After two months of deliberation, today is the day that the Seattle City Council will finalize the rebalanced 2020 budget. In a meeting this morning ahead of the final vote this afternoon, the council walked back one of the amendments meant to whittle down the Seattle Police Department's $409 million budget.
Last Wednesday, the council added amendments that reduced some of SPD's remaining 2020 budget. While those reductions ended up nowhere near the 50% cut protesters have asked for, they set the stage for a 2021 budget conversation with more significant cuts. One of those amendments sought to reduce the salaries of the highest paid officers in SPD to the lowest level of their position's pay range.
Under the proposal, 13 command officers would see their compensation for the last quarter of 2020 drop down to the lowest possible pay-level for their positions. SPD Chief Carmen Best's position was included in this cut. Best makes $289,420 annually. Under this amendment, she'd only make $172,000. In total, the amendment would result in $375,000 in savings, according to Councilmember Kshama Sawant. It passed last week 6-3.
However, something changed in the four days since the vote. On Monday, the council voted 5-2 to mostly exempt Best's salary from the pay caps. Councilmembers Tammy Morales and Sawant voted against. Councilmembers Andrew Lewis, Alex Pedersen, Dan Strauss, Lisa Herbold, and Council President Lorena Gonzalez voted yes. Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda abstained, and Debora Juarez was not present.
Herbold proposed a change that would reduce Best's salary from $289,420 to $275,000 instead of to $172,000 as the original amendment proposed.
Herbold admitted she "made an error without having enough information on the impact of this vote" when she initially voted for the amendment. Herbold's big concern was that Best, who manages the largest department in the city, would go from being the third-highest paid department head to the second-lowest paid department head. (FYI, the director of the Department of Neighborhoods is at the bottom of the list.)
Herbold was sweating the idea that the council was advocating for cutting the pay of a Black woman in a "non-traditional sector," and argued she did not want to perpetuate the "race and gender discrimination" Best had experienced in her career.
Herbold worried the council's move would "become the headline" and "distract us from following through on our commitments to policing." She's right about making headlines, but now those headlines will highlight the council's backtracking on commitments they'd made to police reform groups only a week after making them in the first place.
Sawant said she was disappointed that "identity" was being used as an excuse not to cut Best's exorbitant salary, which is above the average for what major city police chiefs make across the country. She added that snipping SPD's budget and Best's salary was "a matter of taking resources away from where they’re not being used effectively."
The fact of the matter, Sawant explained, is that police violence and a lack of police accountability most impact Black community members. Best's relatively huge paycheck has not been helping those communities, but Sawant's proposal would send $375,000 back into those communities.
"We have to choose what benefits the majority of the Black community," Sawant said.
Rev. Harriet Walden, co-chair of the Community Police Commission, commented on the development on Twitter, saying that the council wouldn't even have had the courage to defund SPD if Best's white predecessor, Kathleen O'Toole were still the chief.
The other argument against the cut to Best's salary came from Councilmember Lewis, who voted against the initial bill. He was opposed to capping any department executives' salary if it wasn't a citywide "consistent" cut. Basically, if the council wanted to cut executive salaries at the SPD, then executives at Seattle City Light should also be taking the same cuts.
"I don’t believe that allowing SPD to continue to have bloated salaries is a way to be consistent," Sawant remarked. She also pointed out that council members had voted against her budget proposal that would cut city executive salaries across the board.
In an interesting development, though, Lewis, Mosqueda, and Gonzalez all expressed interest in looking into across-the-board cuts to high-paying city executives in the 2021 budget.
For now, the proposed budget—sans-cuts to Best's salary—will head to a final vote this afternoon at around 2:45 p.m.