Answering a Seattle Budget Question

If you know me, then you know that first I talk about politics way too much and also, especially during the primary, I got kind of annoyed at how often candidates proposed new things to spend money on while not really having the revenue to pay for their proposals (or having revenue sources that won’t pan out for years if ever, like the city income tax). I did some basic searching and concluded that yes, indeed, the city budget has been going up. One thing I liked about Nikkita Oliver in the primary is that she really took the homelessness and housing affordability issues seriously to the degree she was unwilling to tell vocal constituencies like the bike lobby that she wouldn’t consider their favorite projects off limits for budget cuts. Now, I might disagree with any one thing she would want to cut, but I like the attitude.

Anyway, I’ve been meaning to answer a few questions about the Seattle city budget:

  • Has the budget really been going up per capita?
  • … even when adjusted for inflation?
  • How far back? Is it really just the recession decreased spending and now it’s back up?

So I pulled some numbers. Fortunately, the city is pretty transparent about this stuff and it’s fairly easy to get data in fairly consistent ways. I chose to pull the total expenditures in each year’s adopted budget. I chose adopted budget because that’s what the city council and mayor have agreed to spend: it represents what they think is reasonable given the current financial situation. I then pulled data on estimated population for Seattle. The source is ultimately the Census but it’s cobbled from a direct Census page and Google which seems to have ingested their data and made it easier to find for years before 2010 (note estimate is for July in any year). I then used a CPI calculator provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics to convert all per capita expenditures to 2017 dollars. Here we are:


You can also view my underlying spreadsheet with links to sources and notes about my “methodology”. I originally only went back to 2007 the budget for which was adopted before the great recession (which actually started in December 2007) but then I decided I should probably pull it back a couple more years which is easy enough to do with a spreadsheet. I 💚 spreadsheets! It’s clearly possible (maybe likely since I’m not experienced with budgets) that I did something wrong here, so feel free to tell me. I would really prefer to know what I’m misunderstanding if this is wrong or misleading!

What I want to know now of course is where is that money going? What areas of the budget are we spending more money on? Or is it just many different areas overall? How would we find places to save in the budget to invest in housing and helping people not be homeless?