All nine members of the Seattle City Council signed off on a harshly worded letter to Mayor Mike McGinn today in response to comments he made implying that he might abandon plans to hire 20 new police officers this year in response to a midyear budget shortfall of $15 million. The letter blasts McGinn for failing to prioritize police hiring—something he promised to do on the campaign trail—and for freezing police hiring without telling the council.

McGinn made his comments on KUOW and in internal meetings with city budget staffers the same week he vowed to veto a proposal to expand the definition of aggressive panhandling, part of a larger plan to improve the perception of public safety downtown.

In a phone conversation, McGinn responded to the letter by accusing the council of playing politics with public safety, and blamed them for "failing to pass a balanced budget" last year, resulting in the need for midyear budget cuts.

The letter reads in part:
While we appreciate the difficulties we face in dealing with lower than expected revenues, public safety is a core city service. We remain firmly committed to the implementation of the Neighborhood Policing Plan. We are troubled by the halt in hiring net new officers and that this decision was made without consulting the Council. We request that you direct the Chief of Police to proceed with the hiring necessary to keep the city on track to achieve a net increase of 20 patrol officers this year.

Later this evening, Downtown Seattle Association spokesman Jon Scholes said the DSA was "outraged and appalled" that McGinn had halted police hiring, and that he "took this action unilaterally, without consulting the city council or the neighborhoods that would be affected." The DSA was a vocal supporter of the aggressive-panhandling ordinance.

McGinn acknowledged that the police department has not hired any new officers this year beyond filling positions when people leave. However, he said that didn't represent a final decision not to hire any additional officers for the rest of the year. "There hasn't been any decision made, other than the decision by the police department to not incur spending that they may not be able to spend because of the midyear budget cuts," McGinn said.

"The city council passed a budget that is now $15 million out of balance, and it's out of balance because they relied on optimistic revenue assupmtions, handed out tax breaks to businesses"—a reference to the council's decision to repeal the so-called head tax, which funded transportation projects, not public safety—"and took short term measures like spending down the rainy-day fund," a special fund for emergency spending during economic downturns, McGinn said.

"Now, to clean up the budget mess that they've created, we have asked departments to propose to us how they would reduce spending by three percent. That may mean we have to defer hiring" in the police department. "The correct word is a 'deferral.' 'Freeze' suggests that we've stopped everything."

Frequent McGinn ally Mike O'Brien, who first opposed, then supported, and finally voted against the aggressive-panhandling proposal after McGinn and community advocates persuaded him to switch positions, says he would not have voted differently even if he had known McGinn had proposed not hiring additional officers. "I suspect hiring or not hiring police officers was driven by the budget, and we all know that we have some serious budget problems," O'Brien says.

However, O'Brien says McGinn's vituperative statements about the council are "not terribly productive. ... We need to get past name-calling" to solve the city's budget crisis, he says.

The city's neighborhood policing plan calls for the hiring of more than 100 new officers by 2012. On the campaign trail, McGinn vowed to fully implement the plan and prioritize expanding the police force. "By hiring more officers, we will enable the department to do the crucial work that can’t be done when so much time is devoted to emergency response," McGinn's public safety plan said.

Asked whether a hiring freeze would represent a violation of that campaign promise, McGinn said, "My campaign promise was that I supported the neighborhood policing plan and that I would work to hire more officers, and I will indeed," he said. Meanwhile, "we've challenged the department to implement neighborhood policing within the personnel we have. We're going to try to meet that commitment, but we can't make money magically appear."

But Burgess, who's head of the council's public safety committee, says there aren't enough officers to make neighborhood policing work. A hiring freeze would "certainly throw a wrench into being able to fully implement neighborhood policing," Burgess says.

And council member Sally Clark, who's spearheading the neighborhood policing effort for the council, says that if McGinn "is not going do that hiring, we on the committee want to know about the change in course and what the alternative [proposal] is."