institutional racism,” and the importance of “promoting equity and investments in tackling climate change” delivered by Ranganathan in her remarks.

Keeping Seattleites safe is another value Ranganathan espoused as part of Mayor Durkan’s proposed budget. It’s clear that the Mayor believes this will be achieved by adding 35 net new officers to the Seattle Police Department (SPD), which has struggled to retain sworn officers over the last couple of years as it has come under criticism for excessive use of force and brutal handling of the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests. Given the expected rate of attrition, the Mayor would hire 125 police officers to achieve the net gain of 35 officers.

“Like many of you, I believe it’s a false choice to say we must choose between effective community alternatives or investing in enough well-trained police officers. We need both,” Mayor Durkan said in her recorded speech. “This budget ensures we have enough police officers and alternatives to police interventions, particularly for people in crisis.”

Overall, the Mayor’s 2022 budget is essentially the same size as the 2021 budget, with $1.74 billion in the general fund. As a result, budget areas like policing, where she has proposed major new investments, garner attention.

Differences easy to distinguish between the Mayor and the Solidarity Budget Coalition’s priorities

Ahead of the Mayor’s address, the Solidarity Budget Coalition renewed their call to cut in half SPD’s budget in order to increase investment in community-based public safety programs and the City’s social safety net. For 2022, the coalition sketched out an entire budget that differs greatly from Mayor Durkan’s proposal. (Full disclosure: I helped create the Solidarity Budget document.) Last year, the Solidarity Budget Coalition ran a “No New Cops” campaign in protest against the Mayor’s budget, but ultimately the Seattle City Council reached a compromise that kept more money in SPD and allowed some officer recruitment to continue.

Even so, SPD has struggled to keep up with an uptick in officers leaving the department. Durkan’s budget summary argues for the hiring 35 additional police officers by noting it remains short of her goal and the staffing level that had been previously been funded in 2020. “This increase would increase the average officer count to 1,230 still well short of the 1,343 officers that had been funded for 2021,” the budget summary said. “The Mayor is committed to restoring SPD staffing to previous levels, but recognizes that this will require a sustained commitment to recruitment. Accordingly, the budget includes funding to provide financial incentives for both newly hired recruits and lateral transfers from other departments.”

Councilmember Alex Pedersen (District 4) had attempted to get retention and hiring bonuses added to the mid-year budget update earlier this year, but his colleagues rejected his amendment. With the budget proposal asking for $1 million in hiring incentives to recruit new officers, the Durkan administration is giving it a second go.

In terms of scaling up alternatives to sworn officer police responses, the budget does request $2 million in funding for the new Triage One program, which will be housed in Seattle Fire Department and respond directly to wellness check calls identified by 911.

While the Mayor would tackle climate change with a modest $14 million allocation of JumpStart payroll tax and federal funds toward Green New Deal programs, the Solidarity Budget Coalition proposes a much more aggressive approach including $85 million over three years “to transition all low-income homes in our city to clean energy” and an additional $100 million in green transportation priorities that speed up transit and make walking, rolling, and biking safer and more convenient. In contrast, the Mayor’s budget for the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) includes $16 million in new investments for implementing the pedestrian and bike master plans and transit projects.

When it comes to housing, the Mayor’s budget summary notes she would spend $50 million in one-time federal funds to build or acquire affordable housing, which raises the total amount allocated toward affordable housing and associated programs to approximately $200 million — with JumpStart (which the Mayor opposed) again a big boost. However, the Solidarity Budget has called for investing half a billion dollars in creating affordable social housing and raising progressive revenue on an annual basis to pay for it.

The Mayor’s budget relies heavily on one-time federal funds

In fact, the Mayor’s budget includes a great deal of one-time federal funds, which is great for this year but could lead to a drop off in future years if the City does not line up new revenue sources. “For Seattle, this has included more than $160 million from the 2020 CARES Act, approximately $230 million from the 2021 Coronavirus Local Fiscal Recovery (CLFR) fund, and an additional $50+ million in targeted assistance included in the overall 2021 American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA),” the summary notes. “The CLFR funds have been awarded in two tranches, with the first half available in 2021 and the second half in 2022. The 2022 Proposed Budget includes appropriation of the second tranche, which amounts to approximately $116 million.”

Mayor Durkan’s budget launch was rather unique this year. She didn’t publish her budget or speech until 5:00pm and only shared an advance copy with publications like The Seattle Times (by accident apparently) while skipping less friendly publications like Publicola and The Urbanist — even asking Publicola to respect an embargo that did not apply to The Seattle Times, which published the “embargoed” budget summary.

Looking ahead

The Seattle City Council will set to work digesting the Mayor’s budget and eventually proposing amendments. The Budget Committee will be doing double duty all week dissecting the budget at 9am and 2pm multi-hour sessions and continuing for much of the month. The budget committee is expected to tackle SDOT’s budget on 9am Friday with public comment welcome to start the meeting. The Council will also host evening public hearings on October 12 (5:30pm) and November 10.

Police funding is likely to be a flashpoint, as the Mayor seemed to flag.

“I hope the City Council joins me to support this approach for true community safety and not buy into false choices,” Durkan said in her speech.

Mayor Durkan’s “false choice” framing may not be persuasive to residents and councilmembers who see SPD as a frequent hindrance to safety and a money pit rather than an asset. Budget Chair Teresa Mosqueda and Council President Lorena González have yet to comment on the Mayor’s proposal so far.

This article was updated shortly after 5pm when the Mayor televised address aired. You can watch on Seattle Channel.

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Doug Trumm is publisher of The Urbanist. 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 in 2019. He lives in East Fremont and loves to explore the city on his bike.