Last Wednesday, in a meeting about the mayor’s proposed budget for the Human Services Department, city council members raised alarms about what looked like a $150,000 cut to Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion–a successful pre-arrest diversion program aimed at reducing recidivism among low-level drug and nuisance crime offenders. LEAD started in Belltown, but has been so successful that it has been extended throughout downtown and the Seattle Police Department’s East Precinct, which includes Capitol Hill; the $150,000 was one-time funding for that expansion. Neighborhoods across the city, from Ballard to far Southwest Seattle, are now clamoring for LEAD expansion into their neighborhoods.
Mayor Ed Murray’s proposed budget this year included $830,000 for LEAD funding, but did not renew the $150,000 expenditure for the East Precinct. The question council members raised, essentially, was whether that cut would be compensated by new funding from the county’s sales tax for mental health and addiction services, known as the Mental Illness and Drug Dependency II (MIDD II) tax, or whether the reduction would threaten the East Precinct expansion in 2017 and beyond. Previously, LEAD was funded through a combination of various county funding sources, private funds, and city dollars–now, its funding from the county will all come from MIDD sales tax revenues*.
Council member Lisa Herbold, a longtime ally of the Public Defender Association, which runs LEAD, said last week, “I believe the idea was that the MIDD II would fund that expansion, but apparently that’s not really how it’s working out. What I’m hearing is that moving the $150,000 will impact LEAD’s ability to even do their current work, much less expand to the East Precinct, and I understand there’s also interest in other areas of the city for LEAD expansion,” such as the Highland Park neighborhood in Herbold’s district. Other council members, including Rob Johnson, Mike O’Brien, and Lorena Gonzalez, piled on. “I’m really uncomfortable with betting on MIDD II funding to keep it going,” Johnson said. “I believe we should be propping up this existing program and expanding.”
The $150,000 reduction received some press coverage characterizing the reduction as a “cut,” which isn’t technically true: The mayor’s office points out that the plan was always to fund the East Precinct expansion of LEAD, and additional expansions in other Seattle neighborhoods, through the MIDD tax, starting in 2017. Scott Lindsay, the mayor’s public-safety advisor, says that “the city advocated for the significant MIDD II funding for LEAD, and as a voting member of the MIDD II oversight body, we are not cutting this program.”
However, that isn’t entirely up to the city: The city may provide 42 percent of MIDD II’s tax base, but the city of Seattle holds just one of 28 positions on MIDD’s oversight board. Other cities in South and East King County are interested in LEAD, and they are also represented on the oversight body.
And LEAD has bigger challenges on its hands than backfilling the $150,000. Public Defender Association director Lisa Daugaard says that much of the county’s MIDD funding for LEAD–which totals $1.5 million in 2017 and $2 million in 2018–has already been allocated to pay for things that have historically been paid for out of the county’s general fund, including a King County prosecutor, clerical support staff, and a new staffer in the county’s behavioral health and recovery division. Currently, LEAD’s total budget is about $2.3 million, which would just be covered by the total funding from the city ($830,000) and county ($1.5 million) in 2017. That funding does increase in 2018, but the extra half-million will be needed to fund items LEAD has identified as necessities to continue even existing operations, such as a dedicated city attorney, which could leave little or nothing to pay for expansion to other Seattle neighborhoods.
“By the time you allocate all these essential functions out of MIDD II, there’s very little room for growth,” Daugaard says. “The spirit is willing, but the capacity is not presently there. The city and the central budget office, in good faith, had every expectation that substantial expansion would be funded by MIDD II investments, but then a series of events took place” and the money became spoken for. (This past year, LEAD also lost about $800,000 in funding that had been provided by a private foundation, Daugaard says.)
Tim Burgess, chair of the city council’s budget committee, says it’s still unclear “how much of the MIDD money is going to supplant other county funding sources and how much will truly be new revenue. And we don’t know that, and we won’t know that, until the county makes their final decisions on their budget” in November, around the time when the city council will adopt its own budget. With that uncertainty in mind, Burgess says, many council members are telling him they want to make sure LEAD is fully funded regardless of what the county council decides, by continuing to fund the $150,000.
That’s certainly Herbold’s position. She says that “if we want LEAD to expand in Seattle, we cannot cut the funding intended for expansion. The theory from [the mayor’s office] was that the $150,000 was unnecessary because LEAD would have expansion funding in MIDD II–but that’s not actually how it’s working out.”
Herbold also says she expects that the county will want to spend any “extra” funding available for LEAD on expansion outside Seattle; indeed, the MIDD’s service improvement plan, released earlier this year, calls for gradual expansion “to other communities throughout King County” between 2017 and 2022.
“The expansion that the county is contemplating is explicitly for non-Seattle King County cities,” Herbold says. That means that if the city wants to expand to areas like Highland Park (last year, the members of the Highland Park Action Committee wrote a letter to the mayor requesting LEAD expansion into their neighborhood), it may have to come up with the money itself. Daugaard says the PDA’s original expansion plan for LEAD, which would have extended the program into “all the communities that had expressed willingness to use LEAD,” would cost about $5 million a year.
Daugaard says she thinks the PDA could expand LEAD citywide by the end of 2018, but that would require funding beyond what’s in the current city budget and what the county is likely to allocate to Seattle in its MIDD II budget.
County budget officials did not respond to requests for additional details about MIDD funding.
* As a side note, it’s important to remember that sales tax revenues decline during economic downturns, so we can expect that MIDD revenues will be less robust than they are when the economy goes through its next down cycle.
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