Councilman Burgess previews Seattle’s upcoming budget shortfalls
“This will be my fifth budget since I’ve been on the council, and every one of them we have had to cut and lower the budget. I’ve never been there when we were adding … so I look forward, someday, to having the luxury of that,” Seattle City Councilman Tim Burgess said in reflecting on years of tough budget decisions while speaking at a joint meeting of the Southwest District Council and Delridge Neighborhoods District Council on July 18 in West Seattle.
Burgess provided a preview of budget realities heading into next year as the deadline for Mayor McGinn’s proposed budget approaches (Sept. 24), followed by a city council deadline of the first Monday in December to finalize their balanced budget.
“When we started the year, the estimate was we would have to cut another $40 million or so and things are improving … we are seeing an uptick in construction, we are seeing an uptick in sales tax, so now we are down in the range of maybe about $20 to $25 million in cuts,” he said.
One last revenue update is expected in the first week of September, before McGinn submits his proposed budget. “Hopefully the amount that we have to cut will be smaller by then,” Burgess said, “but we don’t know.”
He then steered the conversation into what those cuts might mean.
“The reason that is problematic is when you have four previous years of cuts – especially the last two with pretty dramatic, deep cuts – there is not much left without causing serious disruption,” said Burgess, adding at the earlier estimate of $40 million the city could have been looking at significant police officer layoffs, and echoed warnings from several California cities who have been reduced to week-long rolling blackouts of fire stations to cut costs.
“We have also been very, very careful when we have made reductions to protect our core emergency human services – emergency food, emergency shelter, those types of things,” he said. “We have actually, at the council, increased some of those and the West Seattle Food Bank has benefited from that.”
“This year that is going to be more difficult and we are going to have to chip away a little bit even in our public safety and human services area if (the cut) is much more than that $20 million or so.”
Burgess said part of cuts moving in the right direction has to do with a busy summer for Seattle’s Department of Planning and Development with increased construction projects breaking ground or in the works, leading to higher fee revenue for the city and the rehiring of planners and permit reviewers who had been previously let go.
He said the larger the projects, the more revenue DPD can generate. That means expensive towering apartment complexes and office buildings (including those in the works at The Junction) may be bad news for some residents, but good news for the city’s budget.
Department of Justice report update
Switching gears, but still ultimately related to the budget, Burgess was asked about the latest in the city’s response to a DOJ report issued in December that called out the Seattle Police Department for patterns of excessive force, a lack of responsiveness to citizen complaints and biased policing based on race.
Burgess and other councilmembers worked with the Mayor’s office in the wake of that report to come up with a response and plan that would satisfy the DOJ’s call for reform, but they withdrew from working with McGinn in March.
“The longer we wait, the greater the chance the DOJ will come to us first with their solution and we might not like that,” Burgess said. “We felt we were in a stronger position if we were proactive with them and eventually it was clear we were not going to reach an agreement on doing that, and so the councilmembers withdrew from that process.”
The Mayor’s “20/20” proposal for reform was not accepted by the DOJ as a satisfactory agreement, and the latest news is the city has until the end of July to find common ground with the feds. If that deadline passes with no solution, according to City Attorney Pete Holmes in a letter to the Mayor obtained by the Seattle Times, it could put Seattle in jeopardy of a civil-rights lawsuit from DOJ.
Asked how he thought negotiations between McGinn’s office and the DOJ were progressing, Burgess said, “We are generally aware of how its going, which I would generally say, ‘Not well.’”
Back to the budget:
“If they do file suit than I am confident the city will defend itself,” Burgess said. “That will cost a lot of money and, also very important, once you are in a lawsuit it is going to take time and one of my criticisms of not resolving this early on is that this delay causes harm.
“Morale in the police department is very low (and) many segments of our community have open questions about their trust and confidence in the police …”