Well that was an absolute shit show.
Over the course of a four-hour budget meeting Tuesday, Seattle City council members repeatedly emphasized the urgency of addressing Seattle's worsening homelessness crisis and then voted against two potential sources of money for that crisis.
That left the council with a bunch of social service programs it wants to fund but no significant new influx of money. Today, they'll have to figure out what to do now.
The first potential source of money, a head tax on large businesses, met resistance from council members who worried businesses hadn't been involved in the process. Several said they would support a similar tax in the future after a more careful process. And some questioned the spending plan for revenue raised by the tax. It failed 5-4.
The second possible source of money was an $8.8 million one-time dip into the city's rainy day fund, sponsored by Council President Bruce Harrell, who voted against the head tax. Amid council concerns about fiscal responsibility, that failed too. (All of the council members who supported the head tax voted against pulling money from the rainy day fund. Some questioned whether city rules allow that type of use for the rainy day fund; others said it was an effort to deflect pressure to tax businesses. Two of those who voted no, Kshama Sawant and Mike O'Brien, have supported using rainy day fund money for homelessness in the past. )
Council Member Lorena González, the only member to vote against both the head tax and taking money from the rainy day fund, said in an email Tuesday she was concerned there was not a clear plan for how the money would be spent. She said the council should instead "identify inefficiencies in the Mayor’s proposed budget" and make "difficult choices to hit pause on council member priorities that are neither tied to an identified revenue stream nor focused on assisting people who are homeless with obtaining and retaining stable housing." Taking money from the rainy day fund could also "reduce the sense of urgency related to the refinement and passage of an improved Employee Hours Tax package and other progressive revenue streams," González said. (González was one of several council members who said they would support a head tax later.)
All of that—combined with a long wish list for social services—means this morning, the council will be debating what gets axed and how the hell to pay for the things they want to keep.
"There is extreme alignment on that council on the urgent need to invest in homelessness and housing," said Alison Eisinger, executive director of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, after today's vote. But Eisinger said she is both "extremely worried" and "hopeful" about whether the council will actually find more money for homelessness services without a new tax or dip into the rainy day fund.
Council Member Lisa Herbold, the council budget chair who supported the head tax, has proposed a "plan b."
Herbold said the city can fund the items in red in this spreadsheet next year in part with money already identified by council staff (things like tax revenues that will be higher this year that previously forecast). Herbold said the council can also reduce and "right-size" other proposals in the budget to find money. This slimmed-down list works out to about $5 million instead of the $13 million in spending that would have been funded with the head tax. In picking those programs, Herbold said she focused on programs facing cuts, rather than new efforts.
"I did what I felt was scraping the bottom of the barrel to come up with enough dollars," Herbold said.
If other council members want to add more programs, they'll have to come up with funding sources themselves. And considering what's left on the chopping block, it's likely that will happen.
Programs not funded in this "plan b" include a safe consumption site and expansion of the drug crime diversion program LEAD, two things many council members support. Herbold said Tuesday night other council members were working to find money in the budget.
Despite their loss, head tax supporters are hoping their fight isn't over. Katie Wilson, general secretary of the Transit Riders Union, which supported the tax, said she viewed Tuesday's vote as "we lost the battle, but we're winning the war."
Several council members voted against the tax in this budget, but pledged to support a different head tax in the future. And two council members said they were working on resolutions to express city council support for a head tax. Wilson said she'll be looking for a specific timeline in that resolution, like the council did this spring for the income tax.
"That really was effective in putting the fire under the council," Wilson said. "I would hope what happens here will be similar."
The council will take public comment at 9:30 am, then reconvene to discuss and vote on the budget at 11. You can watch here.