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Seattle council budget
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Seattle council OKs reworked injection sites, higher car tab fee on first day of budget votes

Seattle City Hall in downtown Seattle. (Dyer Oxley, KIRO Radio)

Seattle councilmembers began the processing of approving amendments to the city’s 2021 budget Wednesday, voting on several proposals with wide-ranging implications.

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Among the more controversial measures include one that would raise a city-level car tab fee from $20 to $40. Initially, the hope had been to earmark the funds from that increased fee to address underfunded bridge maintenance.

A recent report published by the city auditor estimates that Seattle should be spending between $34 million and $102 million annually to meet engineering standards for bridge maintenance. Currently, the city spends roughly $10 million to that effect. By raising a vehicle licensing fee from $20 to $40, councilmembers estimate the city could raise an additional $3.6 million.

Despite supporting the fee itself, Council President Lorena Gonzalez brought up concerns Wednesday over the lack of a stakeholder process in determining how those funds should be spent. Ultimately, the council agreed to include the car tab fee increase in its 2021 budget, but set aside the issue of how to spend it for future discussion.

Seattle Councilmember Kshama Sawant voiced her own disapproval for the measure, labeling it “one of the most deeply regressive taxes” the city could pass for low-income and working class residents. Sawant instead proposed the city raise that money by increasing rates for the JumpStart big business tax passed earlier in 2020. That proposal was voted down 8-1.

Also discussed and voted on in the council’s budget committee Wednesday was a reworked version of a plan for safe injection sites. Early plans for a safe injection site in Seattle would have had trained medical professionals at a physical location providing sterile tools for drug use, while standing ready to administer overdose-reversing drugs should the need arise.

Legal troubles scuttled those plans, leading to a retooled proposal that would instead train staff members at existing low barrier emergency shelters to respond to and reverse overdoses. Advocates for the plan note that high numbers of overdoses are already occurring at those shelters, and that training existing staff to step in and provide aid could save lives.

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Councilmember Alex Pedersen opposed the proposal Wednesday, questioning its ability to get drug users into treatment.

“People will not receive treatment if they die,” countered Councilmember Lisa Herbold.

The council voted to move the proposal forward, with Pedersen operating as the lone “no” vote.

Votes from councilmembers moved these and several other amendments out of the budget committee on Wednesday. A second committee session on Thursday will decide the fate of the remaining amendments. A full council vote on Nov. 23 will then finalize the 2021 budget and send it to the mayor’s office for approval.

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