Digging into Seattle’s Budget Process with Amy Sundberg and BJ Last of Solidarity Budget
Release Date: 11/07/2023
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On this Tuesday topical show, special guest host Shannon Cheng chats with Amy Sundberg and BJ Last from Solidarity Budget about the City of Seattle budget process.
After covering budget basics and where we’re at in Seattle’s budget process, they cover the ongoing fight over the JumpStart Tax and what’s being done (or not done) to address the upcoming $251 million budget deficit in 2025. Next, the trio breaks down the difference between “ghost cops” and the fully-funded SPD hiring plan, as well as why ShotSpotter still isn’t a good idea. The show wraps up with a sampling of this year’s other budget fights, how people can learn more or get involved, and Amy and BJ’s dream budget items!
As always, a full text transcript of the show is available below and at officialhacksandwonks.com.
Follow us on Twitter at @HacksWonks. Find the guest host, Shannon Cheng, on Twitter at @drbestturtle, find Amy Sundberg at @amysundberg, and find Solidarity Budget at https://www.seattlesolidaritybudget.com/.
Amy Sundberg is the publisher of Notes from the Emerald City, a weekly newsletter on Seattle politics and policy with a particular focus on public safety, police accountability, and the criminal legal system. She also writes about public safety for The Urbanist. She organizes with Seattle Solidarity Budget and People Power Washington. In addition, she writes science fiction and fantasy, with a new novel, TO TRAVEL THE STARS, a retelling of Pride and Prejudice set in space, available now. She is particularly fond of Seattle’s parks, where she can often be found walking her little dog.
BJ Last is a business analyst, and former small business owner, with two decades of budgeting experience across a wide range of industries. He organizes with the Solidarity Budget and Ballard Mutual Aid.
Tools to Understand the Budget | Seattle City Council
“Mosqueda, Council Colleagues Pass JumpStart’s COVID Relief Package and Economic Recovery Spending Plan” by Joseph Peha from Seattle City Council Blog
“Seattle's Jumpstart payroll tax raised more than expected. Is the money going where it's most needed?” by Angela King & Katie Campbell from KUOW
Memorandum: General Fund Deficit Historical Analysis from Seattle City Council Central Staff
“Harrell’s 2024 Budget Leaves Big Questions on Safety and Looming Shortfall” by Doug Trumm from The Urbanist
“Removing Vacant Police Positions in Seattle’s Budget Is Good Fiscal Stewardship” by BJ Last for The Stranger
“Nearly half of Seattle police calls don’t need officers responding, new report says” by Elise Takahama from The Seattle Times
“Set Money Aside for Illegal Surveillance, or Fund Community Needs Now?” by BJ Last and Camille Baldwin-Bonney for The Stranger
“New UW study says human-services workers are underpaid by 37%” by Josh Cohen from Crosscut
Guaranteed Basic Income Panel - Seattle Solidarity Budget | Oct 10, 2023
The People's Budget Seattle | Vote by Nov 12, 2023
[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. Be sure to subscribe to the podcast to get the full versions of our Friday week-in-review show and our Tuesday topical show delivered to your podcast feed. If you like us, the most helpful thing you can do is leave a review wherever you listen to Hacks & Wonks. Full transcripts and resources referenced in the show are always available at officialhacksandwonks.com and in our episode notes.
[00:00:52] Shannon Cheng: Hello, everyone! This is Shannon Cheng, producer of Hacks & Wonks. I'm here as your special guest host for today. Everyone's been super busy with elections, but another important thing currently happening right now in a lot of our local jurisdictions is that they're having budget deliberations for the coming year. Budgets are super important - we talk a lot about policy on this show, but what really matters in the end is how that policy is implemented and budgets manifest our intent.
So Crystal let me take over the show for a day, and I wanted to have some folks on who are closely following the budget here in Seattle. They're two local community organizers with Solidarity Budget. And before we get to meeting them, I just wanted to point out that while we're gonna be focused pretty deeply on the City of Seattle's budget, a lot of what we talk about is applicable to other places. So if you're interested in getting involved in the budget where you live, we can learn something from these experts. So without further ado, I just want to welcome Amy Sundberg and BJ Last. Amy, starting with you, can you tell us a little about yourself and how you got involved with Solidarity Budget?
[00:02:00] Amy Sundberg: Yes, hello! It's good to be here. I'm Amy, and I am the publisher and writer of the newsletter Notes from the Emerald City, which is a weekly newsletter that covers issues involving public safety, police accountability, and the criminal legal system - in our local area - so Seattle and King County mostly, and occasionally the state of Washington. As well, I sometimes cover public safety issues for The Urbanist. And I organize with People Power Washington and Solidarity Budget. Originally, I got my start organizing with People Power Washington and we would uplift the demands of Solidarity Budget. And eventually I connected with the folks at Solidarity Budget and started working with them as well, so that's how I initially got involved.
[00:02:45] Shannon Cheng: What about you, BJ?
[00:02:46] BJ Last: Hi, thanks. Great to be here. BJ Last - don't do anything as cool as Amy on a regular basis. I've lots of years as a budget analyst, former small business owner, was a professional baker - did pop-ups, but then COVID, so that kind of went by the wayside. I actually first got involved with Solidarity Budget over SPD overtime. SPD has a massive history of overspending on overtime. In 2020, there was a resolution the City passed mid-year saying if SPD overspends on its overtime, we won't give them more money for it. Lo and behold, SPD did. At the end of the year, council was like - Okay, fine, we'll give you more money, but we swear we're gonna take it from you next year to do an offset. And wanted that fight to be like - No, we need to actually try to get that money from them next year to have any kind of budget accountability. And spoiler, that sadly never happened.
[00:03:34] Shannon Cheng: I agree with you that Amy is cool and also that the SPD overtime issues are very frustrating. For folks who don't know, could you give a little background on what Solidarity Budget is, and how it came to be, and how you all work together?
[00:03:48] BJ Last: Sure thing. So Solidarity Budget came up out of - actually Mayor Jenny Durkan. Groups caught that Mayor Durkan was promising a lot of different groups the exact same pot of money and then being like - Y'all fight amongst yourselves to do this. And groups came together and was like - We're tired of actually just always being pitted against each other and forced to fight each other for scraps in the City budget, while all the funding goes to things that no one was wanting, like while all of the funding goes into SPD. SPD alone is still a quarter of the budget, getting everything carceral - it's about a third of the general fund. So it was that desire of - No, we don't want to be pitted against each other. And just rejecting this framework of - we have to fight against each other for scraps. So coming together as groups to be like - what are our big priorities and saying - Look, we are advocating for all of these things.
[00:04:38] Amy Sundberg: I would say in addition, we wanted to make sure that when we're talking about the budget every year, that those most marginalized are centered in that conversation. And often they aren't, right? So it's important to have a coalition who has that front of mind when advocating.
[00:04:54] Shannon Cheng: That's super smart. Our experience has been - it can be hard to get heard by electeds, just - if you're not the people in power, sometimes it just feels when you send your email and make your phone call, your voice might not be heard. And so trying to come together and forming a coalition so that you can have a larger voice seems like it would make a lot of sense if you want to push the lever on budget-related issues.
Okay, so let's jump into some background and some budget basics before getting deep down into the weeds. Did you want to give, Amy, a sense of what the scale of budgets are at different jurisdictions and then what we're talking about here in Seattle?
[00:05:31] Amy Sundberg: Sure. So there are many different government budgets. The biggest one, of course, is the national budget for the United States, which is around $4.4 trillion. So obviously a huge pot of money. Most of that money comes from personal income tax that we all pay every year and also corporate income tax, et cetera, et cetera. Then we have the state budget, which is about $72 billion per year. And then we have the King County budget, which is $6.2 billion per year. So you see, we're kind of getting smaller and smaller as we get into smaller jurisdictions. And then we have the City budget. And city budgets tend to be around $5 to $6 billion per year in total. All of these budgets are made up from various types of taxes and fees, and they each are responsible for funding different services in our communities.
[00:06:26] Shannon Cheng: Great. So for the City of Seattle - let's just focus in on that as our example for today's episode. So where does the money for the City of Seattle come from?
[00:06:35] Amy Sundberg: If we're talking about - particularly general fund - most of that money would come from property tax, sales tax, and B&O tax, which is a business tax. I think that's about 60% of the funds. And then there are a lot of other very small buckets of money that come in as well to make up the entire amount.
[00:06:56] BJ Last: That's a great overview, Amy. And one thing I do want to just mention - so the total Seattle budget is $7.8 billion, but the vast majority of that is stuff that is extremely restricted. For example, we have public utilities. So City Light - that's $1.5 billion - that is all funded by the rates people pay for their electricity. So while that's there in that total number that makes the City's budget look absolutely huge, it's not accessible - the council can't use that to fund things. So the general fund is a much smaller slice of that. It's just about $1.6 billion. And that's the money that the City pretty much has full discretion as to where it decides to go and spend that.
[00:07:37] Shannon Cheng: So if I'm understanding it correctly, you're saying Seattle's budget is pretty big, but a large part of it is already appropriated to specific things. So when it comes to these priorities that when people - they're looking around at their city or their neighborhood, and they want things - it's gonna have to come out of this thing you call the general fund. Is that correct?
[00:07:57] Amy Sundberg: Yes, that's correct. So most of what we're advocating for every year is general fund dollars.
[00:08:04] Shannon Cheng: Okay, and so you are saying, BJ, that the general fund is about $1.6 billion. So what types of things are currently getting funded out of the general fund?
[00:08:14] BJ Last: Yeah, that's correct. So it's $1.6 billion. It's - very broadly defined, Public Safety is 47% of it. And that is SPD, also includes the Office of the Inspector General, the CPC, the police pension - those are all four different departments that are in there, that are all cops. The Fire Department and CARE/CSCC, which is the 911 dispatch - which is currently CSCC, may be getting rebranded CARE soon. So that's 47%. The next biggest bucket is Administration and that's 22%. And Administration is kind of a massive catch-all that includes a lot of things - so major expenditures in there are for indigent defense and the City's contract with the King County Jail. So when SPD goes and arrests someone and puts them in there, the City is effectively leasing part of the jail from King County - and that's to pay part of it. And it also includes things like Judgment and Claims Funds, which is for when people are suing the City - that comes out of there, that's housed in that Admin section. And unsurprisingly, that one's also been increasing a lot lately due to lawsuits coming from 2020, which we know what those were. And then the other thing that is anything really is Education & Human Services, and that's about 15% of the general fund. So those three things of Public Safety, Administration, Education & Human Services account for 80% of the general fund.
[00:09:39] Shannon Cheng: Wow, so what's left in that 20% that's remaining?
[00:09:43] Amy Sundberg: Oh gosh, it's a lot of small things. Libraries, for example, will get funded out of that. A lot of our Transportation actually gets funded through specific levies, so it wouldn't come from general fund. And I think that's true of Parks & Rec as well. But there might be some little bits of money that go to Transportation and Parks & Rec - they have varied funding sources, basically.
[00:10:05] Shannon Cheng: Okay, great. So that's the general fund, the discretionary portion of the City of Seattle's budget. So what's happening right now with the process?
[00:10:14] Amy Sundberg: When we talk about budget season in Seattle, it's generally just a two-month period in the fall. But really, budget goes on for much of the year - because before the fall, the City departments are having to analyze their budgets and turn in reports to the mayor. And then the Mayor's Office is developing a proposed budget - that's the budget that gets announced at the end of September. At that point, the City Council is able to come in and make their changes that they might wanna see in that proposed budget. So that's where we are right now. First, they review the proposed budget to make sure they understand what's in there and what isn't in there. And then the Budget Chair, who this year is Councilmember Mosqueda, puts together a balancing package - that's a package where she thinks that there is consent amongst the councilmembers, that everyone agrees that these are changes that should be made for the most part. And then each councilmember is given the opportunity to suggest amendments to that balancing package. And they need to get two other councilmembers to sponsor that in order to get those amendments considered. So that's where we are right now - we've just heard the amendments that are being considered. And eventually what will happen is that those amendments will be voted on by the Budget Committee, which is all of the councilmembers to be clear.
[00:11:35] Shannon Cheng: Okay, so Mayor Harrell sent over his proposal end of September and we're about a month into the Council's involvement. And this is the budget for next year?
[00:11:45] Amy Sundberg: Yeah, for 2024.
[00:11:46] BJ Last: So Seattle operates on a biennium budget basis. So last year they set the budget for 2023 and 2024. So this year they're currently doing adjustments to that 2024 budget. And then next year it'll be back to doing the full biennium, where we'll be looking at 2025 and 2026.
[00:12:04] Shannon Cheng: Okay, so this is just finishing up last year's work through the end of the year, and just adjusting based on the realities of how much money is coming in and new needs for expenditures.
[00:12:15] Amy Sundberg: Theoretically that is the case. Seattle is a little bit less strict about that than some other municipalities. I would say King County is more of a true biennial budget, whereas Seattle's kind of a biennial budget. And I think actually there's been some push to make it more like King County, to make it more of a true biennium. So we'll see what happens with that.
[00:12:36] Shannon Cheng: Okay, interesting. Another thing I keep hearing about all the time is this fight over the JumpStart Tax. And I think it'd be good to just lay out very clearly - what is that fight all about?
[00:12:47] Amy Sundberg: Yeah, so the JumpStart payroll tax passed in the summer of 2020. And then the council passed a spending plan for it in 2021 to put into statute what exactly the JumpStart Tax is supposed to go to pay for. And just so we're clear on what that spend plan is - 62% of JumpStart funds are supposed to go to affordable housing, 9% to Green New Deal, 9% to Equitable Development Initiative, and 15% to small business. What has happened though - basically, because this was going on in the middle of the pandemic - obviously there was a lot more needs, the City budget was a little messier than maybe normally. So they allowed some of these JumpStart Tax dollars to be spent as a kind of a slush fund for the general fund so that we wouldn't have to have an austerity budget. And the idea was that over time this would transition and eventually all of the JumpStart Tax funds would go to those percentages that I mentioned a moment ago.
However, what has ended up happening is that every year - regardless of what mayor we have - every year the mayor will take some of the JumpStart dollars and move it over for general fund purposes, instead of those specific Green New Deal and affordable housing purposes. Every year Council kind of tries to claw back those JumpStart funds to put them into the main purposes they were meant for. Now we're still having some budget issues, so there has been - even for this year - some money that Council agreed could be used from JumpStart funds to fund general fund priorities, especially because JumpStart funds ended up being larger than originally anticipated. So the compromise that was struck was that those extra dollars that we weren't originally expecting can be used to kind of help prop up the general fund. But what ends up happening is sometimes more money beyond that gets pulled from JumpStart into the general fund. And of course, because affordable housing in particular is a large percentage of where that money is supposed to go and is such a priority in the city right now, given our housing crisis, this becomes a big fight every year.
[00:15:05] Shannon Cheng: Okay, yeah - that's helpful. So I think I saw - in 2021, the JumpStart Tax generated $234 million. And so that was one of those years where the City and the Council felt that some of that needed to go towards other things than that spend plan that you referenced. And so about 37% of it ended up going to the general fund. And then that leaves a much smaller slice left for addressing those issues that you listed - housing, small business support, Green New Deal, equitable development - which, if people stop and think about - looking around, what are the biggest issues that the City's facing right now? I mean, that's what these are trying to address - the housing crisis, small businesses struggling after the pandemic, needing to do something about climate change in a meaningful way, and then also trying to spread our resources in a more equitable way across residents of the city.
And so - to me then - thinking about JumpStart Tax, it's sort of a mini version of a whole budget. Because we had purported values that we stated out when we passed this legislation - saying this is what we want to spend this money on. And then, as with many things, it's the reality of the implementation that lets us see where our priorities truly are. And it sounds like - in 2020, we said very strongly - We need to meaningfully address these issues that we've been in a state of crisis for for a long time, and they've just been getting worse. And people are pointing that out - you see that. What I find really interesting is that the original people who've opposed the JumpStart Tax - so that would be the Chamber of Commerce, the Downtown Seattle Association - are these the same people who are now pushing to take the money away from JumpStart's original purposes and redirect it towards other things?
[00:16:53] BJ Last: Honestly, yes. They're a lot of the people pushing that they want to - I'll use the phrase - "liberate" JumpStart funds so that it can be used as effectively just more general fund backfill. They also haven't entirely given up on fighting JumpStart. As part of the Revenue Stabilization Task Force that was meeting this year, the representatives from the Metro Chamber of Commerce, she made comments of - Hey, we think we should actually pause JumpStart for a year or two - supposedly to help businesses on recovery. So they are still fighting on JumpStart a little. The opponents of JumpStart have much more moved to - they just want it to be more general fund.
[00:17:32] Amy Sundberg: And I do think it's important to state also that when we talk about wanting to allow businesses to recover, JumpStart Tax only applies to very large businesses with very high payroll and very highly paid employees. It's not hitting small businesses - that's not how it was set up.
[00:17:51] Shannon Cheng: Yeah, previous to JumpStart Tax, there was an attempt to pass the Amazon head tax and that did pass, but then eventually got repealed because of a lot of protest. And I believe the JumpStart Tax came out of a coalition that got built after that failed attempt, which included small business groups - because 15% of the JumpStart revenue is supposed to go towards small business support. Which everybody likes to say - small business is super important to the health and vibrancy of the Seattle economy. But are we willing to put our money where our mouth is on that? I just find it pretty insidious the way that they're approaching this because they oppose the tax to begin with, they're still opposing it now, they wanna pause it. But when they ask for the money to go back to the general fund, it seems like it's going back to a lot of their own interests, such as downtown activation. So not only are they taking the money back for themselves, they're also weakening the implementation of what this tax was originally said to do. People probably heard about this tax when they announced it - there was all sorts of glowing praise of this is gonna address meaningfully these problems that everybody cares about. And yet now, by weakening it and taking money away, we can't spend as much of that money on it. And so obviously, when you look at the results of what the JumpStart Tax has done, it will look like it's less. And so I just really wanna call that out.
I also wanna call out that the council that passed the JumpStart Tax in July of 2020 is pretty much the same council we currently have other than Councilmember Nelson who replaced Councilmember González in 2021. And JumpStart Tax passed 7-2. The only two councilmembers who did not vote for it were Councilmembers Juarez and Pedersen. How have they been reacting to all this JumpStart scuffling?
[00:19:33] Amy Sundberg: They definitely have been less supportive of increasing the JumpStart Tax in any way - that has been noticeable.
[00:19:40] BJ Last: Yeah, they have also been very much on the wanting to just throw the spending plan out the window. Actually, it was Councilmember Pedersen who's the first one that I heard use the expression of "liberate" JumpStart funds - create additional flexibility and disregard that. There are also subtler attempts to pretend that the JumpStart spend plan is very unclear, and so potentially needs to be revisited due to that - even though it's actually an extremely clear spend plan. People just keep trying to violate it - it's not that the plan isn't clear, people just keep asking for stuff that goes outside of that spend plan.
[00:20:13] Shannon Cheng: Okay, so then the councilmembers who did vote for it - so those would be Councilmembers Herbold, Morales, Sawant, Strauss, Lewis, and then obviously Councilmember Mosqueda, who spearheaded the effort. Are they staying strong behind the values that they voted for on the JumpStart Tax, or has that kind of squished up since then?
[00:20:31] Amy Sundberg: I would say - I mean, you know - it's hard to say what is in their hearts, but I would say it's a mix. I think some of them have stayed pretty strong, and I think others of them have, you know, less so.
[00:20:45] Shannon Cheng: Okay, fair enough. I guess I'm just concerned 'cause it sounds like this JumpStart Tax issue will continue to carry on, and it is possible that we will lose its biggest champion on the city council next year. So I just want everybody listening to understand what this fight is about and why it's so important. To me, it kind of comes down to differences in opinion over what is gonna float all the boats in this city, right? I mean, business wants us to believe that if we just pour all the money into business and their interests, that that will just generally help everybody. Whereas what JumpStart was trying to do, I believe, is trying to build from the ground up by providing people housing, trying to spread the resources in a more equitable fashion, tackling climate change, providing good jobs that come out of tackling climate change. And so I just really think this is a fight over shifting decision-making about how we spend our resources from being concentrated with a few powerful interests, and letting more people have a say and access to success and opportunities to do well in this city.
[00:21:48] Amy Sundberg: I would say Councilmember Mosqueda in particular has been a stalwart advocate of JumpStart. And as the Budget Chair, she has been in good position every year to counter the attempts to try to use JumpStart as more and more of a City slush fund. So if we lose her on Council at the end of this year, that certainly will make it more concerning going forward in terms of what will happen with JumpStart. I'll also say there is this spend plan. It is in statute currently. That statute could be changed, so it's not like it's protected forever.
[00:22:21] Shannon Cheng: All right, so everyone - it's Election Day. Get out and vote - try to think about who's gonna be our next champion for the JumpStart Tax.
So moving on, we also keep hearing all this news about an upcoming budget shortfall in 2025. What's happening with that?
[00:22:39] Amy Sundberg: So the City of Seattle is facing a massive budget deficit starting in 2025. It is now estimated to be around $251 million deficit, which has gone up based on the mayor's proposed budget. So basically, the mayor's proposed budget this year has made the problem worse - potentially - in upcoming years. $251 million is a lot of money. And so the question is, what are we going to do to address that? There are two main ways to do that. You can make cuts to the budget - spend less money. Or you can pass new progressive revenue that will help fund the budget. We are not allowed by law to have a not balanced budget, so that is not an option - it's not on the table. Or of course you can do a combination of cuts and new progressive revenue. So those are kind of the two levers that councilmembers have to play with. And what is relevant in this budget season right now is speaking about new progressive revenue, because if we want to pass new progressive revenue for the City of Seattle, we would need to plan ahead a little bit. Because it will take some time to implement any new progressive revenue that we might pass - there's a ramp up to getting it done. So if we wanted to have that revenue to rely on for 2025, we would really ideally want to pass things now before the end of the year.
[00:24:03] BJ Last: What I'd add on to what Amy mentioned is how we actually ended up getting to this upcoming deficit. Over the last two decades roughly, Seattle's population has grown at a really robust clip. We have all seen that. We have not seen the same growth in the general fund revenues that come in. Property tax increases are limited to - I believe it's at most 1% a year for the city - because sales tax also does not increase. So while we are seeing this really big increase in population, we have not seen the same with our general fund. It has really not moved that much. So it isn't the narrative of - Oh, the city has added a bunch of new pet projects or whatever, and that's where it's come from. It's come from largely - the city has gotten bigger and the general fund growth has not kept up with that. 85% of that upcoming deficit projected is all due to just open labor contracts. The Coalition of City Unions - their contracts are open. SPOG - their contract is also open. Paying Coalition of City Unions, paying the City workers - the people that like literally keep the lights on, fix the roads - of actually going and paying them is where this is coming from.
[00:25:06] Amy Sundberg: And especially because inflation rates have been so high the last couple of years, right? So that's - they need a much larger raise than they would need if inflation was not high.
[00:25:15] BJ Last: Also on the inflation part - thank you, that's a great call out, Amy - growth of the general fund has not kept up with inflation, especially just these last two years. I think there've even been other years where it hasn't happened, but these last two years in particular, we have not seen the general fund grow at the same rate. So things have gotten more expensive for the city that the general fund has to get spent on, but the dollars coming in the door haven't kept up with that.
[00:25:35] Shannon Cheng: Is anything being done about that? Did the mayor propose anything about progressive revenue, or thinking about this upcoming problem?
[00:25:42] Amy Sundberg: The mayor did not propose anything having to do with new progressive revenue in fact, which is a decision that he has been critiqued for in the local media. And there certainly has been a fair amount of rhetoric about just tightening our belts, right? But to be clear, $251 million - that's a lot of cuts that would drive us straight into an austerity budget, one would think. So that is where the mayor's office has landed, but there have been a lot of conversations about potential new progressive revenue that started with the task force that BJ mentioned earlier, which was brought together to look at various possibilities of what could be good new revenue sources. And certainly there were people that sat on that task force that had a priority of finding good new progressive sources of revenue in particular, as opposed to regressive taxes that will hurt people who have less more. And they did find some reasonable options that would not require a change in state law, and so could potentially be implemented in time to address the 2025 budget shortfall.
So I would say that there are three main possibilities at play right now that are being discussed. One of those is a capital gains tax, so we had a capital gains tax at the state level pass - so far it has survived any legal challenges that it has faced. So it would be possible for the City to institute a tax above that. It would be a fairly small amount, probably 1-2% capital gains tax. Councilmember Pedersen originally was the councilmember who suggested this, and he also suggested that we remove a certain water fee. So it'll be interesting to hear a more robust analysis of that water fee to find out - is that truly a regressive tax? Or with various rebates, et cetera, that are available for people - is it not that regressive a tax? Because if we were to take away that water fee, it would be revenue neutral, so it wouldn't actually assist us with the upcoming deficit. Not to say it's still not worthwhile to talk about, even if that's true, because we want to get rid of more regressive taxes and institute more progressive taxes. So either way, that's a good conversation to have - but it's unclear to me more of the details of that water tax, how regressive it is. So that is an important thing to discover.
The other two options have to do with the JumpStart Tax that we were talking about. One of them would be just to increase that JumpStart Tax across - it has a tiered structure right now, so across the tiers to just increase it. Councilmember Sawant has already proposed very, very modest increases in that JumpStart Tax in two of her amendments for the 2024 budget to fund specific priorities. So increasing the JumpStart Tax just full stop is one option. Another really intriguing option that has been discussed is something called a CEO pay ratio tax. This would require corporations that pay their top executives exorbitant amounts to pay an extra tax, or fee, or surcharge. So basically what we could do is use the JumpStart Tax as a vehicle by adding an extra layer to it. So there would be an extra tax that would only apply to corporations that exceed a certain CEO pay ratio. And what I have heard about this tax - again, so it would be fairly easy to implement because you don't have to change state law, you would just add an additional layer to an already existent tax. And what I've heard is that it would collect a significant amount of funds, but I don't have any actual numbers on that. So it will be really interesting to hear an analysis of how much money that could potentially actually bring in.
And what Councilmember Mosqueda has announced is that there will be an extra Budget Committee meeting after the main 2024 budget is passed to discuss some of these possibilities at more depth. So they will be discussed earlier in November, kind of as a briefing, and then the councilmembers will meet after the budget is passed to potentially vote on some of these possibilities, if they're not already passed in the 2024 budget.
[00:30:09] BJ Last: One thing I wanted to mention - so the Revenue Stabilization Group looked at about 20 different taxes. They did a great write-up that finally made it out in August after having been delayed a few times. The three taxes Amy mentioned - one of the reasons that they're at the top three is how quickly they can get implemented. So, you know, we're currently sitting and recording this - it's November, the budget deficit starts on January 1st, 2025. There is very limited time to go and get an ordinance passed and actually then to have that go into effect - since a new tax doesn't go into effect the day that it is passed - and to make sure that it would survive any legal challenges. So there is even like a broader list of things, but because we have kept putting this conversation off, because the city has sort of kept pushing the can down the road, we don't have very much time to go and pass this. We have about 13, 14 months to get something passed and to start having dollars coming in the door before that deficit hits.
[00:31:04] Shannon Cheng: All right, so time is of the essence here. And it sounds like although Mayor Harrell didn't put anything in his proposals to address this, at least Council seems like they're gonna be on it in some fashion. So we'll see what comes of that.
Okay, so that's the revenue side of the budget. And I think that's helpful for people to understand, 'cause I think it's much easier to talk about what you want to spend money on rather than where that money is gonna come from. I mean, I know I'm like that in my own life. So maybe we need to talk about what are we gonna spend all this money that we're bringing in on. And earlier in the show, talked about a rough breakdown of the general fund - it sounds like a huge portion of that goes towards public safety, which includes the Fire Department and the Police Department. So is the reason why sometimes it feels like there's so much focus on the police budget because they're kind of the biggest chunk of the budget, so that if you were trying to look for places where we could make some savings, it would be there?
[00:32:05] BJ Last: I'd say absolutely. Not only are they the biggest chunk - no other department eats up as big a portion of the general fund as SPD does. So not only that, but they also get absurdly special treatment that no other department gets, where a lot of basic budget practices even just get entirely thrown out the window because it's for SPD. Ghost cops are a great example of this. Ghost cops are positions SPD gets funded for, even though they have no plan, intention, or ability to fill these roles. So these are not people that SPD even thinks they can plan - they have said they aren't going in the plan, there's no desire to, but they still get funding for them year after year. There are like 213 of these now currently sitting around and it works out to be - about $31 million of SPD's budget right now is slush fund on this. And we talked about the upcoming deficit in 2025. So a $250 million roughly - $30 million on these guys - you can see that this is a large percentage of the deficit sitting right there in these ghost positions that councilmembers just don't want to touch.
And to give a sort of example of how no one else gets treated this way - where they get to just sort of hold on to this positional authority when they have no ability to fill it. Last year, the city abrogated 24 911-dispatcher positions, which - abrogation means they remove positional authority to it. No one probably heard about this 'cause there wasn't a big kerfuffle because it's normal. Council and the mayor and everyone's like - Well, you guys have said you can't hire these guys for the next two years for the duration of the biennium, so we're just gonna remove positional authority to it. If staffing plans change, we can re-add it. We can also add this back into the 2025 biennium if staffing levels have picked up. And in fact, they actually already are adding back about three of them in the supplemental of - in 2024 now in the budget process because their hiring has picked up. So just using 911 dispatch as an example - the ghost cops, the excess positional authority - no other department gets that. Every other department it is what your staffing plan is - the number of people you actually expect to hire - that is the number of positions you get, and that's the number of positions you get funded for. SPD gets this massive slush fund that they get to go and use on whatever the heck they want.
And there was also even a technology one that we saw in the 2022 budget. Truleo - it's a technology - it swears it's like AI, natural language processing of body camera footage. SPD specifically asked for additional money for this program as part of the 2022 budget. Council explicitly did not give them funding for this. They said - We are not funding this program. Then the City found out at the start of this year that SPD actually went ahead and bought Truleo anyway. So they ended up canceling the contract, but it ended up as a thing of - usually if a department goes to a company and says, We need additional money for this project - if they don't get that money and then they find a way to fund that project anyway, it raises a lot of questions. Like, why did you say you needed additional money for this if you could already cover it with your additional budget? And hey, all those other items that you said you needed additional money for, that we gave you additional money for - how many of them did you really need additional money for versus you were just attempting to pad out your budget? So that's one of the reasons why it gets a lot of attention. Not only is it just the biggest percentage of the general fund by a lot, but the absurd special treatment that they get.
[00:35:29] Shannon Cheng: So SPD is 26% of the general fund?
[00:35:33] BJ Last: SPD itself is 24-26%. That does not include the police pension department - that is a separate pension in there. It does not include the Office of Inspector General and the CPC, the Community Police Commission, even though they are also both part of that. So when you start adding all of those, it goes up even over a quarter. And then when you add in the city attorney's office, municipal courts, indigent defense, jail services - what we're spending on carceral - it's a third of the general fund all ends up sitting there.
[00:36:05] Shannon Cheng: Wow, okay. Yeah, I see here - just the Seattle Police Department alone, not all those other things you added on - they're sitting at just under $400 million. So what I'm understanding is these ghost cops are haunting, I guess, the Seattle Police Department budget.
[00:36:23] BJ Last: These ghost cop positions - they do haunt the general budget. Amy talked about how we're defunding JumpStart. So it's about $85 million last year, $85 million this year, $85 million next year - that's getting transferred from JumpStart to the general fund. So again, transferred from Green New Deal, affordable housing to the general fund. Because SPD gets a quarter of the general fund, that means that $21 million a year roughly is literally going from affordable housing to SPD and its ghost cops.
[00:36:54] Shannon Cheng: Oh man. Okay. So, and then they're taking it, and as you said, spending it on things that they were explicitly told not to spend it on or who knows what else, right? We try to dig in and get more transparency into what's going on, but that can be difficult.
And just what BJ was saying about budgeting practices and that SPD is not subject to those at times - so I looked at the King County biennial budget for the same time period from 2023 to 2024. And they have line items across all of their appropriation units, including the Sheriff's Office and the Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention, that's called a vacancy rate adjustment. And this is exactly what BJ is describing - it's capturing salary savings from them not having been able to hire and being able to put that back into the general budget so that they can use it for other things that there's a need for. And then in addition to that, last biennium for King County, they had an additional line item specifically only for the Sheriff's Office and the Department of Adult Juvenile Detention called Capture Additional Vacancy Savings. And here, I'll just read the line item - it says it's to increase expected savings due to vacancies to account for current unprecedented vacancy level. And, you know, it allows the Sheriff's Office and DAJD to request additional appropriation to reverse it if the vacancy rate reverses and that we're able to magically start hiring a ton of people. I mean, we see that there's kind of a nationwide hiring shortage across every kind of profession, but in police and corrections officers as well. So this is not abnormal, and there was not a giant fight in the King County budget when this happened. Just to give you a sense of the magnitude - just from the original base vacancy rate adjustment, it was $5.3 million from the Sheriff's Office. And that additional vacancy savings was $5.7 million. So this is meaningful money that can be used in other places and not just locked up in the - Oh, well, maybe law enforcement will get to use it. Or maybe when they get close to the end of the spending period, they'll just spend it on something that we didn't all agree that we wanted.
[00:39:03] Amy Sundberg: I will say as well that SPD has a very optimistic hiring plan and they never hit it - at least for the last several years that I've been following it, they don't hit it. And this year they actually - the department shrank again. They have a negative total when you add in hires minus attrition. So it's still shrinking in spite of these hiring bonuses that we have no evidence actually works. But these ghost cop positions aren't even part of that. They're ones that even SPD says - We definitely aren't gonna hire that this year. It's not taking away from the hiring plan that SPD wants and thinks they can hire. It's additional positions beyond that. And to be clear, it's a couple hundred additional positions. It's not like four or five.
[00:39:50] Shannon Cheng: Okay, thanks. 'Cause I feel like people conflate that a lot - this talk of supporting SPD and public safety and fully funding their hiring plan, which it sounds like that's what has been happening, but then you have this conversation about abrogating these positions or ghost cops. And so you're saying that those are two separate things?
[00:40:10] BJ Last: Absolutely. SPD - they always put out incredibly optimistic hiring plans, even by their own terms. So their hiring plan for next year is still that they will end up with - I think it's a record number of hires, like more than they've ever had - hiring 125 cops, I think it is. And with the number of cops leaving slowing down. And they're like - Cool, our full hiring plan for next year is roughly 1,130 cops. And they're currently getting funded for like 1,344 cops, something like that - it's a difference of 213 positions between what they've said they can hire and what they actually plan on trying to hire - between that and what they're actually funded for.
[00:40:47] Shannon Cheng: What are the issues in the hiring pipeline? Why is there a limit to the number of officers that they would actually be able to hire?
[00:40:54] Amy Sundberg: I mean, there's a lot of factors. Primarily, there aren't enough applicants to begin with - not enough people want to become police officers at SPD. That's an issue. But as well, I just also - the hiring process takes time because they have to go through a series of testing and vetting. And then if they aren't lateral hires - if they're new recruits, then they have to go through the academy. And even once they're done with academy, they go through more training on the job, so they're not really full officers at that point yet. So it just - there's a long ramp to hiring new officers. Lateral officers - SPD has a great interest in hiring them because they've already been a police officer somewhere else. So they can kind of get plugged in more easily, directly into SPD. But they've been having a really difficult time finding lateral hires. So far in 2023 - I forget - it was four, five, or six total lateral hires for the entire year. And they had expected to be able to hire many more. And when asked about it, Chief Diaz said that the candidates simply weren't good enough for them to hire more than that. But somehow magically, they expect the candidates to get better next year if you look at who they expect to hire next year, which I think is interesting.
[00:42:09] BJ Last: And I'd also say, Amy, none of that is unique to Seattle at all. It was already touched on - this is not just Seattle Police Department is having trouble hiring, this is police departments everywhere. Fewer people want to become cops. And just like Seattle, it really, really wants lateral hires because it's much shorter. I think the timeline from a new recruit is like 18 months before they are counted as a employable officer, or whatever their term is. The lateral is much shorter. So not only does Seattle want them, every other department wants them. Thing is just - people do not want to be cops as much. We know one of the things that isn't a barrier to hiring at all is pay. The average SPD officer made over $155,000 in 2022, based on the City's wage data. So they are making - the city pays an absolute ton for SPD on the individual officer level. There're the hiring bonuses that have been around that don't do anything. So it's - for these lateral hires, it's $30K that they're getting offered, it's $7,500 for a new recruit. So the city has already tried throwing just buckets and buckets of money to see if that would somehow turn into more people wanting to be cops in Seattle. And it has absolutely positively not worked. And that really needs to be acknowledged - not throwing money at this one - that's not going to change things here. It's not unique to Seattle, it's across everything.
And it's also one of the reasons why other cities have moved to actually non-police responses to things. Because we look back - tons and tons of studies - SPD did its own study in 2019 that showed, I think it was 56% of all 911 calls are non-criminal. There was the National Institute for Criminal Justice Reform Study that came out in 2021 - showed 80% of all the calls SPD is currently doing don't match anything in the criminal code, and 49% of those calls could immediately go to the community. So one of the reasons other cities are going into non-police responses is because it's what cops actually do - is they respond to non-criminal stuff, that's where they spend all their time. So why on earth are we throwing all of this money at people to show up, and escalate non-criminal situations, and traumatize people? And Seattle has really dragged its heels on that. After having talked about non-police response for years, multiple studies coming out about how little of SPD's calls are actually anything that counts as criminal, how much could go to community - just this last month, they finally launched a dual dispatch, which is SPD responding to stuff. So years later, the city has just refused to move on this item.
[00:44:43] Amy Sundberg: I will also add, since we're in the middle of election season - I keep hearing from candidates that what they want to do to fix public safety in Seattle is hire 500 new cops. And I'll just say, your opinion doesn't matter - regardless of your opinion of whether we should hire more cops, whether you want less cops - we are not gonna hire 500 new cops in Seattle anytime soon. It is literally impossible. It is just not gonna happen. So when I hear candidates say that - I mean, it's pie-in-the-sky thinking, it's not a real solution because there are not 500 new cops for us to hire. And also there's, as BJ said, there's the 18 month ramp up to even get someone trained up to become a police officer. So this is just not reality.
[00:45:32] Shannon Cheng: Okay, well, speaking of a mismatch between reality and intended outcomes, I keep hearing about this technology called ShotSpotter. I feel like we had a giant debate over it last year, it sounds like it's reared its ugly head again this year. Can you break down what this fight over ShotSpotter is and why it's important?
[00:45:54] BJ Last: Sure, so ShotSpotter at a basic level - well, first off, so the company is now called SoundThinking. They did a rebrand because - yeah, the reputation that ShotSpotter has. It's an acoustic gunshot detection service is what it describes itself as - and it is people sitting in a room hundreds of miles away, listening to recordings of loud noises. And then saying whether or not they think that loud noise was a gunshot. That is what ShotSpotter boils down to. Like they swear there's a super fancy AI algorithm, but whatever that AI decides to flag - it goes to people sitting in a room hundreds of miles away, listening to a noise, and saying whether or not they think it was a gunshot. And they have a large financial interest in actually saying everything was a gunshot. Because of how the contracts are written - that there's no guarantees that they won't send a lot of false alerts. The only guarantee that is in there is anything where the police actually find that there was evidence of a gunshot - for 90% of those, ShotSpotter will have given an alert. So it's pretty much if they say that something wasn't a gunshot, and it turns out it was, that then could potentially hurt their contract. If they call every single loud noise a gunshot, that has zero impact on them at all. So people listening to loud noises with an incentive to go and say everything's a gunshot.
And you are right - we had this fight just last year, when the city went and asked for it. And what this ask was - was they asked for additional funding, specifically for ShotSpotter, which council declined to give them. They're asking for it again. Of that additional money specifically for ShotSpotter - this additional money piece actually though, has no impact on whether or not the city actually purchases ShotSpotter. In order to purchase a subscription to ShotSpotter - because it's a subscriptions purchase, so it becomes an annual expense every single year - SPD has to go through a Surveillance Impact Report, which is they have to meet with the community, put together what would be a lot of - what would be the impacts of this technology, what does it do, get community feedback, and then council also has to go and approve that. SPD has been able to do this any single day that it's wanted to. It could have started this process. When they first asked for it last year, they could have started this process then. In any of the time between last year's budget and now, they could have started this process. So they have not done that. So they're asking for money - again, for something that they've taken no steps to actually get anywhere close to being able to legally purchase.
[00:48:17] Amy Sundberg: I think too - I have a lot to say about ShotSpotter - I've spent way too much of the last several weeks of my life thinking about ShotSpotter. And to be honest, I just - I find it personally painful that we're having this discussion again this year. Because not only is ShotSpotter ineffective, so it's a waste of money - which is bad enough. I mean, we obviously do not have money to waste. But it is actively harmful, to be clear. There are many, many studies that show this. It increases the number of pat-downs, searches, and enforcement actions. It justifies the over-policing of Black, Indigenous, and people of color neighborhoods that they are primarily living in. It leads to unnecessary contact between the police and vulnerable populations. And it also leads to false arrests. There have even been some cases where they've shown that possibly some of the "evidence" - I put that in air quotes - "evidence" has been tampered with in various ways. I mean, this is actively harmful. It is not just a waste of money. And then also, this year is being sold as part of a crime prevention pilot.
And let me be clear - gun violence is a huge problem. It's a huge problem in Seattle. It's a huge problem in King County. Frankly, it's a huge problem across the entire country. And I don't want to minimize the impacts of that in any way, but there is no evidence that shows that ShotSpotter decreases gun violence. So people who are desperate, who want a solution to that problem, are being sold ShotSpotter as the solution, but it's not true. And that's what I find so painful, right? Is that there's people who desperately need a solution to this problem, and instead of actually giving them one that might have a chance of working, they're given ShotSpotter as a false hope instead - which I find repugnant, frankly.
[00:50:13] BJ Last: Oh yeah - it's incredibly predatory what they do, Amy. They prey on communities that are struggling with issues of gun violence - which is a massive issue, as you said, that really has huge impacts - and they sell them something that just makes things worse. You mentioned on some of the - what happens with some of these alerts - Adam Toledo was one of the most famous examples of this. So Adam Toledo was a 13-year-old that the Chicago police killed because they were responding to a ShotSpotter alert. And they chased after a 13-year-old, and ended up shooting him in an alley when his hands were empty - when there was nothing in his hands. So this is the real harm that does come from this. And again, it is preying off of communities that have been disinvested in and that are dealing with real problems of gun violence and being like - Oh, hey, here's something we swear will make it better. And that goes and makes it worse.
[00:51:01] Amy Sundberg: I will also say - we had this fight last year, we're having it again. There've been a few new wrinkles that have been introduced this year that I think are important to address. One of them is that this year, they have proposed that along with the ShotSpotter acoustic gunshot technology, that they include CCTV cameras. And what Senior Deputy Mayor Burgess said during one of these budget meetings was that the combination of these two technologies leads to higher accuracy and also better admissibility in court. However, these claims have not been backed up. We did find a study that shows that, in fact, the combination of these two technologies does not improve accuracy. And Councilmember Herbold asked Tim Burgess for his evidence - What makes you think this? A month after she asked, she says she finally received his answer - which was six reports on CCTV alone with no ShotSpotter technology included so does not, in fact, give any evidence that it makes ShotSpotter better. And one kind of manual suggesting that maybe you could combine these two technologies with no study attached. So the only study we have found says, in fact, it does not improve the accuracy. So I think that's really important to note. There seems to be a certain lack of regard from certain quarters for actually looking at the evidence - that I find sad, frankly.
And another wrinkle that I'll mention is that BJ talked about the Surveillance Ordinance - the report that they would have to do in order to implement ShotSpotter. In the original proposal from the mayor's office, they asked to do one report - so each report, you have to do a racial equity analysis as part of that report - and they asked to only do one report. But this is mobile technology, so you can pick up the camera and the ShotSpotter tech and you can move it to a different neighborhood. So they would only be doing their racial equity analysis in the original neighborhoods that it was going to be placed, and then they could pick it up and move it to any other neighborhood without having to do another racial equity analysis, which I think is deeply problematic because different neighborhoods are different. And a lot of the neighborhoods that they were talking about originally using this technology on are primarily white. And my concern would be - what if they picked it up and moved it to a community that wasn't primarily white, but didn't have to do a racial impact report on that. That is deeply troubling. And I will say Councilmember Mosqueda, in her balancing package, addressed this problem and said - No, you should do a racial equity impact for each time you move it. So hopefully we won't buy ShotSpotter at all, but hopefully that change will stay if we do - because I think you can't do one impact report for a neighborhood, and then move it somewhere completely different and expect that report to have any validity.
[00:54:09] Shannon Cheng: So ShotSpotter doesn't address the problem it's claiming to try to solve. In fact, it sounds like it might be making things worse. And so they're asking this year for about $1.8 million, but what do we know from other cities - once you buy a pilot, this $1.8 million this year, what happens after that?
[00:54:28] BJ Last: It's a subscription service. So even if you wanted to maintain the same amount or the same coverage area, you are spending that every single year. So this is, would be an ongoing expense. And that's also assuming the ShotSpotter doesn't change its rates. And then if you decided to expand the footprint of where it is, that's gonna add what you're spending every single year. So it is very much just an ongoing expense into a budget that as we said - hey, is already facing a substantial general fund deficit for something that does not address a serious problem.
[00:55:00] Amy Sundberg: And the company SoundThinking - I mean, their business model is to persuade cities to expand. So it would not be surprising to me if we were to start this pilot - if in a few years we were spending more like $10 million on ShotSpotter, that would not shock me.
[00:55:16] Shannon Cheng: Okay, so it's - this year, we're trying to decide whether to dip a toe into this ShotSpotter technology, but it could lead to larger expenditures in future years if this initial pilot gets funded further.
[00:55:34] BJ Last: Absolutely. And also the ShotSpotter company SoundThinking - they do a lot of other surveillance items. They recently bought PredPol, which is nominally predictive policing, that has all the absolute racial bias issues that you probably imagine the moment that a company said that they can sell you predictive policing. So odds are it would not even be staying at just ShotSpotter - of microphones listening for loud noises - that SoundThinking would be trying to then expand to all of their other horrible, dystopian, incredibly biased technology.
[00:56:05] Shannon Cheng: Yay.
[00:56:07] Amy Sundberg: It's really concerning, right? I think a lot of people want to hold up technology as this panacea - where it will fix everything. And that is not always the case. And in this case, I would argue it is not at all the case. And there are actually things that we could be investing in that might address the issue much more effectively.
[00:56:28] BJ Last: Yeah, like the things that are proven to work on this are low tech items - they're violence interruption programs, resourcing communities, things like that that are actually shown to reduce gun violence.
[00:56:39] Amy Sundberg: Even physical changes in the environment have been shown to have a significant effect - like adding more lighting, for example.
[00:56:47] Shannon Cheng: So those are some of the big fights over public safety, which - they're really important. Unfortunately, I also feel like they often overshadow some of the other big fights that might be going on - just there's a lot of rhetoric right now about public safety, especially with the ongoing election. So what are some of the other big budget fights that you're seeing in this year's deliberations?
[00:57:05] BJ Last: Well, I'd say a lot of those fights are actually also public safety items. Like there are fights on School Safety Traffic and Pedestrian Improvement, SSTPI fund - so that's been getting cut. That is safe routes for kids to walk and bike to school - Vision Zero stuff is also getting cut. We're fighting really to stop that. And so far, at least 22 pedestrians have been killed while walking, biking, or rolling. So that is absolutely a public safety item, I would say. Same with - there are currently amendments to undo the cuts to food safety. The proposed budget cut about $950,000 from food security, so that was 650K roughly for food banks and 300K for food access. I would very much say that food access is also very much a public safety item. I think there was even a French musical, Les Mis - didn't that have a lot to do with an entire revolution because people couldn't afford bread and were hungry?
[00:57:58] Amy Sundberg: There also is a fight about funding behavioral health services at Tiny House villages. Right now, that funding is a lot less than it was in 2023 for 2024. And the reason why that's important is because having this funding allows Tiny House villages to house people with higher acuity needs. But if they don't have those services available, then those people can't live there. So, I mean, that's a huge issue. And there are a couple amendments to address that - one of them would take the ShotSpotter money and use it instead to pay for that, which I think is a great use of that money. And there also are fights about pay wages for human service workers - to make sure that all human service workers are getting inflationary increase and a 2% raise on top of that, a true 2% raise on top of that. There have been various little fiddly things regarding that - some of those workers were not covered because they're technically paid through King County or with federal money. But they're still doing the job every day, they still deserve that full 2% raise. So there are amendments that are working to address that shortfall to make sure that those folks get paid a fair wage.
[00:59:08] BJ Last: Yeah, and on the 2% raise for human service providers, there's a pay equity study that the University of Washington released - I think it was February this year - that found human service workers in Seattle are underpaid by 37%. So 2% is just a drop in the bucket compared to what we, a city-funded study by UW found that they are currently underfunded by. There was even a resolution passed that wants to increase their wages by 7% by 2025, so this is a small item just trying to move inline with that resolution and to also make progress towards that study. 'Cause again - underpaid by 37% is huge and that impacts people's ability to actually provide services.
One other item I'll throw out - there was also a cut in the budget to ADA accessibility. The reason that the City specifically funds this is the City was actually sued because our city is so inaccessible. And this is money to increase the number of curb cuts to make our sidewalks more accessible. And one of the really big things on this is the City funds on this really are supposed to make sure that the entire city itself is accessible. 'Cause apparently one way that the city can sort of get around paying for part of this is - if new construction is going in and puts in curb cuts, that can count like the number that they need for this. We know the neighborhoods with lots of new construction going in. So the fact that there are a ton of new curb cuts in South Lake Union, absolutely is not an excuse to cut ADA accessibility funding that covers the entire city.
[01:00:39] Shannon Cheng: Sounds like there's no shortage of needs desperately needed for funding across all of the budget, so it will be interesting to see how these fights pan out. So I just wanted to talk a little bit about how people can get involved and learn more about the budget if they're curious about this. I mean, you two are experts and - how do you go about that?
[01:01:01] BJ Last: So I'd say - two really good tools that people can go to for more information. So on the City Council's website - so if you go to just seattle.gov/council - there is a budget tool on there that is very helpful. Sorry, the link to that one's a bit longer, so I'm not gonna try to like read it out and hope--
[01:01:18] Shannon Cheng: Oh, don't worry - I'll put any of the links in the show notes.
[01:01:21] BJ Last: Oh, nice. And then the other is if you go to seattle.gov/city-budget-office, you can find the entire budget book for both this year and prior years - to go and read through.
[01:01:34] Amy Sundberg: There's also a fair amount of local reporting - not just from the Seattle Times, but from PubliCola, from The Stranger, from The Urbanist, my Notes from the Emerald City - I cover the public safety budget news. So you can follow some of it that way.
[01:01:49] Shannon Cheng: Okay, that's great. So that's - if you don't have time or interest in attending personally every single budget hearing, or meeting, or briefing, right? But I mean - that information, it is publicly happening. We talked to a lot of candidates on this show leading up to the city council elections and we asked them about the budget. And I would say there were varying degrees of understanding of how the budget works or what kind of information is even out there. So it is out there, right? Like it might be kind of hard to dig into or dig up, but it's not like it's inaccessible.
[01:02:25] Amy Sundberg: It is out there. It is available. And also there are people like us who talk about the budget all the time and would happily talk about the budget to more people.
[01:02:33] Shannon Cheng: Yes, that is exactly why I wanted the two of you to come on to the show with me.
[01:02:37] BJ Last: Yeah, I'd say also a good resource - follow Solidarity Budget. We have our website - make sure you have the link to that - and also we're on a bunch of social media stuff. We post a bunch of stuff about the budget, so it is another resource to follow for news on that one. 'Cause as you mentioned, Shannon, it is a ton of time if you're trying to actually attend every budget meeting and/or read through the entire budget itself, which is - I think it's over a thousand pages. If not, it's at least very close.
[01:03:04] Shannon Cheng: Did you read through the entire budget, BJ?
[01:03:07] BJ Last: No.
[01:03:08] Shannon Cheng: Wow, even you haven't. Okay. Well, there we have it. So what are opportunities if people wanna get more involved with Solidarity Budget - whether that's more in deep involvement and they wanna dig into the spreadsheets and the weeds about the budget, or they only have a little bit of time and want to lend support to what you're fighting for and don't know where to start. What can people do?
[01:03:28] Amy Sundberg: I mean, I'll talk about the easiest things first, I think - and I'll even throw some dates your way so that people can mark them on their calendar if they're feeling inspired. So I mean, the easiest thing to do is to advocate with your councilmembers. And there are many ways that you can do that. You can email them, you can call their office, you can try to set up a meeting with them. I don't know that this is happening right now, but sometimes they even will like go to farmers' markets and hang out. So you can go and talk to them during their office hours at farmers' markets or whatever. And then there also are public comment opportunities at these budget meetings, where you can go and give - it's usually 60 seconds to 120 seconds, so one to two minutes. I say plan for 90 seconds and then go with it. And which you can tell them exactly what you would like to see in the budget or what you would like to see removed in the budget. And if you want to give public comment, you can either go in person to City Hall, or you can call in remotely if you want to do it from the comfort of your home or if you want to do it from your workplace, right? There are options for everybody.
A couple of upcoming events and opportunities - on Wednesday, November 8th, there's gonna be a ShotSpotter webinar - so it'll be virtual at 5:30 PM - that you can sign up for on our website, seattlesolidaritybudget.com. And then there's opportunity to give public comment on Monday, November 13th - there's actually opportunity at 10 AM and at 5 PM. At 5 PM is the big public hearing - that's just all it is - is a lot of people giving public comment. There's gonna be a big rally. It's gonna be amazing. I recommend you come out or call in for that one. The final budget will be voted on on November 21st - there will be opportunities to comment at that meeting at 2 PM. Although at that point, it's mostly finalized usually unless something interesting happens. But this year, because of the progressive revenue conversation, there's actually gonna be that additional meeting talking about progressive revenue. So if that's what has you fired up and you wanna give comment on that, that meeting is November 30th, it's a Thursday. And I think it will be at probably at 10 AM. Although like BJ said, you can always check our website to find out more information there.
[01:05:45] Shannon Cheng: And we will provide all these links in the show notes, so don't worry if you didn't get that all.
[01:05:49] Amy Sundberg: Yeah, there's a lot of dates. There's a lot to keep track of. We also do provide scripts to let you know what Seattle Solidarity Budget's priorities are in terms of what we would like to see changed in the budget, additional investments we'd like to see, or things we'd like to be removed.
[01:06:06] Shannon Cheng: Great.
[01:06:07] BJ Last: And as Amy said - yes, there's the big hearing on the 13th and opportunities for public comment. You can also - as Amy said - you can email, call your councilmembers anytime. Like you do not have to wait for that. You just heard something today and you're like - Hey, I think that's messed up or that's something we should do. You can type an email right now. So no time like the present. You don't need to wait for the public hearing.
[01:06:28] Shannon Cheng: All right, great. Just to wrap up - people talk about budgets as moral documents, as a representation of the values that we, as a society and our community, want to see happen. I'd just like to end the show - we've been pretty deep in the weeds, but what is your vision for what you want to see in the budget? Like if you, if none of these politics or complicated situations existed and you could get your dream item into the budget, what would that be? We'll start with you, Amy.
[01:06:58] Amy Sundberg: Yeah, so I'm a big advocate for a guaranteed basic income, which is a no-strings-attached cash payment - usually monthly, although it doesn't have to be - to people who are in need in various ways. And I would love to see that be prioritized for people who are impacted by the carceral system and over-policing in particular. And we've just seen amazing results from guaranteed basic income programs throughout the country. They've kind of multiplied over the past few years, so we have a lot of data. And what the data shows is that it just improves people's lives on so many levels. It improves their physical health, it improves their mental health, it improves children's brain development, it improves children's educational attainment, adults' educational attainment. And there actually are some pretty new, interesting studies that show that it actually could decrease violence, which I think is a really interesting opportunity. It increases food security, housing security - I mean, it's great.
And what I really love about guaranteed basic income is that it really empowers people to take control over their lives and to make their own choices about their lives. It lets them regain their dignity. So when you read the stories about people who have participated in these programs, get ready - have a tissue, get ready to get a little teary-eyed. I know I do, because it can really - it has such a huge impact. I hosted a panel earlier this season about guaranteed basic income, bringing in local experts who are running programs like this in Washington State. And one of the people we had come was King County Councilmember Zahilay. And he said, This is one of the most personally impactful programs that I've been a part of as a King County Councilmember. GBI is the future. Like you hear stories of people who are able to buy soap - I'm not even kidding, right? Like soap, toothbrushes, toothpaste. The one that always gets me is grandparents who are able to buy their grandchildren presents for the first time in years - I can't say that without tearing up. People who are able to see family who lives far away for the first time in years. People are able to get tutors or help for their kids. These GBI programs just make such a huge difference. So I would love to see a very large, robust, long-term GBI program funded by Seattle public dollars.
[01:09:28] BJ Last: Also to tie onto that, Amy - not only just the incredible human benefit to people of GBI and how transformative it is for people, it's also cheap. And there've been some studies showing that it actually is cheaper than some other options. Vancouver, BC, and I think there was at least one other city had studies doing - hey, they did GBI for people who are currently unsheltered. And they're like - Oh wow, this actually got people into housing so much faster that it saved the city money because it was less that had to be spent on temporary shelter and other supports. So not only is it incredibly transformative, but it's not something where suddenly you think of and that creates a big budget problem. It actually doesn't. So it's - you empower people, improve their lives, and save money.
[01:10:11] Amy Sundberg: Well, it addresses the root causes that are a lot of the reasons people don't feel safe in the first place.
[01:10:16] Shannon Cheng: What's your dream item, BJ?
[01:10:19] BJ Last: I was actually probably gonna go GBI as well.
[01:10:22] Shannon Cheng: That's okay, you can have the same one.
[01:10:24] BJ Last: But since that has been sort of mentioned, the one thing - if we wanted a second item, I'd also put out participatory budgeting, which did come out. There was some money allocated to that in the 2021 budget that has not been spent still 'cause the city has just dragged its feet on rolling that out. So a real ongoing annual investment in that that was actually rolled out to be deployed versus the city kind of always trying to fight it - 'cause that is another empowering item of letting communities decide - what do we think is the biggest need that we have.
[01:10:54] Shannon Cheng: Great, yeah. I think they just extended the voting for that initial participatory budgeting program to November 12th, so we'll include a link to that in the show notes also. Well, those all sound like wonderful things that we could spend money on in our budget. And now it's time to go out and fight and try to get the money and political will to do it. So thank you both so much for being on the show with us today, and I guess that's it.
[01:11:21] Amy Sundberg: Thanks for having us.
[01:11:22] BJ Last: Thank you so much for having us, Shannon.
[01:11:23] Crystal Fincher: Thank you for listening to Hacks & Wonks, which is produced by Shannon Cheng. You can follow Hacks & Wonks on Twitter @HacksWonks. You can catch Hacks & Wonks on every podcast service and app - just type "Hacks and Wonks" into the search bar. Be sure to subscribe to get the full versions of our Friday week-in-review shows and our Tuesday topical show delivered to your podcast feed. If you like us, leave a review wherever you listen. 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 podcast episode notes.
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