Snohomish County campus in Everett. (Sue Misao / Herald file)

Snohomish County campus in Everett. (Sue Misao / Herald file)

County OKs budget, with fraction to focus on people of color

The Council voted 4-1 on the spending plan. Dunn, opposed, said it didn’t meet community demands.

EVERETT — The Snohomish County Council on Tuesday adopted a $1.045 billion spending plan for 2021 in a bid to strike a balance between funding new social justice initiatives and cutting costs to offset a pandemic-driven drop in tax revenue.

The council voted 4-1 to approve the 2021 budget, which includes more than $1 million to help the county better serve communities of color and chip away at inequities in the local criminal justice system.

Councilwoman Megan Dunn cast the lone dissenting vote. She said those improvements fall short of residents’ demands that the county bolster funds for housing, mental health and other human services programs.

“I appreciate all the efforts to bring us more towards a just budget,” she said. “But for my values, it is not there yet.”

The budget’s passage marks the culmination of a series of impassioned discussions about how the county can best address institutional barriers facing Black people and other people of color.

Some activists, in step with a nationwide movement to “defund” law enforcement and end police brutality, have urged the council to redistribute sheriff’s office funding to social services and other programs that they say can solve problems at the root of criminal behavior.

Others, including Sheriff Adam Fortney, have contended that significant cuts to policing budgets are detrimental to public safety.

The county will continue to spend about 42% of its roughly $265 million general fund on the Sheriff’s Office, including the jail, and less than 2% on the Department of Human Services.

When taking into account all other funds that make up the entire budget, the human services department will receive about $137 million and the sheriff’s office will receive about $134 million.

“Public safety and social services are in no way mutually exclusive, and I believe this budget is evidence of that,” County Council Chairman Nate Nehring said during Tuesday’s meeting. “We can prioritize law and justice to keep our community safe and also prioritize efforts such as designated crisis responders in order to provide assistance to the most vulnerable among us.”

The budget includes about $273,000 to hire a supervisor and two additional mental health experts for the county’s crisis responder program. These experts provide emergency support to people dealing with suicidal thoughts, addiction and other mental health problems. Through a pilot program with Everett Police Department, the professionals have also assisted law enforcement officers who receive repeated calls about individuals with such issues. The county will explore expanding that program to the sheriff’s office.

The council ultimately decided to award $75,000 to Fortney’s office for social justice initiatives, under the condition that the sheriff present more detailed plans before the money can be spent.

Fortney introduced a few options last month, including a community engagement strategy that Black residents helped to create and a virtual reality police training system that could also be used as a tool to help the public understand how officers make decisions.

The council also agreed to budget $350,000 for a data collection effort that county Prosecutor Adam Cornell said aims to “build trust in the community with transparency and accountability.” The project will collect race information and other key data from courts, police agencies, prosecutors and defense attorneys. Those benchmarks will provide the county with insight into where reform is most needed, said Cornell, who is spearheading the effort.

“We can’t make informed decisions about addressing systemic racism and criminal justice reform in our communities without knowing what we’re talking about,” he told The Daily Herald on Tuesday evening.

The budget allots $100,000 to the county’s Office of Social Justice, whose top staff members include three women of color, to study how the county can make government more accessible to historically marginalized communities. Next year, the council will work with the office to determine how to spend another $100,000 earmarked for similar projects, the council decided Tuesday.

Other criminal justice projects included in the county’s 2021 spending plan:

■ $100,000 for another study to recommend improvements to make the law and justice system more equitable and efficient.

■ $300,000 to equip some sheriff’s deputies with body cameras. County officials don’t yet know how much body-worn cameras for sheriff’s deputies or the associated record-keeping system would cost.

■ $75,000 to provide implicit bias training to employees of the county’s law and justice departments.

■ About $50,000 for a new case management system for the Office of Public Defense, plus more money for staffing needs associated with the system.

The 2021 budget is slightly less than this year’s original spending plan, which totaled about $1.1 billion, with a roughly $268 million general fund.

For the fourth year in a row, the council chose not to increase the general property tax levy.

The levies for two other county taxes — one for roads and another for conservation efforts — will each rise by 1 percent; those increases passed in a 3-2 vote, with Nehring and Councilman Sam Low opposed.

Rachel Riley: 425-339-3465; Twitter: @rachel_m_riley.

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