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Seattle City Council moves forward with 2020 budget while largely ignoring cloud of I-976

The prearrest Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program was the big winner as the council deliberated its $6.5 billion spending package.

Early morning at Seattle City Hall on June 12, 2019. (Paul Christian Gordon for Crosscut)

Rather than prepare its budget for what could soon be a massive hit to Seattle’s transportation services, the Seattle City Council on Tuesday forged ahead with a roughly $6.5 billion spending package that makes new investments in homeless services, criminal justice reforms, housing and a host of other priorities — all while avoiding cuts on transportation.

The budget package, which tweaks Mayor Jenny Durkan’s proposal from earlier this fall, was unanimously passed 8-0 out of committee, and is teed up for final approval Monday.

Washington voters earlier this month approved Initiative 976 to slash the price of car tabs to $30, cutting a major revenue source for transportation projects across the state. The initiative is projected to leave a hole of more than $30 million in the city’s annual transportation budget.

But the city is challenging I-976 in court, requesting last week that a judge halt its implementation, and the council is opting to let that court process play out before cutting services.

“I don’t think any of us in this room think that cutting these essential transportation services is appropriate, particularly while we are fighting the constitutionality of I-976,” said Councilmember Sally Bagshaw, the budget chair, who said cuts would cause “irreparable damage” to transportation in the city.

“Our budget is not going to try to address the transportation issues,” she added.

At $6.5 billion, the 2020 budget is about $600 million more than this year’s. Much of that is dedicated to spending on basic city services and public safety, but the council is now on track to spend over $100 million on homelessness-related services.

The biggest winner of next year’s budget will be the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program. The prearrest diversion program, which began in Seattle nearly a decade ago and has since spread around the country, will get a $3.5 million bump, increasing the program’s combined city and county budget by more than 50 percent. The program is geared toward reducing crime by connecting frequent low-level offenders with services in lieu of booking or jail.

The council also voted to increase funding for both long- and short-term approaches to addressing homelessness.

The council will spend about $2 million to build or grow tiny home villages in the city, $1.5 million to help relocate a youth homelessness shelter, $1.8 million for a health clinic geared toward low-income individuals and $1 million for homeless services for American Indian and Alaska Native individuals. Councilmember Kshama Sawant proposed a much more dramatic expansion of tiny home villages, but failed to gain support from her colleagues.

The council will also add $750,000 to provide extra help for people whose limited state and federal disability benefits leave them vulnerable to falling into homelessness.

Among longer term solutions, the council will redirect over $12 million from the sale of a large city-owned property in South Lake Union toward the construction of new affordable housing.

Despite heightened election rhetoric about possible cuts to the “Navigation Team,” which conducts homeless encampment outreach and cleanups, the council maintained the funding level proposed by the mayor, but with some additional reporting requirements.

Public safety continues to be a broad topic of conversation in Seattle, as debate continues over how to best address the issue of “prolific offenders,” who tend to commit multiple, low-level offenses. Durkan proposed a number of steps, including more collaborative case management planning, new shelter space and a “high-barrier” probation program.

The council cut the probation program, requesting the Seattle Municipal Court report back with more specifics on its implementation.

On transportation, the council will redirect $2 million away from the same South Lake Union property sale toward bike lane construction.

Despite cuts and reallocation of some of Durkan’s priorities, the budget largely keeps intact her main priorities. The new budget increases spending on bus service and pedestrian safety projects. It will also increase spending for child care subsidies, as well as for recruitment and retention of Seattle police officers.

Still on the docket for the council: a vote on an additional 57-cent tax proposed by the mayor on Uber and Lyft rides, which could raise about $25 million a year in new revenue. The council is also still considering a plan to implement a minimum wage for Uber and Lyft drivers, the specifics of which would be ironed out in the coming year.

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Seattle City Council moves forward with 2020 budget while largely ignoring cloud of I-976

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