In September, Mayor Bruce Harrell released his proposed 2024 budget, which significantly increased money for affordable-housing construction and operations, directed more than $100 million to the King County Regional Homelessness Authority and provided funds to launch Seattle’s “dual dispatch” pilot program that will send mental health professionals out on certain 911 emergency calls, among other priorities.
The budget then headed to the City Council for amendments and balancing. It’s one of the final actions the current body will take, with six of its nine members departing office at the end of the year.
In the end, the Council adopted 120 amendments to the mayor’s proposal. They include one-off items like a $600,000 boost to improve paving around the Seattle Storm’s new training facility; big-ticket ongoing investments such as school mental health counselors; and budget-related policy items that don’t add costs, but instead shape city operations.
The Council’s focus on public safety, shelter and affordable housing, substance-use disorders and other related issues reflect the city’s ongoing struggles with homelessness and the drug crisis.
Many of the Council’s homelessness budget items are about improving access to services. For example, an amendment from Councilmember Andrew Lewis directed an additional $500,000 to pay for behavioral health services, case management and operations in Low Income Housing Institute’s tiny home villages.
Councilmember Tammy Morales sponsored an amendment that will provide another $500,000 to support Consejo Counseling and Referral Services, a nonprofit focused on behavioral health and transitional housing help for Seattle Latino communities.
Councilmember Kshama Sawant attempted to divert $1.5 million from the Seattle Police Department budget to further expand the availability of behavioral health services and case management in homelessness shelters. But the amendment failed 4-5 with Councilmembers Debora Juarez, Sara Nelson, Alex Pederson, Dan Strauss and Lewis voting no. The $1.5 million will remain in SPD’s budget to pay for a controversial gunshot detection system.
Last year, the City Council voted to remove money from the 2023 budget meant to pay for ShotSpotter or a similar detection system, which has been accused of contributing to biased policing, among other issues.
A $300,000 amendment from Strauss will help support meal programs and expand the budget for RV safe storage when homeless RV residents transition to shelter or permanent housing. Another $600,000 amendment from Strauss bolsters funding for Seattle food banks that have struggled in recent years with rising costs and increased need for their services.
Several amendments from Councilmembers Lisa Herbold, Teresa Mosqueda and Lewis provided a combined $3 million wage boost for people working in homelessness services and other human services. This sector has struggled with high turnover and prolonged vacancies because of low wages and challenging work. The additional funds will help raise wages and offset inflationary impacts for people engaged in street outreach, operating shelters, running permanent supportive housing facilities and doing other homelessness work in Seattle.
Nelson introduced a successful $300,000 amendment to help people experiencing homelessness access and pay for inpatient or intensive outpatient substance-use disorder treatment.
Thanks to the passage of the nearly $1 billion Seattle Housing Levy Renewal, Harrell’s 2024 budget proposal increased funding for affordable-housing construction and operations to a record $334 million. An amendment from Mosqueda adds another $4.6 million to the Office of Housing’s budget, using revenue from the Jumpstart payroll tax on big businesses. Most of it will pay for the construction and operations of subsidized rental apartments. About $220,000 will go toward the office’s affordable homeownership program.
Mosqueda also introduced a successful amendment to provide another $1 million to nonprofit legal services groups that help low-income tenants facing eviction, which can often lead to homelessness.
A policy amendment from Lewis directs the Office of Housing to investigate ways it can increase support for construction and acquisition of micro-housing units to decrease the cost-per-unit of expanding Seattle’s supply of subsidized housing. A second policy amendment from Pedersen requires the Office of Housing to provide more frequent reports on the number of vacancies in city-funded affordable-housing units to make sure units aren’t sitting empty.
Student mental health
A successful amendment from Sawant will provide $20 million to the Department of Education and Early Learning to hire more mental health counselors for Seattle Public Schools. It’s a request students have been making in the wake of the pandemic and in response to incidents of school violence. The American School Counselor Association recommends one counselor per 275 students. As of last year, Seattle Public Schools had about one counselor per 350 students. The budget item will be paid for with a small increase in the Jumpstart payroll tax. Smaller businesses subject to the tax will pay an additional .05%, up from the current .7% tax on payroll expenses; larger businesses will pay an additional .15%, up from the current 2.4%.
Policing and public safety
The Council’s biggest-ticket amendment on policing will direct $4.5 million to the police department budget to pay for bonuses for officers working at special events. The amendment also codifies a memorandum of understanding between the city and the Seattle Police Officers Guild that dictates how the dual dispatch program and park ranger programs will operate, and stipulates the special-event bonuses. Officers volunteering to direct traffic or perform other event management duties will get a $225 bonus per shift. Any unfilled special-event position can be staffed by non-sworn officers such as parking enforcement staff.
The Council also adopted a $250,000 amendment to reinstate SPD’s contract with Truleo, which the department ended earlier this year. Truleo uses artificial intelligence to review officers’ body-camera footage to identify bad officer behavior. The ACLU has criticized the use of the technology, arguing it creates concerns around privacy and civil liberties.
Herbold sponsored an amendment for a one-time $500,000 boost to help the Regional Peacekeepers Collective expand its violence interruption work. The Collective is an umbrella organization for several nonprofits that intervene after violent incidents in an attempt to prevent retaliatory violence and to connect victims and perpetrators with counseling and other services.
Another $200,000 amendment from Herbold will provide mental health services to the frontline workers providing community violence intervention.
A policy amendment directs the City Budget Office to create a report outlining what it would take to separate the Office of Police Accountability budget from SPD’s budget, where it currently resides. The Council wants to provide the Office of Police Accountability with increased autonomy from the department it’s meant to watchdog.
The Council Budget Committee will vote Monday to adopt the amended 2024 budget before sending it to the full Council for a final vote Tuesday.