Budget progress: Sawant at center of council contention

Crosscut archive image.

Mike O'Brien and Kshama Sawant at a Seattle City Council meeting in 2014.

It was the due date Monday for Seattle City Council members to tweak Mayor Ed Murray’s proposed 2016 Seattle budget. The discussion, which stretched on for more than six hours over two sessions, was on several occasions a tense and even awkward series of standoffs between Councilmember Kshama Sawant, backed with enormous public support in City Hall’s council chambers, and the majority of her council colleagues. Although Sawant would remain positive at the conclusion of the discussion, her efforts seemed to fall on largely deaf ears behind the council dais. And the budget document looks like something Murray will happily sign next week.

Monday’s meeting was the result of weeks of both public and private conversations. In the grand scheme, the council has relatively little money to play around with. Only about a quarter of the total city budget is in the general fund and most of that goes to large departments like the Seattle Police Department, Seattle Fire Department or the library. The items up for grabs, then, are less about tectonic shifts and more about nudges in certain directions.

Many of the council’s amendments were largely administrative – shifting funds or repaying loans or boosting money here and there for certain positions or studies. But items that related particularly to issues of social justice, youth and paid parental leave touched off some nerves.

Arguably the biggest ticket item was Councilmember Nick Licata’s amendment to add $2.3 million in investments for the immediate needs of the homeless. The money would expand street outreach, provide more shelter beds, build out day centers and fund more basic health and safety provisions. Licata’s addition came after Mayor Ed Murray declared a state of emergency in response to Seattle’s rising homeless population – up to nearly 4,000, according to a count from last year. In addition to expanding the mayor’s authority, the declaration of emergency was paired with an additional $5 million investment. While the majority of the council members cheered on the declaration and the investment, several felt the money fell short of the dramatic announcement.

Initially, Licata proposed dipping into the city’s rainy day fund – built up for an economic downturn – for the $2.3 million. The mayor, as well as most of the rest of the council, disagreed. “I have serious concerns,” said the mayor in a memo to the council, “about taking steps that would jeopardize the city’s ability to fund critical services during an economic downturn.”

Conveniently, the budget forecast for 2016 was revised upward at the end of October, largely a result of higher than expected real estate tax, and the mayor encouraged Licata to consider that money instead. Licata agreed and the extra money was passed unanimously.

The bombshell of the day was from Councilmember Sawant, who proposed an additional $10 million out of the city’s emergency subfund, which is usually reserved for disasters. Sawant even offered to sacrifice her $5 million proposal to fund a municipal broadband pilot program, which would make Internet service a public utility, to make the amount more palatable.

The proposal, however, would be the beginning to a long day for Sawant. Despite loud support from the council meeting’s public attendees and despite assuring the other council members that she had given advance indications of the proposal, six of eight present council members voted against the pitch, either because they felt caught off guard or because of a commitment on principle to keeping the reserves full.

As it turned out, Sawant’s offering of the municipal broadband pilot would have been moot anyway: six of eight voted that down as well.

Things would not get easier for the council member. Her proposal to study the construction of an LGBTQ community center on Capitol Hill was met with fierce opposition from Councilmember Tom Rasmussen. Sawant was proposing using Parks Department to fund the study. Rasmussen, who is gay, argued Parks cannot fund something so specific. He also took issue with isolating the services to Capitol Hill. Finally, he told Crosscut that an LGBTQ community center would be redundant in much of what it did. While he said he would consider such a project through other avenues, he suggested that they could use the Parks investments to encourage existing community centers to add more LGBTQ services. Sawant protested that community centers should by nature already provide those services and that Rasmussen’s urging was meaningless. Nevertheless, Rasmussen won out.

Two more proposals from Sawant went down as well. One to fund a “housing study” was criticized for being too vague. Another, which called for making a smaller repayment on a longstanding loan and then reinvesting the extra money into a onetime seed for 12 weeks paid parental leave, was criticized by Councilmember Tim Burgess for funding something the council already intended to do.

“You can tell the election is over,” said Sawant, who pulled no punches throughout the meeting.

Still, in a statement in the evening Sawant celebrated the amendments as a victory. She sighted the funding bump for Career Bridge, the popular program to find jobs for ex-cons. She also pointed to amendments to fund ORCA cards for low-income students, $600,000 to explore ending youth incarceration and, perhaps most significantly, the council agreed to take a closer look at the viability of commercial rent control.

Mayor Murray applauded the budget process, especially the items key to his agenda next year, like the staffing of a new Office of Planning and Community Development, expanding the Youth Employment Initiative, funding police body cameras (although the council will decide when to release those funds) and holding off any spending of his rainy day money. “Given that 25 percent of our sales tax revenue is currently generated by our construction boom, they have wisely preserved our reserve funds,” he said in a statement.

Budget chair Licata was upbeat, saying, “With this budget, the Council is … making deliberate investments in what we all agree are the foundations for a strong Seattle – increasing access to mental health services, targeted diversion from youth incarceration and providing career opportunities to the formerly incarcerated.”

The council will officially vote on the full budget next week and it will likely make the mayor a happy man – most of his agenda priorities remain intact. But in what may (or may not) be a poke at the mayor and his strongest council allies, Licata snuck into his statement, “It’s important to remember that the City Council represents an independent branch of municipal government.”


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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.