If cities are to lead the resistance against the Trump administration, they must be open to more people than ever. That's why, as hard as it is to unfocus our eyes from our national nightmare and refocus them locally, we must.
One part of this city's response to Trump will be how it spends money on the most vulnerable, which is why we need to talk about budget deliberations.
After weeks of discussions focused on Mayor Ed Murray's 2017 budget proposal, the Seattle City Council has made some important changes (and failed to make some others). Among them, new funding for affordable housing—though not at the level some demanded—and increased taxes on international investment firms. Let's take a look:
• $29 million in new money for affordable housing: By now, it's a familiar story. Council Member Kshama Sawant stakes out her ideal, far-left position and rallies her supporters for the cause. The rest of the council balks. But then, under pressure to do something, they end up supporting some sort of compromise proposal. That's what happened here.
In recent months, Sawant (along with Block the Bunker activists) has been questioning the city's need for a new police precinct in North Seattle. She says the city should spend the $160 million for the precinct on affordable housing instead. But the financial details are complicated. The mayor and some council members opposed Sawant's plan and the mayor's budget head questioned whether it was even possible. (The mayor and some council members also simply don't want to kill the north precinct project.)
Meanwhile, as Sawant organized activists and her colleagues brushed off her idea, Council Member Lisa Herbold offered an alternative. Instead of stopping the precinct in order to fund affordable housing, Herbold's pitched a plan to sell city bonds to raise $29 million for affordable housing and pay back the debt service on those bonds with property taxes charged on new construction (though that detail has yet to be finalized).
Yesterday, the council rejected Sawant's plan and approved Herbold's. The $29 million will be available next year for nonprofit housing developers to pair with other funds and build up to 500 new units of rent-restricted housing.
While that number of units is far smaller than what the city needs—about 3,000 people were sleeping on the streets of Seattle at last count—it's the latest example of Herbold's effectiveness. While Sawant stakes out her ideal position, Herbold is more willing to compromise. In this case, that got all but two of her colleagues (Tim Burgess and Debora Juarez) on board, even in the face of opposition from the mayor.
Facing a Trump administration, federal housing funding for Seattle "may now be at risk," Rachel Myers, Executive Director of the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance, said in a statement. "The combination of Seattle’s housing needs and the uphill struggle to find alternate resources make local investments in affordable housing more critical than ever."
In a meeting Wednesday, Sawant made the link too. "I also think we have a responsibility to do what we can to prepare for and resist those attacks that we know will come," she said.
• A shift in funding from jail to diversion programs: Thank Council Member Mike O'Brien for this one. The budget change takes about $408,000 from the city's contract to house inmates in the King County Jail next year and redirects that money to programs that help people before charges are filed against them, damaging their record and making it hard to get jobs or housing. According to O'Brien's office, that money will pay for about 200 diversion cases next year and even more the year after that.
• Increased funding for homeless services: Beyond the $59 million in homelessness funding in Murray's initial budget, the council made some small but meaningful additions. Those include: $85,700 for a seasonal homeless shelter in Lake City; $200,000 for lockers or other storage of belongings at shelters; about $700,000 over the next two years to maintain extended hours at the Lazarus Day Center, a daytime shelter for people over 50; and $300,000 to buy and install one Portland Loo-style public bathroom plus money to maintain it for the next two years.
• College tuition for high school seniors: Council Member Bruce Harrell successfully added $500,000 to the budget to support the 13th Year Promise Scholarship program, which prepares high school students for college and gives graduating seniors from Cleveland, Chief Sealth International, Rainier Beach, and West Seattle High Schools a year of free tuition at South Seattle College.
• Increased taxes on international investment management services: Proposed by Sawant, this will raise about $2 million a year.
• No dedicated source of funding for labor law enforcement: The city's Office of Labor Standards—which enforces the minimum wage, wage theft, and sick time laws and will soon also enforce recently passed secure scheduling rules and hotel worker protections—is notoriously understaffed. The good news this year was that the mayor's budget doubled the size of that office, meaning more investigators will be looking into violations of these laws.
The bad news is the money for that department, like other city departments, comes from the general fund. That means every year, its needs are pitted against other departments'. One alternative is to make businesses pay.
Herbold proposed increasing business licensing fees and using that new money to fund OLS. That would have freed up the money going to OLS for other needs—something that will be especially necessary if the city faces reduced federal funding under Trump—or could have allowed the city to expand the office even further. (I wrote more about the value of setting up a special funding source for the department here.)
But the council narrowly rejected Herbold's idea with Tim Burgess, Debora Juarez, Sally Bagshaw, Bruce Harrell, and Rob Johnson voting no. Johnson said the city should take more time to meet with businesses before passing the fee.
• No preference for hiring cops who speak a second language: Herbold proposed adding new "preference points" in hiring police officers who speak a language other than English. Preference points are used in the hiring process to give certain applicants, like veterans, a leg up. One way to diversify and demilitarize the police force is to offer those points for other things, like language or Peace Corps service.
But the proposal met surprising resistance, including from Council Member Lorena González, who chairs the council's public safety committee and has called for more diversity in police hiring. González said the city should wait for a forthcoming diversity study expected next year and collaborate with the Community Police Commission
"That we would need a study to tell us language diversity among police officers is [helpful] is really counterintuitive," Herbold responded. "There is really no reason to not start with this now. This is really low hanging fruit."
• No increased funding for the Tenants Union of Washington State: O'Brien and Sawant floated an idea to spend $500,000 to help the understaffed Tenants Union hire more staff and do more outreach to tenants who may be facing eviction. But they couldn't get support from any of their other colleagues for the proposal. Instead, the council requested that the city's construction department come up with a plan for a "landlord tenant resource center" in future years.
• Pronto: The council voted Wednesday to fund the bike-share program through the first quarter of 2017 but will then cut its funding and shut it down. The council has also put a hold on spending any more money on expanding bike share until they specifically approve a new bike share system.
So, what happens now? The council will have to vote on whether to replace the current system with an all-electric fleet next year. Expect that to come up in January.
• Transitional housing: Part of the city's longterm plan for addressing homelessness relies on moving money away from transitional housing (which offers lots of services aimed at people with substance abuse and other issues) and toward rapid rehousing (which offers vouchers to use on the private market). That's problematic and some transitional housing providers and council members have resisted the switch.
In response, the council has figured out a stopgap. The city will fund a handful of transitional housing programs that were set to lose funding next year. But what happens beyond 2017 remains to be seen.
The city council will make final changes to the budget Monday morning and vote on the final version at 2 pm Monday. You can watch live here.