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Final Seattle 2021 budget includes SPD cuts, reworked injection sites, new Nav Team

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan. (Photo by Karen Ducey/Getty Images)

Mayor Jenny Durkan signed Seattle’s 2021 budget into law Tuesday, as passed by Seattle councilmembers early last week.

The budget approved by Seattle City Council and signed by the mayor includes funding for a variety of much-debated programs, as well as moderate cuts to the police department that fell short of the 50% many activists and protesters had called for over the summer.

Council, mayor find “common ground” on SPD cuts

After months of heated debate in city hall between the mayor and councilmembers, the two parties came to an agreement on a package of cuts to the Seattle Police Department, totaling roughly 17%.

That included the creation of a civilian-led Community Safety and Communications Center, and shifting the city’s 911 call center and parking enforcement unit into that new department. The city will also eliminate 93 already-vacant SPD positions, which would leave them unfilled indefinitely pending upcoming police union contract negotiations. The mayor’s own budget proposal had sought to eliminate 47 of those unfilled positions.

Seattle Police Department responds to city council vote, budget cuts

In terms of layoffs, the approved 2021 budget will have SPD cut 35 officers by July 1. Interim Chief Adrian Diaz has been instructed to conduct those layoffs out of order rather than by seniority, prioritizing officers with histories of sustained complaints.

That said, the council and mayor’s office agreed not to enact a hiring freeze on new officers in 2021. SPD will be permitted to hire over 100 new officers in 2021 to cover their losses, after Diaz had intimated that he planned to fill staffing gaps in patrol by moving officers out of specialty investigative units.

Under a previously proposed hiring freeze, the department would have ended 2021 with 1,260 sworn officers. Without the freeze, SPD will have 1,311 available officers.

Reworked safe injection sites

The 2021 city budget will see Seattle retool a years-old proposal to provide 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.

Seattle council mulls new plan for safe injection sites

Legal troubles scuttled those plans, leading to a reworked proposal that will instead train staff members at existing low barrier emergency shelters to respond to and reverse overdoses. Advocates for the plan have noted 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.

A new Navigation Team

In August, Seattle councilmembers voted to disband the city’s Navigation Team, which had been responsible for homeless outreach, as well as clearing encampments alongside SPD officers. The team had faced criticism from councilmembers and activists over the years, largely related to the SPD’s role in clearing out camps, as well as the relatively low rate the team had for moving people into shelters during those clearances.

The new version of the team will no longer include police, and will instead be comprised of eight people who will help coordinate homeless outreach among local nonprofits and other city programs.

That group will be known as the HOPE Team, with a manager, data analyst, and community liaisons filling those eight slots. A portion of the money to fund that new program will come from the federal CARES Act. The city will need to identify new money after those funds run dry, but the goal is to stand up some sort of organized homeless outreach in the interim.

Investments in BIPOC communities

A $100 million investment in communities of color has long been touted by Mayor Durkan as one of the most prominent elements of her proposed 2021 budget. Seattle councilmembers largely agreed with that proposal, but clashed with the mayor over where the money would come from.

Durkan had initially wanted to pull the funding from the council’s recently-approved big business tax, something councilmembers balked at when the measure came across the dais.

Ultimately, the two parties agreed to pull the money from a general fund, where it will sit while a task force appointed by the mayor’s office decides where exactly to invest it. That task force hasn’t been without controversy of its own though.

Sean Goode, Executive Director of CHOOSE 180, a group that has long worked with the city and county prosecutor’s office on keeping youth and young adults from communities of color out of the criminal justice system, wrote an op-ed about why he had already quit the mayor’s task force.

“Investment without divestment is a fruitless pursuit,” Goode said in October. “We can continue to pour more money into communities that are suffering, but if we’re not actually stopping the investment in things that are causing the harm, then what are we really doing with the dollars.”

An increase in car tab fees citywide

Councilmembers voted in mid-November to include an increase to a citywide car tab fee from $20 to $40 in the 2021 budget. 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 over the lack of a stakeholder process in determining how those funds should be spent. Ultimately, the council agreed to OK the fee increase, but set aside the issue of how to spend it for future discussion.

KIRO Radio’s Hanna Scott contributed to this report.

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