This is part 2 of a two-part series; part 1 is just below this post, or right here.
I’m leaving town just in time for election day this year (one more year, and it’ll be a trend), but before I do, I wanted to give a quick rundown of what’s happening with the city budget—specifically, what changes council members have proposed to Mayor Jenny Durkan’s budget plan, which holds the line on homelessness spending and includes a couple of controversial funding swaps that reduce potential funding for programs targeting low-income communities. None of these proposals have been passed yet, and the council has not started publicly discussing the cuts it would make to the mayor’s budget to fund any of their proposed new spends; this is just a guide to what council members are thinking about as they move through the budget process.,
This list is by no means comprehensive—the list of the council’s proposed budget changes runs to dozens of pages. It’s just a list of items that caught my eye, and which could cue up budget changes or future legislation in the weeks and months ahead. The budget process wraps up right before Thanksgiving, but the discussions council members are having now could lead to additional new laws—or constrain the mayor’s ability to spend money the council allocates, via provisos that place conditions on that spending—well into the coming year.
Several proposals would enhance and expand the rights of tenants living in substandard housing or at risk of eviction. One, by council member Mike O’Brien, moves about $600,000 for eviction prevention from the Human Services Department to the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections and stipulates that most of it has to go to community-based groups that do proactive outreach to tenants at risk of eviction who may not know their rights or the resources available to them. This money was allocated last year for the same purpose, O’Brien said, but was inexplicably spent expanding a hotline tenants can call when they need help, rather than letting tenants know that the hotline and other resources exist.
“We were pretty clear, I thought, in our budget last year” that the money was supposed to be spent “really actively going out and finding households that may not be aware of what their rights are and making sure they have access to those resources,” O’Brien said. “What happened last year is that the executive”—at the time, Tim Burgess—”chose to put that funding into increasing the funding for the hotline response work. … It’s hard to see how we could be more clear than last year. But we will try to be more clear.”
Another proposal, by Herbold, would direct SDCI to come up with faster ways to get landlords to address habitability issues, and to prevent evictions when tenants live in substandard properties. Currently, tenants can be evicted from apartments even if the landlord is in serious violation of the city’s building and land-use codes, or if the tenant has withheld rent because an apartment needs serious maintenance to be livable. Two other Herbold proposals would increase tenant relocation assistance for tenants displaced by rising rents and make more tenants eligible for such assistance, and direct Seattle Public Utilities to analyze the eligibility criteria for the city’s Utility Discount Program. Currently, the program—which provides a discount on water and electricity to eligible customers—is only open to people making less than 70 percent of the state median income, or around $42,000 for a household of two; Herbold wants to expand it to people making less than 70 percent of the local median income, or about $56,000.
“It’s hard to see how we could be more clear than last year. But we will try to be more clear.”
Nearly a month ago, I wrote:
“[The] issue of SHARE’s shelter funding, like the issue of whether the city will keep paying for bus tickets for its clients, has become something of an annual ritual—and every year, the council finds a few hundred thousand dollars to keep them going. If this year is any different, it will be a notable departure from tradition.”
Turns out that this year isn’t any different. On Thursday, council members agreed to restore funding for basic overnight shelters that SHARE operates in collaboration with several churches, despite the fact that the controversial organization scored dead last in the Human Service Department’s bidding for shelter funding last year. When SHARE failed to win funding for its shelters through that process, the city provided “bridge” funding that was supposed to get the group through the middle of next year; during that time, they were supposed to come up with a “transition plan” for when the money went away. Last month, HSD deputy director Tiffany Washington said that of all the agencies that received bridge funding and agreed to come up with a transition plan, SHARE was the only service provider that had failed to do so. The reason SHARE gave the city for not abiding by the agreement, according to Washington: They said they had no plans to close down.
Good instinct: As in previous years, the council came through for SHARE, promising $378,000 for the second half of 2019 and $756,000 in 2020.
Transit, pedestrian, and bike advocates raised concerns that Mayor Durkan’s proposal to fund new “adaptive signals“—traffic lights that respond to traffic volumes, usually by prioritizing drivers over other roadway users—only paid lip service to the idea of accommodating cyclists and pedestrians. In addition to more car-detecting sensors, Durkan’s budget proposed a pilot project that would trigger a “walk” signal once enough pedestrians had gathered at an intersection, as well an app that would signal to traffic lights that a cyclist was present—as long as that cyclist owned a smart phone and happened to have the app running. O’Brien’s proviso would put a hold on the adaptive signal money unless the plan “test[s] or further[s] the development of passive detection of pedestrian, bicycle, and transit modes.”
Mayor Durkan’s budget proposal, which comes on the heels of the city’s botched attempt to tax large businesses to pay for homeless services, essentially flatlined spending on the homelessness crisis, boosting it by a barely-inflationary 3.2 percent between 2018 and 2019. The council could boost that substantially through a number of small and large budget adds, including, potentially, one very big tent.
The big-tent idea apparently originated in Los Angeles, where the city recently erected a massive white tent containing enhanced shelter and services for about 75 homeless Angelenos. Council member Teresa Mosqueda, who proposed the big-tent idea, said she was skeptical until she visited LA, where she discovered that the tent wasn’t just “a FEMA tent” with tents on the floor or bunk beds lining the walls; it had “partitions between beds, the option for pets and loved ones to come and be together, [and] access to mental health care on site.” Creating an enhanced shelter in a tent, Mosqueda’s office estimates, would cost $6 million over two years. “I offer this up as a potential opportunity for us to think about ways to expand the options that we have along that continuum of housing … so that if it is more cost-effective, then we can direct more resources to building permanent housing,” Mosqueda said.
And finally, Some more budget restrictions
Council members have frequently expressed annoyance at Durkan for failing to deliver reports on schedule or comply with recommendations from the council or, in the case of one of this year’s budget provisos, the city auditor’s office.
This year, council members proposed placing spending restrictions on two big, expensive ongoing projects. The first is the existing First Hill and South Lake Union streetcar. The mayor is supposed to report to the council twice a year on how the streetcars are doing, both financially and in terms of performance metrics such as ridership and reliability. The last time the mayor’s office provided such a report was in June 2017, when Ed Murray was mayor. “We’ve been waiting on this report for a while, and I’m not sure what the holdup is,” O’Brien said last week. “It should be fairly simple to meet the requirements of this proviso. It’s just unacceptable that we’ve been waiting 18 months for the next report on those two segments of the streetcar system.” Durkan’s budget does include about $9 million in funds over two years to help pay for anticipated streetcar revenue shortfalls up front.
“Another reasonable response might have been to not support continued funding of the Navigation Team, because all the work that was supposed to have been done by the executive by this time this year was not done. So we’re really trying to meet them halfway on this.”
A proposal from Herbold, meanwhile, would require the Navigation Team—a group of police officers and social service workers who remove encampments and direct people living in tents to available services—to submit quarterly reports showing progress on steps the city auditor outlined a year ago before the council would release funding for the coming quarter. Those steps, or “Checkpoints,” include things like creating a plan for “unsheltered individuals to be meaningfully involved in Navigation Team evaluation” and assessments of strategies to prioritize hygiene services and prevent trash from piling up at encampment sites.
Bagshaw said the process Herbold was outlining sounded like “a lot of committee work” for the council, to which Herbold responded: “The issue is that the auditor has made recommendations, and the executive is not in compliance with those recommendations. … I think we’re acting in really good faith. I think another reasonable response might have been to not support continued funding of the Navigation Team, because all the work that was supposed to have been done by the executive by this time this year was not done. So we’re really trying to meet them halfway on this.”