The City of Seattle is facing no shortage of challenges right now. In addition to lingering smoke and the COVID-19 pandemic, city leaders also are grappling with a major bridge closure, a crumbling pier and a battle over policing.
All of these things will play some role in the city budget, which is facing a more than $300 million shortfall.
KNKX Morning Edition host Kirsten Kendrick spoke with Mayor Jenny Durkan about these issues. You can listen to their conversation above or read a transcript below. Both have been edited for length and clarity.
Jenny Durkan, Mayor of Seattle: (on a recent audit of city bridges) Most of our infrastructure is very old. I think they said the median age of some bridges was almost 70 years. And when you have infrastructure that old, you need to start planning for its replacement. And we've seen this year with both the West Seattle Bridge and the pier how important it is to improve our infrastructure. So we'll be having ongoing conversations not just on the monitoring, but again, triaging and deciding what (are) those pieces of infrastructure that we need to pay most attention to because they have the most impacts on the residents and businesses of Seattle.
Kirsten Kendrick, KNKX: We've seen some tension this summer between your office and the city council over the budget, specifically on the issue of police funding. And you and council president Lorena Gonzalez have talked about a joint outreach effort as a way of coming together on this. What's the status of that?
Durkan: You know, we're still having discussions. I'm very hopeful that we will be able to bridge the gap on the three bills that I vetoed. You know, on the on the big issues, I think there's a great deal of agreement between not just me and council, but most of Seattle. And that is we really need to reimagine what our police department looks like and what jobs we ask of our officers. Are there things they do today that could be better served by someone who was not a police officer? So I am looking forward to continuing to work with council. I hope that we can bridge these gaps. I believe we can reimagine the police department. And as we do so, it will be better for officers and the community.
KNKX: Regarding the outreach effort for the budget, what are you hoping to hear or learn from that?
Durkan: I think there's a number of things. I think that there's two distinct kind of areas. First is the level of investments and where the investments are needed. I think we really have to turn to community to drive that process and show us what the solutions are in community and what's needed there.
On the issue of how we reconfigure and reimagine policing, we have to have a broader conversation with all parts of the city, with businesses and residents, first so people understand how the budget works and what a police response looks like. What's 911? What do detectives do? What do we expect from the police for community safety? And then what are those jobs that we think could be done by somebody other than a police officer or a hybrid model when you have people other than police officers, but if they need it, they have police backup.
KNKX: Between worries over public safety and the lack of foot traffic right now from the pandemic, downtown businesses are feeling especially vulnerable right now. How are you thinking about the future vibrancy of downtown Seattle?
Durkan: What's happening in downtown Seattle is very difficult right now because so many of the businesses that we relied on to provide kind of the vibrancy as well as the customers for the businesses have people working from home. And it's Amazon, it's the law firms, accounting firms, Facebook, South Lake Union — those office buildings have emptied out, and as a result, there's far fewer people in and around the downtown, and therefore, a lot of the small businesses have closed. A lot of town is boarded up.
We need to have a very proactive plan on how we're going to rebuild the vibrancy of our downtown core, because it really is the heartbeat of Seattle. And while I think we will gravitate and have a different kind of city — the seven-minute city, as some people describe it, because people now rely on their local commercial districts again — we still need that downtown core to come back strong.
KNKX: You were talking about a proactive plan there. Do investments for some of these businesses to try to keep them from closing, does that become part of the budget conversation?
Durkan: We've been trying to, through a lot of direct funding, to try to help small businesses. And some of those small businesses, frankly, have closed. Some may not open again; some may reopen. But I think we're also going to have a broader discussion of kind of how do we keep small businesses going? And then how and when can we bring back businesses? And sometimes it'll be new businesses. Sometimes there'll be businesses that have been able to make it through.
But look, even the smoke has been just another blow on our small businesses. You know, we had just in the city of Seattle gotten to the point where small businesses had opened up the streets, had outdoor dining, which is much more safe in a pandemic. And then the smoke hits, and it really hurts that business. So it has seemed like everything has lined up against our small businesses, and I think that we have to have a discussion.
But we're going to need state and federal help there, as well. Federal government has walked away from what America needs in the last six months. We are seeing, whether it's individual workers who relied on unemployment or small businesses who are trying to keep their doors open so they can keep people employed, they are struggling mightily and there has been little help for them on the horizon.
KNKX: Mayor, given everything Seattle is experiencing right now and all the needs that are there, how does a city pay for it all?
Durkan: So we will be announcing our budget next week, as you know, at the end of September. I'm required by the city charter to announce the budget and we'll have a whole range of announcements that addresses both the critical needs that we have as a community, as the very real reality that we have a huge hole in our budget.
I will give a plug right here right now: This trifecta has shown us once again how vulnerable our city and our state are because of our regressive taxes. We are so reliant on sales taxes, business taxes, property taxes that ebb and flow with the economy in a different way and disproportionately fall on those people who can afford them the least. And we see that because they quit paying the taxes. We don't get as much sales tax revenue now because people have quit buying things and there's not as much economic activity. The parking tax we're not getting because people aren't driving down in parking downtown and going to events and football games and basketball games or shopping. We need progressive taxes. We need a statewide income tax. We need a city income tax that can supplant some of what we're doing. And we need to roll back the regressive taxes.
So as part of the budget, we have to deal with the reality we have. But I am going to be advocating very strongly in Olympia that, as they address their huge budget deficit that affects every Washingtonian, that we finally move to a more reliable system and a more fair and just system of taxation.