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Seattle City Budgeting 101 with Amy Sundberg

Hacks & Wonks

Release Date: 11/09/2021

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More Episodes

Crystal sits down with Amy Sundberg to walk through how the Seattle City budget process works as well as how and when to get involved in making your vision of the future a reality. 

Note: This episode was recorded in late September and references parts of the process that have already happened. A key opportunity to provide public comment happens this week on Wednesday, November 10th at 5:30p so listen up and then make your voice heard!

As always, a full text transcript of the show is available below and at officialhacksandwonks.com.

Find the host, Crystal Fincher on Twitter at @finchfrii. Subscribe to Notes from the Emerald City  and follow Amy on Twitter at @amysundberg. More info is available at officialhacksandwonks.com.

 

Resources

Notes from the Emerald City - newsletter on Seattle government and policy: https://www.getrevue.co/profile/amysundberg

Converge Media - Budget School: https://www.whereweconverge.com/post/understanding-the-city-of-seattle-budget-converge-media-launches-budget-school

Seattle City Council - Budget Process: http://www.seattle.gov/council/issues/past-issues/budget-process

Seattle City Council - Sign up for Public Comment (opens 2 hours before start of public comment period): https://www.seattle.gov/council/committees/public-comment

“Seattle mayor proposes increasing police staffing in 2022 budget” by David Kroman from Crosscut: https://crosscut.com/news/2021/09/seattle-mayor-proposes-increasing-police-staffing-2022-budget

Mayor Durkan’s Proposed 2022 Budget: https://www.seattle.gov/city-budget-office/budget-archives/2022-proposed-budget

Solidarity Budget: https://www.seattlesolidaritybudget.com/

 

Transcript

[00:00:00] Crystal Fincher: Welcome to Hacks & Wonks. I'm Crystal Fincher, and I'm a political consultant and your host. On this show, we talk with policy wonks and political hacks to gather insight into local politics and policy in Washington state through the lens of those doing the work with behind-the-scenes perspectives on what's happening, why it's happening and what you can do about it. Full transcripts and resources referenced in the show are always available at officialhacksandwonks.com and in our episode notes.

Today, we're thrilled to be joined once again by Amy Sundberg, author of Notes From the Emerald City and co-chair of the Seattle Committee of People Power Washington - Police Accountability. Thanks for joining us again, Amy.

[00:00:51] Amy Sundberg: It's great to be here.

[00:00:53] Crystal Fincher: Well, I am excited to have you here once again. We have spoken about the excellent newsletter that you have - your coverage consistently of City Council meetings, City meetings and hearings, and your live tweets, and recaps in your newsletter - which is an excellent resource for people who are looking to follow civic processes in the City of Seattle.

Today, I'm excited to talk about the budget, which most people generally are not excited to talk about - the budget. But it's actually a really big deal. And that process is just kicking off here in the City of Seattle. And this is super consequential because it affects everything. This is how we determine what gets spent on what, who gets what and where and how, and who doesn't. And there's a lot involved with it - there's a lot of confusion. Because of that, a lot of people typically don't engage. And so I thought it'd be helpful to do this show today, just to give people an overview of what the budget is, how it's composed, just what's going on with it right now, and how they can get involved if they're looking to make a difference in the issues that they care about. And with that, I guess I would just start off by asking, what is the budget? What does it fund? How is it composed?

[00:02:12] Amy Sundberg: Yeah. So I also am excited to talk about the budget today. Because you're right, it is very consequential. It makes a huge difference in individual's lives, which is something I think can get kind of lost in the weeds. But it does really impact every one of us who live in Seattle.

So the budget, I mean, it is in many ways similar to a household budget that you might have for your own finances - in that it tracks what revenues the City is bringing in and then it tracks the expenditures - how that money is going to be spent over the course of a year. This budget that we're talking about will be for next year - 2022 - and it's a total of $6.6 billion. But only about $1.5 billion of that is in the General Fund, which is most of what the budget process is regarding - still a lot of money though.

[00:03:17] Crystal Fincher: Mm-hmm [affirmative].

[00:03:19] Amy Sundberg: And it funds a lot of the services that we enjoy here in Seattle. And I'm just going to give you a -

[00:03:27] Crystal Fincher: And some we don't.

[00:03:28] Amy Sundberg: And some we don't. Yeah. Some we might not agree with - exactly. So it covers everything from transportation - so that's public transit, building and maintenance of roads, bridges, sidewalks, bicycle lanes, safety features. Funds libraries, one of my personal favorites. It funds parks and recreation. Homelessness services, including both shelter options and wraparound services - childcare assistance, food assistance, rental assistance, developing more affordable housing in our city. A small budget for arts and culture. A lot of offices - so the Office of Construction and Inspections, the Office of Planning and Community Development, the Office of Civil Rights. A lot of administration - so all of the City employees who work to run all of these offices. Public safety, and that isn't just the police department - that's also the fire department, that's 911 dispatch, that's the Office of Emergency Management, Seattle Municipal Court, the City Attorney's Office, and any alternate responses. So all of that is covered by the budget and more.

[00:04:55] Crystal Fincher: Okay. And so that's a lot. And a lot of times, one of the questions that I've heard frequently is, "Okay, well, if you've got $6 billion and it's a huge number. If the Office of Arts and Culture is asking for this tiny amount, why can't you just move some money over here, over there?" Can you just take money from one department and give it to another? How does the budget work? How does the General Fund work?

[00:05:26] Amy Sundberg: So the reason I specify that only a $1.5 billion was in the General Fund is because that's basically what the Councilmembers are deciding what to spend during this budget process. A lot of that other money is already allocated, and it's not allowed to be spent for anything else. Some of that is because it's - I mean, it comes from various taxes. And as part of those taxes, there was an agreement that it would be spent only on certain things. And part of it is because certain fees that you might pay will go back to fund whatever department they came from. So if you pay a parking ticket, that's going to go back into the Department of Transportation, and that's the only place that money can go. Or if you pay a park fee to rent out a picnic area, that's going to go right back into Parks. So a lot of the money is tied up in various ways. And one of the biggest examples of that is utilities - Seattle Light and also the Public Utilities. They generate a lot of revenue - from your electricity bill - and that's put right back into their budget, so that's not available for other uses.

[00:06:44] Crystal Fincher: So some money comes with - by law - with strings attached. You can't decide to spend it in a different way. Some money comes with no strings attached. That no strings attached money is the General Fund. And that is where the conversation centers at times like now, when we just heard that the mayor announced what her budget was. Really, when they're talking about more money for this, less money for this, it is really in that $1.5 billion allocated to the general fund.

[00:07:14] Amy Sundberg: Exactly. And the budget that just came out this week - that's the mayor's proposed budget. So she's put together kind of a proposal - she's talked to all of these City departments that I was talking about and heard kind of what they need, what they've been spending. And there's a Budget Office of the City that looks through all these things, thinks about what the priorities are, and puts together this proposed budget - that then is transmitted to the City Council to review and consider.

[00:07:46] Crystal Fincher: So let's talk more about the process that is just kicking off now. The mayor proposes a budget - what happens between, "Okay, now this budget is proposed" and when a budget is approved and money starts getting spent?

[00:08:05] Amy Sundberg: So it is a about eight week process to approve next year's budget. And it's supposed to be done - I think by law it has to be done by early December. But we're expecting it to be done the Monday before Thanksgiving. So exactly eight weeks. And basically, the Council will go through an eight week deliberative process about the budget. Built into that process are lots of opportunities for the public to weigh in on what their priorities might be. And we can talk about that a little bit more later.

But also they - so right now this week, we're going through and having presentations from different City departments - to kind of hear about this proposed budget and why it is the way it is, and what these departments were thinking about in terms of these dollars being spent. After that, we go into Issue Identification. So that's when kind of Councilmembers flag different areas that they want to dig deeper into to see what the impacts might be, different investments they might want to make, things they might not want to spend as much money on, and get a lot of analysis from their Central staff.

Then they propose some amendments to the proposed budget and they discuss those amendments. And eventually the Committee Chair, who is Councilmember Mosqueda, creates a Balancing Package. So what that is - is basically, she's kind of looking at these conversations they've been having, and looking at Issue Identification, looking at the amendments that they've been discussing, and she tries to find all the areas in which they have a general consensus as a Council in terms of how they want the money to be spent - what they can all agree on pretty easily. And that will all go into this Balancing Package. And it has to be balanced - so it has to - it can't be - you can't spend more than you have.

Then there's another round of amendments and they have to have at least three Councilmembers who will sign on to each of these amendments so that you don't get any - basically to save time so that there's not tons of amendments that only one Councilmember is going to support and have no chance of actually making it into the budget. They vote on those amendments, they vote on the whole package in Committee, and then it moves to the Full Council where they do the final vote. And it's important to remember that that final vote on the budget has to be passed by a three-quarters vote, which is not true of most legislation that goes through City Council. So seven out of nine Councilmembers have to vote to approve the budget in order for it to move forward.

[00:11:14] Crystal Fincher: Okay. That's good to know. And that is different than most other stuff, like you just said. And FYI, I mean, this is a lot of detail - it's a complicated process. You are doing an excellent job breaking it down for us in a way that the average person can digest. And I should mention, we're talking about the budget - Converge Media has a very detailed multi-hour series that really gets into the granular detail of the entire budget process. But wanted to just give people, here right now, the opportunity to get an idea of what the overall process is to make it easier to understand and engage with if you want to.

Okay. So we're at the point where we understand the timeline. It actually sounds like it's important to get involved earlier in the process so that if you see an area in the budget that looks concerning to you, you can communicate with your Councilmembers, flag that as something that you feel is a major concern. Hopefully, get at least three Councilmembers who are willing to say, "Yeah, what is currently down on paper does not look good to me. Let's actually hold this as something that we're not saying we're good with and that we'd really like to hopefully change and reserve for further discussion and amendment." So what does that timeline look like in there before they have to - when should people be getting involved with this process and when is it best?

[00:12:51] Amy Sundberg: To be honest, I think that people should be involved throughout the process for the optimal results. I realize people only have limited bandwidth, but I think there are important things going on throughout the eight weeks. I do agree with you that if you get in earlier, it kind of flags for Councilmembers what their constituents want, right? What is important, what are the actual community values?

But, I mean, also sometimes towards the end of the process, the Councilmembers benefit from having a little public pressure to kind of push them maybe a little outside of their comfort zone or to try to just make sure they stick with what they were kind of thinking of. Sometimes they get a little cold feet and need that extra support at the end. So I think, more than a specific time, is if you can get involved at any time, that's definitely better than if you don't get involved at all.

[00:13:59] Crystal Fincher: That makes sense. And you just raised another good point - that Councilmembers need to hear from you. They need to know where the community is - and pressure, accountability, communication, whatever you want to call it - is necessary and makes a difference. We saw in the - was it the last budget go around?

[00:14:18] Amy Sundberg: It was, yeah.

[00:14:18] Crystal Fincher: Here where -

[00:14:19] Amy Sundberg: It was a big deal.

[00:14:21] Crystal Fincher: Public pressure made the difference between a vote to reduce funding for the SPD - in one of the only cities in the country to actually take that vote - and have the Council united on that with a budget vote that requires seven out of nine members, which is a really big deal. It took every single bit of public pressure to the very last moment to get that accomplished. So it's not something that's futile. It has made a difference. We talk about voting and candidates a lot and I certainly believe in that, but that is not enough. People have to stay engaged throughout these processes and hold Councilmembers accountable to their promises and to their constituents. And so the more involvement - the more consistently people can be involved - the better. Now we just talked about dates for things and when that's going to come about - let's talk about how the budget relates to public safety, which there's actually a lot of news about right now and where a lot of people are concerned.

[00:15:29] Amy Sundberg: Yeah. So, I mean, there's been a big discussion in Seattle about public safety overall. And there have been demands from some community members - and specifically the Solidarity Budget - as a group who have been pushing for a divest and reinvest strategy for the Seattle Police Department. And so what that means is basically taking some of the money out of the Seattle Police Department and investing it in other community-led public safety alternatives. The idea is that true public safety is not always supported at its best by SPD. And that there are other solutions that might give us better and more equitable outcomes for everyone that's living in the City. So a big point of contention then ends up always being the Seattle Police Department's budget. I will say that last year, 22% of Seattle's General Fund was given to SPD, which is - 22% is a significant percentage of the overall.

[00:16:57] Crystal Fincher: It's a significant percentage.

[00:16:58] Amy Sundberg: Of money. And that being said, it was - 2021 was the first year that we saw the SPD budget go down in actual dollars, as opposed to increasing. Now that's not true if you factor in inflation, but it's still very significant. In 20 years, that was the first time that that happened. And that was because of community, because - frankly, because of all of the protests for racial justice that were happening all last summer and fall - put enough pressure to get that change brought into reality.

[00:17:40] Crystal Fincher: Mm-hmm [affirmative].

[00:17:40] Amy Sundberg: But that being said, no police officers were laid off. There was talk of doing that - there was talk of out-of-order layoffs. It turned out that wasn't a thing that is legally possible and no officers got laid off. There were increased number of attrition - so a lot of officers were choosing voluntarily to leave for various reasons. So we did get some shrinkage of the force, but that was the primary driver of it.

[00:18:17] Crystal Fincher: Okay, so - oh, go ahead -

[00:18:22] Amy Sundberg: So I was just going to say - and so this year we have to then revisit that entire conversation when we're deciding how to allocate public safety money. And the mayor's proposed budget kind of gives us a starting point so to speak, of where that conversation is going to start. And the total SPD budget is only - she's only a proposed an increase of $2.5 million. So it would be going up again - but that's a fairly small amount in the grand scheme of how much it often goes up from year to year.

[00:19:07] Crystal Fincher: So less than what people say, but still not reducing the funding of the police, which is what-

[00:19:12] Amy Sundberg: Yes. It's definitely.

[00:19:13] Crystal Fincher: - a number of Seattle voters have voted for - and voted for Councilmembers to enact. And certainly is part of a big conversation that we're having right now. But an area where - Durkan has seemed pretty determined not to reduce funding. So given that it is that amount, it seems like the focus is more on being able to say that she's not reducing funding of SPD instead of having that really fund anything substantial and with that amount of money.

[00:19:50] Amy Sundberg: Yes. I mean, and it's definitely not divestment - it is holding fairly steady. And you'll see one of the interesting things in terms of media coverage - you'll see that a lot of media saying she's proposing addition of 35 net officers. What that actually means is hiring 125 officers next year, because they're anticipating 90 separations - 90 officers are going to leave. They're going to hire 125, so that's 35 additional officers - that's what she's proposed. And there's a couple - on the one hand, you can say, "Well, they're hiring a bunch more officers instead of either just letting it stay the same or reducing." And then another narrative that I'm sure people will be hearing in upcoming weeks is, "Well, but there's actually less funded positions for police officers in this budget than there was in the last budget." In 2021, there were 1,357 FTEs - so sworn officer positions funded, not actual officers that we had - but the money was there for them. And this year there's only 1,230 funded.

So that's going to be one place that I think we're going to see pushback in terms of - actually we're shrinking the SPD - because we don't have these positions that are open and not filled that we're still pretending might be able to be filled. But I would like to say the counter-argument to that view is that there's a long pipeline for getting new officers into the force because of just all the training and all of the vetting that has to be done, et cetera. So if we're already lower in terms of how many officers we have - we can spend that time building to a higher number of officers again, or we can spend that time and that money instead building alternate community led responses. There is a choice there.

[00:22:08] Crystal Fincher: Absolutely - and certainly an area where people can make their opinions heard. And this year is - "exciting" is always interesting to use in terms of a budget for wonky people like us - but this time there actually is a reason to be excited, I think, because there is a budget that's being introduced by organizations in the community called the Solidarity Budget. What is that?

[00:22:36] Amy Sundberg: So the Solidarity Budget is really exciting - and it's a coalition of groups who have put together basically a plan of how community would like to see the money be spent in Seattle in 2022. And it's a coalition of many groups. I know they had a goal to get a hundred endorsing organizations - I don't know if they quite reached that yet. But it's organizations like 350 Seattle, Decriminalize Seattle, the Black Action Coalition, the Transit Riders Union, et cetera, et cetera - it's a large number of local organizations.

And they have various - basically policy and budgetary goals that they present in this document, called the Solidarity Budget, that asks for various investments into community. And part of it is based on the idea of divesting from the police department, as well as the Municipal Court and the City's Attorney's office - and then reinvesting that money back into community priorities, whether that be housing, Green New Deal - or other priorities - alternate responses for public safety, et cetera. And there's a 65 page document kind of laying out all of their ideas.

[00:24:11] Crystal Fincher: So that's really interesting, and we're probably going to be seeing an increased level of advocacy and activism because of that - in addition to just more people being interested, particularly after the activism with recent budgets and what's been going on there. So as people look to get more familiar with the Solidarity Budget, the City budget, and what's going on, what do things look like in the next couple weeks in terms of activity with the budget and how should people go about making their concerns known?

[00:24:48] Amy Sundberg: Yeah. There's several options. So this week, we're just having overviews from the departments. So basically, we're all getting up to speed on what this proposed budget is and what the City departments think they need. And then next week we kind of get a breather to process through it all. And the week after that, which is the week of October 11th - then we start diving into Issue Identification, so getting deeper into the weeds of these various issues.

There are several opportunities to get involved as a private citizen. There are three public hearings during this budget season, and the first one is October 12th - so a great time to get in early - at 5:30 PM. And then there's another public hearing - November 10th at 5:30 PM. And the last one is November 18th during the day at 9:30 AM. So if daytime is better for you, they wanted to give both options. Also, all of the budget meetings have a 20-30 minute public comment first thing in the morning at 9:30.

But even if you don't want to give public comment, you can also - you can call your Councilmember's office, you can email them - I email mine all the time. You can set up meetings with them - some of them have regular office hours. I know some of them go to Farmer's Markets occasionally - I know the weather is shifting, so I don't know how much longer that will be going on. Sometimes they have Budget Town Halls in a district that you can attend and ask questions or make comment at that point. So there are a lot of ways to kind of let your Councilmember know what you're thinking and what your concerns and priorities are.

[00:26:41] Crystal Fincher: Yeah. And I think it is really important to understand that your Councilmember is your Councilmember. They're your representative and they need to know what you think in order to represent you. And if something isn't clear, you can ask them questions and ask them to explain some things - they really are there to serve you. And this budget is there to serve everyone in the City - that should be the goal. And so I hope that people engage with this and just start to get more familiar with what's being talked about and what's not. Because they're so used to this process almost being opaque with hardly anyone paying attention. And it's exciting when more people get involved, because generally that produces a budget that addresses the needs of more of the community.

[00:27:31] Amy Sundberg: Yeah. And it's exciting when people realize that this actually really affects them personally. This isn't just some abstract cloud that you don't have to think about. It's something that is going to impact your daily life in the future.

[00:27:45] Crystal Fincher: Yep. Thank you. So thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us today - appreciate it and we will certainly be providing all of the links to everything we talked about here in the show in the episode notes. And if you have any questions or any specific questions - issues you want addressed - feel free to shoot us a message. Message me on Twitter and we will continue to stay engaged here also. Thanks so much, Amy.

[00:28:11] Amy Sundberg: Thanks for having me.

[00:28:12] Crystal Fincher: I thank you all for listening to Hacks & Wonks on KVRU 105.7 FM. The producer of Hacks & Wonks is Lisl Stadler with assistance from Shannon Cheng. You can find me on Twitter @finchfrii, spelled F-I-N-C-H F-R-I-I. Now you can follow Hacks & Wonks on iTunes, Spotify, wherever else you get your podcast - just type "Hacks and Wonks" into the search bar. Be sure to subscribe to get our Friday almost-live shows and our midweek show delivered to your podcast feed. If you like us, leave a review wherever you listen to Hacks & Wonks. You can also get a full transcript of this episode and links to the resources referenced in the show at officialhacksandwonks.com and in the episode notes.

Thanks for tuning in. We'll talk to you next time.