Starting at 10am yesterday and lasting until the late afternoon, an almost full city council hashed out the final amendments to the 2016 budget (council member Bruce Harrell was absent) in front of a large and vocal audience composed of Socialist Alternative members (Sawant’s political party) and homeless advocates. The day’s drama focused on several budget amendments sponsored by Sawant, several if which were key components of Sawant's reflection campaign platform. They were voted down by her colleagues after a series of terse exchanges and ultimately her amendments failed to make the final budget package.
First up was an amendment from Sawant to put an additional $10 million (pulled from the city’s emergency subfund, a pot of money which serves a similar role as the rainy day fund) toward additional homeless shelter beds. Sawant's amendment would have been on top of the $2.3 million that outgoing veteran lefty council member and usual Sawant ally Nick Licata already introduced and passed with unanimous support of the council. (Following controversy last week and pressure from the mayor, Licata announced yesterday morning he would seek to use projected increases tax revenue to fund his allocation rather than tap the city’s rainy day fund, theoretically a reserve cushion for economic downturns. Murray applauded the council for staying away from the rainy day fund, saying after the vote: "Given that 25 percent of our sales tax revenue is currently generated by our [vulnerable, his staff has warned] construction boom, they have wisely preserved our reserve funds." He also applauded the add-on to fight homelessness, repeating his message from earlier this month when he declared a state of emergency because of homelessness: "Most of all, I appreciate the council’s approach to our work to address our current state of emergency on homelessness. We are a generous city, as the council has shown yet again. But Seattle cannot do it alone. The state and federal governments must step up and do more as well. This issue must once again be a national priority.")
Sawant framed her proposal for an additional $10 million as a realistic response to addressing homelessness and criticized Murray for declaring the state of emergency but only adding $5 million (from the eventual sale of city property) to the original $1.4 million in his budget proposal. “It’s nowhere near enough,” she said in reference to the mayor’s and Licata’s allocations. “It’s time for the council and mayor to back up the dramatic press conferences with real resources and funding.”
Council member Sally Bagshaw was the first to criticize Sawant’s proposal. “What strikes me about this $10 million is that it looks great, I would like to put $100 million in, but we’re trying to [also] put together a balanced budget,” she said, going on to note the various allocations to homelessness services and prevention ($40 million of the Department of Human Services will go toward homelessness, in addition to Murray’s original $1.4 million budget item, Licata’s $2.3 million, and Murray’s $5 million he can spend immediately through the state of emergency declaration). “There’s no question I’ll be voting for the $2.3 million,” Bagshaw added. “What strikes me here is that this is last minute. It has a political emphasis, they’ve got people here,” she said in reference to the numerous Socialist Alternative (Sawant’s political party) present in the audience.
Sawant fired back saying that the proposal wasn't last minute and that she had brought a proposal for $15 million to council members earlier in the month but her colleagues didn’t support it. “For a homeless person, one more day in this weather is brutal and inhumane. It doesn’t matter if it’s last minute." (It appeared Sawant didn’t get the memo when she added that she supports Licata’s [outdated] proposal to dip into the rainy day fund for his $2.3 million for homelessness. Licata chimed in noting that the rainy day fund is no longer on the table.)
In the end, Licata was the only council member to join Sawant in voting for the additional $10 million, with traditional Sawant ally council member Mike O’Brien, representing District Six (Ballard, Fremont) voting against.
Alison Eisinger, the director of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness—the group that initially called for the extra money, applauded the final vote (which included a yes vote from Sawant). She told Fizz: "We are happy and hopeful that yesterday's 8-0 budget vote will result in a stronger emergency response that opens new shelter, increases capacity, and extends hours for people in Seattle. We all know that there is a lot of work still to do. I'm eager, and coalition member organizations are ready, to partner with Seattle and King County right away to use the identified funds to bring more people inside as winter is bearing down. That is a very good thing."
Municipal broadband, a signature part of Sawant’s campaign platform during her successful bid for reelection, also went down in flames. After briefly pitching the idea ($5 million for a pilot project funded by reinstating the employee head tax), Licata and Sawant again stood alone against no votes from the rest of the council.
Another Sawant-sponsored proposal (and a touted component of her re-election campaign platform), which would direct Seattle Parks and Recreation to work with local LGBTQ organizations to explore the possibility of establishing a “one-stop shop for services” community center in Capitol Hill (another Sawant campaign issue), met feisty resistance from outgoing council member Tom Rasmussen, who has no qualms with openly displaying his animosity for Sawant (Rasmussen is also the only gay council member). Rasmussen countered with his own proposal that directs parks and rec to assess how the city’s community centers can better serve and be accessible "all people" (i.e the LGBTQ community) and that recommendations be presented to the council in early 2016.
Rasmussen criticized Sawant's proposal as placing an unfair burden on parks and recreation to do the work of human services. “That’s well beyond the scope and the work of our parks department,” he said. “This proposal that you have really misses the mark. The parks department does not do this work.” Rasmussen also cited emails he’d received from the local LGBT community saying a community center was not a priority. He also noted that a previous city-funded LGBT center on Capitol Hill closed in 2008, adding that a new community center should "grow organically from the community" and have a "solid business plan."
Sawant responded by saying the parks department should already be making their facilities accessible to the LGBTQ community and that her proposal was strictly a study informed by community input. “If council members have actually read the green sheet, they’ll know that the most important part is that it instructs the department to work with community organizations to come up with proposals.” She also matched Rasmussen’s ‘emails-from-the-LGBTQ-community’ jab with her own email from Danni Askini, executive director of the Gender Justice League, who supports Sawant’s proposal and wrote that the reason the former LGBT center closed was due to a “lack of institutional support.”
Bickering ensued. Rasmussen claimed that Sawant’s proposal is limited to Capitol Hill, after which Sawant noted that Rasmussen’s budget amendment has "Capitol Hill" in the title. Rasmussen told her to read the body text of his proposal. Licata, who is the budget committee chair, nudged the proceedings along saying, “I appreciate the passion around a study,” calling for a vote. Rasmussen’s version was adopted with Licata, Sawant, and O’Brien dissenting.
Another unsuccessful Sawant amendment was a proposal to set aside a one-time amount of $1.5 million to eventually fund a ordinance to expand the city’s current policy of giving city employees four weeks paid parental leave to 12 weeks, which garnered the support of O’Brien and Bagshaw. Council president Tim Burgess had the most pointed criticism of the amendment before the vote, saying that “It [the amendment] does nothing to actually create more paid leave and it's not [financially] sustainable. This does nothing for city employees,” he said to boos from Sawant’s supporters in the audience after noting the council’s desire to eventually get to 12 weeks.
Visibly frustrated at this point, Sawant began her rebuttal with “You can tell the election is over” (to claps from the audience) in an attempt to frame Burgess’s qualms as him walking back on his alleged stated support for 12 weeks during the campaign season. “We’re setting the stage to pass that ordinance,” she said. Sawant also added that the process for establishing the city’s four-week paid leave program was the same (i.e., making money before enacting an ordinance). "Let's do this first step. It's a small amount of money...and the returns are huge. I'm fully confident that the new city council will be able creative enough to find a small pot of money to have this on a ongoing basis."
While Sawant's amendment fight stole the show, the council passed a number of other amendments that were either sponsored or cosponsored by Sawant, including doubling the funding—to $400,000—for the Career Bridge Program (a job skills program intended to address the disparate rate of incarceration among young African American men, ironically a program run by Sawant's recent campaign opponent, Urban League director Pamela Banks), funding for a University District Urban Rest Stop ($155,000), and $1 million for subsidized Orca cards for low-income middle and high school students in Seattle (this one was cosponsored with O’Brien and passed council unanimously).
Full council will vote on the final package next Monday, November 23.