Understand Your Local Budget to Influence It More Effectively

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Your Voice, Your Priorities

City budgets are a reflection of priorities. The size of the City of Seattle’s policing budget vastly surpasses critical city services such as housing and human services. This blog post is dedicated to answering the question, what is the budget process? This post will equip you with the knowledge to understand the various events that make up the budget process, the roles of the mayor and the City Council, and provide you the tools to empower you to participate and have your voice heard. While our blog series revolves around Seattle’s budget process and policing issues, you can apply these general tactics to your advocacy on all issues in your local community and across the state.

The Budget Process in Summary

On Tuesday September 29th, 2020, the City of Seattle kicked off its fall budget season with Mayor Durkan revealing her Proposed Budget for the 2021 calendar year. In her 17-minute address to the public, Mayor Durkan shared her priorities and many challenges facing the City of Seattle, including: a global pandemic, an economic crisis causing a $300 million revenue shortfall for 2021, and a civil rights uprising calling for the protection of Black lives.

Per state law, the Mayor is required to submit a proposed budget 90 days before the start of the fiscal year. The package consists of an operating budget and a six-year capital improvement program budget. The operating budget primarily consists of expenditures required to deliver services to Seattle residents. The capital improvement budget provides for large, often multi-year expenditures on infrastructure and other capital projects, such as fixing, improving, or adding new City facilities. Once the proposed budget is transmitted, the City Council, a co-equal branch of government, then spends the next couple of months reviewing the budget, deliberating, and amending it in open sessions, and hosting public hearings for feedback. This year, the City Council hopes to adopt an amended budget by Monday, November 23rd, when it will then be returned to the Mayor for her approval and signature.

The Nitty-Gritty of the Budget Process

The City Council will tackle the budget in four stages:
  • Presentations from the City Budget Office and City Departments on the Mayor’s 2021 Proposed Budget (September 30-October 2)
  • Committee Discussions on Budget Deliberation and Issue Identification (October 15-16, 20-21)
  • Committee Discussion on Council Budget Actions and Statements of Legislative Intent (October 28-30)
  • Committee Vote on Chair’s Balancing Package & Amendments (November 18-19)
The budget process begins with the Council receiving high-level briefings from the City Budget Office and various City Departments to understand and ask questions about the investments proposed in the Mayor’s budget. Shortly after, the Council typically hosts their first public hearing to gather input from their constituents and hear their priorities. Following the public hearing, Councilmembers submit “Issue Identification” proposals to their non-partisan Central Staff for further analysis of Councilmember’s priorities, which the Council then uses to propose specific budget actions for consideration by their colleagues.
During the budget review process, Councilmembers capture their priorities by developing “Statements of Legislative Intent” and “Green Sheets” for future budget action. Statements of Legislative Intent (SLI) describe the Council’s expectations in making budget decisions and generally require affected departments to report back to the City Council on results. A Green Sheet (GS) is the mechanism that the Council uses to propose modifications to the Mayor’s budget, like increase or decrease of revenues, or expenditures for specific programs or services, and other modifications.
After the Council hosts their final public hearing and shares their priorities via SLIs and GS, the Budget Chair will propose an Initial Balancing Package of changes to the Mayor’s proposed budget. Other Councilmembers may propose further adjustments to be included in a Chair’s Revised Balancing Package. This Revised Balancing Package, which is subject to further amendment in committee, forms the basis for the Council’s Adopted Budget. After the City Council votes to adopt the budget, the amended budget is sent back to the Mayor, who can choose to approve the Council’s budget, veto it, or let it become law without mayoral signature.

How You Can Shape Your City’s Budget

Since the murder of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, many cities across the country have been at the epicenter of protests and demands from Black, Indigenous, and communities of color to divest from their police departments and reinvest those funds back into hands of the community. Back in July, a supermajority of Seattle Councilmembers committed to this goal. Now is the time to hold them accountable to that promise. You can do this by actively participating in this year’s budget season: show up, tune in, and raise your voice. Email and call your Councilmembers, sign up for public comment and stay engaged.

Here are some ways to get involved. While both of Seattle’s budget public hearings have passed, residents regularly have the opportunity to share their priorities on Mondays at 2pm during the Council’s regular City Council meetings. Additionally, there are opportunities for public comment during Council committee meetings. For instructions on how to give comment and to register to give comment, visit this page. The signup form is available two hours before each session begins. If you are not able to provide public comment, you can always email all nine Councilmembers by sending your comments to council@seattle.gov or contacting them individually. If you don’t know who your Councilmembers are, you can find that information by typing your address here.

City Councils and their budget processes vary all throughout the state. Some councils are full-time and have a team of analysts doing research, while others operate on a part-time basis and with limited resources. While this blog post examined Seattle’s budget process, we believe you can apply the same general tactics and techniques in your local town or city to shape your community’s priorities. To find more information on municipal budgets in others cities in Washington, make sure to visit Municipal Research and Services Center’s website here.
Budgets are moral documents that reflect who and what we value. Too much is on the line to take a back seat. This fall, make sure to share your voice with your elected officials to shape your City’s budget in solidarity with the priorities of Black, Indigenous and Communities of Color.