There are many criticisms that can be leveled at the City Council's COVID-19 relief package, the most obvious of which is it's not ambitious enough. It's only $86 million. It needs a lot more money going in a lot of different directions.
The working-class sections of the city have been hit exceptionally hard by the economic crash. The extra $600 unemployment benefit has vanished and may never return. Unemployment is over 9 percent in the Seattle/Bellevue/Everett area after hitting 16.1 percent in April.
This crisis has never been met with a response that's anywhere close to realistic. We never had, for instance, a hard and long shutdown of the rental and mortgage system, a policy that would have enormously helped many families receiving the $600 benefit boost and provided some certainty, particularly to renters and small businesses.
What we have instead done at every point of this crisis is simply kick things down the road. When the eviction moratorium expiration date approaches, for example, the Governor realizes the pandemic is still not over and then extends the moratorium again. This last-minute approach is the worst way to build a social sense of confidence.
And now we have a massive food service proletariate whose future is in the dark. The COVID-19 bill does direct a significant (but still not enough) amount to the homeless crisis (it accounts for a third of the package), but the city's homeless population is bound to swell if more (much more) is not done to protect the workers employed by small businesses. (According to the authors of the relief bill, "there are at least 38,000 businesses in the City of Seattle employing a minimum of 655,000 individuals.")
The emergency bill was not enough by any means, but it was something. And yet this something was way too big for Mayor Jenny Durkan. She vetoed it.
From her press release on August 1:
Council has proposed spending 90 percent of the reserves (an additional $86 million) on new spending, and the remaining 10 percent (approximately $13 million) in other new spending in the upcoming weeks...It is irresponsible to spend the entirety of our rainy day and emergency funds in the first few months of what is likely a multi-year crisis. If 2020 is any indication, no one can responsibly project that Seattle will not have additional emergencies this year and next. Already this year, in addition to the health and economic crisis, we have seen a significant unplanned infrastructure emergency with the closure of the West Seattle Bridge.
She goes on to argue that “the City Council’s budget process cannot continue to be spending or cutting tens of millions of dollars without concrete plans," and says she "remain[s] committed to working with Council to identify specific resources for some of the newly proposed programs, where we know there is great unmet need."
Here, we can hear the mayor saying something that recalls something a droopy bank robber says in Sidney Lumet's 1975 classic Dog Day Afternoon.
This is the scene...
The bank robbers Sonny and Sal are trapped. Sonny devises a plan to leave the country by jet. They will use the hostages in the bank to get the jet at the airport. They can go to any country in the world.
Sonny: Is there any special country you want to go to?
Sonny: No. . .Wyoming. . .that’s not a country.
The essence of Durkan's response to the City Council's COVID-19 package is much like Sal saying "Wyoming" to Sonny.
Why is it so hard for her to see that nothing is going to move in this city—that nothing will work in any kind of normal way—unless the city directs its resources to the damage caused by a pandemic that's far from over?
An adequate solution to this unprecedented structural crisis demands nothing less than bold and even imaginative actions and polices. But we are stuck with a mayor who believes that all of this can be handled with the same economic and policy tools that don't work for most even during normal times. One must remember that at the peak of the boom (2018), Durkan wanted to rein in spending. “My budget is also rooted in a difficult reality," said Durkan to the city. "After years of significant growth, city revenue is reaching a plateau... So we have to live within our means." And now, during the bust, she still wants keep spending in check.
Durkan never has any other place to go but this Wyoming of imagined probity. When now is the time think of other countries—that is, doing something new or radical—she says: Wyoming. When now is the time for serious social innovation, again: Wyoming. When now is the time for fiscal boldness: Wyoming.
But there is another way to look at Durkan's veto. History has shown us that the mayor has very little sympathy for the lot of those who do not live in homes and pay their part. And what do we find in the relief bill? What for her must be the mind-boggling audacity of devoting a third of the budget to the very people she sweeps about the city.