A utilities project is now $40 million over-budget in Seattle, but that is just the tip of the iceberg according to Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant. She says it is reflective of a troubling trend — a lack of transparency in Seattle city government.
Sawant told KIRO Radio’s Jason Rantz that the major culprit is Mayor Ed Murray.
“There’s a trend here of a lack of transparency and I think members of the public should think about this and I think really what is warranted is an audit of the entire budget,” Sawant said.
Sawant’s most recent concern relates to a new billing system being created for Seattle City Light and Seattle Public Utilities that is, at least, $34 million over budget and likely to be about a year late. Sawant says the issue passed through without notice because the mayor’s office failed to highlight the matter during the budgeting process late last year.
“There are many different parts of the budget where the mayor’s office could have, and should have if they were doing their due diligence, indicated that this project is running $20 million over budget,” she said.
“They should have shouted it off the rooftops. That’s what transparency and accountability mean. But they didn’t do that,” she said. “Now the project has gone another $20 million over budget, which they would need the council to approve this year.”
Sawant noted that the billing system could, in fact, be a complex project that warrants extra time and money. However, she says there is no way of knowing that since the mayor’s office has never explained the issues.
“At this moment I have no information as to why it’s costing $40 million more,” she said. “Maybe it is a legitimate cost. But I can’t say that because I don’t know that for a fact.”
“It’s a private contractor that’s doing this, (PricewaterhouseCoopers),” she added. “They are not directly accountable to the public in any way but the mayor is accountable, the city council members are accountable.”
Sawant says this is not an isolated problem, pointing specifically to areas of the police budget that have seen a trend of overspending without explanation.
“The general budget and the capital improvement budget, these are thick binders,” she said. “Imagine reading a 1,000-page book in a week. This is huge. And without flagging it, without showing what it’s really about, you would need an audit to find out this information was somewhere hidden in the budget.”
“If it was me, I would have said, ‘Look, I really, really want to make it clear, we are over budget and I want to explain why.’ That process never happened,” Sawant said. “And here’s my concern: it’s not just an isolated instance.”
Sawant would like to establish a protocol for transparency where elected officials are held accountable, which is why she is calling for some audits to be done now.
“There are enough numbers of examples that I think they warrant a closer inspection,” she said.