Even with cuts, county budget makes room for social justice

The Snohomish County Council is scheduled to pass a 2021 spending plan on Tuesday.

EVERETT — County leaders are set this week to adopt a 2021 budget, including more than $1 million for social justice initiatives that aim to address inequities in the criminal justice system and make the government more accessible to communities of color.

The Snohomish County Council is scheduled to approve the spending plan at a virtual meeting that starts at 10:30 a.m. on Tuesday.

The council is considering a series of tweaks to the billion-dollar budget proposal that county Executive Dave Somers unveiled in late September. The changes would divvy up $500,000 in funding, initially earmarked for Somers’ Office of Social Justice, to more specific efforts.

The adoption will mark the end of a tense budget season for county policymakers, who have sought to offset a pandemic-induced revenue shortfall without laying off staff members.

Meanwhile, some activists have demanded that the council slash Sheriff Adam Fortney’s budget and redirect the money to human services that they say will address issues at the root of criminal behavior. But Fortney and some residents have insisted that significant cuts to the agency’s funding would threaten public safety.

Highlights of the council’s current budget proposal include:

$360,000 for the Department of Human Services to hire three more employees, including a supervisor, for the county’s team of “designated crisis responders.” These behavioral health professionals provide emergency support to people dealing with suicidal thoughts, addiction and other mental health problems. Through a pilot program with Everett Police Department, the experts have also assisted law enforcement officers who receive repeated calls about individuals with such issues. The county would explore expanding that program to the sheriff’s office.

$350,000 for a data collection effort drawing from various databases used by prosecutors, public defenders, judges and other players in the local law and justice system. The project, led by county Prosecutor Adam Cornell, would give the county easy access to information to build a foundation for future reforms.

$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. They also haven’t yet explored other potential impacts of establishing such a program, including how much work it would create for prosecutors and public defenders who would have to review the footage.

About $150,000, for Superior Court, that justice officials say is needed to continue jury trials and address a case backlog caused by the coronavirus crisis. Whittling down the backlog is expected to take years.

$125,000 for social justice initiatives proposed by the sheriff. Fortney’s office would have to present more detailed plans to the council for approval before spending the money. He recently discussed plans to host community engagement events and purchase a virtual reality training system for law enforcement officers that would also be used as a tool to help the public understand how police make decisions. Councilman Jared Mead has proposed that the $125,000 be made available to all county departments for social justice initiatives.

$100,000 for a study to recommend improvements that would make the law and justice system more equitable and efficient.

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

$75,000 to purchase one electric vehicle for the sheriff’s office to explore how the county can save fuel in the future.

$50,000 to study how the county can better cater to underserved communities. County Council Chairman Nate Nehring has proposed reducing funding for the sheriff’s social justice initiatives by $75,000 to double the budget for this analysis of underserved communities.

Councilwoman Megan Dunn has suggested that the council support Somers’ initial request for $500,000 for the Office of Social Justice, including money for employee training and community outreach.

The council is also weighing whether to allot another $200,000 to the Office of Public Defense to launch a case management system that would provide better insight into defendant data and how cases are resolved. That information could be used to inform future efforts to overhaul the cash bail system, county officials have said.

Other changes under consideration would further cut employee travel and training expenses and slash the county performance auditor’s modest budget by more than half.

The council at first considered axing a nearly $90,000 federal lobbying contract that the county has with a Seattle law firm but then decided to keep that line item in next year’s budget.

The public will have a final chance to comment on the spending plan before the council passes it.

Information about how to watch Tuesday’s meeting, to be held via Zoom, is available in the meeting agenda, posted at snohomishcountywa.gov/2288/Meetings-Webcasts.

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

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