5 takeaways from Mayor Murray's budget proposal

Crosscut archive image.

Ed Murray delivers a budget speech.

At a time when Seattle pines for better transportation, more housing and secure, fairly handled public safety, Mayor Ed Murray unveiled his $5.1 billion budget proposal before an audience of cops, firefighters, diverse youth — and a wall of city suits. Murray’s wide-ranging budget speech, delivered to the Seattle City Council Monday, focused heavily on growth, equity and public safety.

In his financial plan for 2016, his commitment to body cameras, focus on services for the homeless and expansion of bike sharing are likely to be among the most talked about items.

Things like utilities and transportation eat up the vast majority of the city’s budget. The $1.1 billion general fund is technically more flexible than the utilities and transportation expenditures, but most of it is dedicated to renewing the large budgets of departments like police, fire, administrative and the library. Murray and the Seattle City Council, therefore, are left with relatively little wiggle room for their own adjustments.

As he did in his first budget speech last year, Murray emphasized that, despite a booming economy, the city is nevertheless greatly restricted in how much money it can spend. He pointed to state’s cap on property tax increases, a reduction in state revenue for transportation and a decline in federal support, especially for affordable housing. “The impact of these constraints are real and significant,” said Murray.

The budget did tick up by 4.5 percent from last year. Murray’s office said the increase was to keep up with Seattle’s growing population, but that increased tax revenue from the incredible amount of construction would cover the growth needs. As Seattle booms, a full 25 percent of sales tax revenue is related to construction. Murray did not propose any new streams of revenue like, for example, a tax on employers or commercial parking. Property, business, sales and utility taxes are the main funders of the city’s general fund.

Although containing the whole proposal in five boxes is impossible, here are a handful of points to take away from Murray's budget.

1. Murray, like every politician before him, wants government to work better.

After recognizing the efforts of the first responders to the Aurora Bridge ‘Ride the Ducks’ crash, Murray argued for a more efficient government. He included more funding for his new Office of Planning and Community Development, which will replace the Department of Planning and Development. He also pledged to fund a Chief Privacy Officer to vet privacy concerns within the City.

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Mayor Ed Murray meets with public safety officials on a day where he called for more police and fire department hiring. Credit: Office of Mayor

Another refrain repeated from last year was the promise to make the budget more performance driven, meaning funding departments based on data and metrics. "I've heard of performance-based budgeting more than once from prior mayors," Councilmember Nick Licata told Crosscut last year. "What every mayor discovers is that each department offers an opportunity for resistance to his goals." Since then, the mayor has introduced online dashboards that track goals for each department, although funding has not yet been based on those metrics.

Murray also boosted funding for the Office of Labor Standards, Seattle's new office charged with overseeing the rollout and enforcement of the new minimum wage law.

2. Murray is trying to re-establish himself as the mayor of public safety.

Hiring in both the Fire Department (SFD) and the Police Department (SPD) have long been struggles. At the end of last year, neither met their goals. SFD, which is perpetually short about 50 firefighters, has 83 vacancies as of last April. SPD also did not meet its hiring goals by about 13 positions last year. So far this year, SPD has hired 60 officers, while losing 53 to retirement or firing. That number leaves it short of its goal to hire 75 new officers this year. Murray, therefore, is proposing more money to add 35 recruits to SFD’s training class and to add 30 new police officers in 2016. To achieve either, though, will require an overhaul of how the departments hire employees. In order to attract more Fire Department recruits, hires will no longer pay their way through training.

Murray, as well the chair of the Public Safety, Technology and Civil Rights Committee Bruce Harrell, monitor of Seattle’s police reforms Merrick Bobb, Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole and the Department of Justice, have all come out in favor of equipping Seattle police officers with body cameras. Murray put an exclamation on the program, proposing $1.8 million for the technology. In combination with $600,000 from the Department of Justice, that would be enough to give every officer in the department a camera.

Body cameras, however, have met resistance from some community members, most notably the Community Police Commission (CPC) — the civilian advisory board to the consent decree between SPD and the Department of Justice. In a recognition of that skepticism, Murray said, “I want to make clear: We will work carefully to get this right and adequately address privacy concerns.”

CPC co-chair Lisa Daugaard, however, told Crosscut last week, “Under current law, we don’t believe there is a solution for those important issues, no matter how carefully it’s done.”

3. Race and poverty dominate Seattle's civic discussion.  

Community advocates and members of the Seattle City Council have called on Murray to add more funding for upstream, social service work, in response to both Seattle’s growing homeless population and a recent City Council resolution pledging to eliminate the need for youth incarceration. Included in Murray's budget $1.5 million for homeless resources, including for more 24-hour shelter services.

He stirred the pot a bit by emphasizing the $240,000 proposal for tent encampments, directly addressing those who might oppose. “I understand the frustration and disappointment with homeless services being located in some of our neighborhoods,” he said. “But we have no alternative.”

Additionally, Murray filled much of council chambers with young people, mostly of color, to draw attention to city efforts to support youth employment. Providing jobs for youth has become Murray’s answer for keeping kids out of trouble while slimming the disparity between Seattle’s white and black populations. Through a grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies, the mayor will also look to improves the prospects of young black men in Seattle. "We as a society are failing young African Americans, particularly men," he said.

He also set aside $500,000 for youth to allocate as they see fit, an experiment known as Participatory Budgeting and championed by Councilmember Licata.

4. The Seawall screwed the mayor.

The largest proposal by far is $71 million for the Seawall. The project has gone far over budget, up from $300 million to $400 million, thanks in large part to unruly soil conditions. The city elected to delay the project in order to find additional funding. While there is no way of knowing exactly which of Murray’s other proposals may have suffered as a result, the money is a significant chunk of what he had to work with. “Our experience with the seawall demonstrates that we must do a better job at managing our capital costs,” said Murray.

5. Bubbles pop.

Finally, with an eye to the future, Murray committed an additional $7.3 million to the city’s rainy-day fund to, as he put it, “prepare us for the challenging financial time that we know will come.”

Not everyone was exactly on board with Murray’s proposals. “This is mostly another business-as-usual budget,” said Councilmember Kshama Sawant. In a media event organized in advance to respond to the proposals, she called on Murray to push for more fees on developers and to use the city’s bonding capacity for more affordable housing. She also wanted him to introduce new sources of revenue, namely taxes on employers, commercial parking and millionaires to be used to fight the “hollowing out of the Central District.”

Now that Murray’s budget proposal is public, the city council will spend significant time from now until late November combing through the proposals and making adjustments. All other council activity, with the exception of the committee charged with considering the mayor’s housing recommendations, is essentially canceled as a result.

As a whole, the budget is not exactly a sexy thing, but it does provide an opportunity for elected officials to enumerate their priorities. For Murray, after a second year that some consider a letdown from his frenzied first year, the budget means re-painting himself as the guy that can safely and effectively usher Seattle through an unprecedented period of growth.

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About the Authors & Contributors

David Kroman

David Kroman

David Kroman is formerly a reporter at Crosscut, where he covered city politics.