Council Takes First Bites at Durkan’s 2020 Budget

I reported last week on some highlights from Mayor Jenny Durkan’s proposed 2020 budget, which includes tens of millions of dollars from one-time revenues from the sale of the Mercer Megablock project, plus a tax on Uber and Lyft rides that the council would have to pass in a separate action. Today, I’m taking a look at how the council has responded to Durkan’s budget so far, starting with a proposal to expand parole and create a jail-to-treatment pipeline as a way of addressing “prolific offenders” who were at the center of KOMO’s “Seattle Is Dying” report.

Parole and “Prolific Offenders”

Robert Feldstein, a former advisor to ex-mayor Ed Murray who now consults for the Durkan Administration, clarified some details of the overall “prolific offender” package, including the fact that (as I first reported) an expanded shelter inside the King County jail is not, as Durkan claimed and the Seattle Times repeated, a “comprehensive place-based treatment center”; it’s a shelter. The expanded shelter, like the existing one in the same building, will be run by the Downtown Emergency Service Center, which provides counseling and opportunities for residents to access treatment and, for people with opiate use disorders, get prescriptions for buprenorphine. None of that is treatment, and DESC has said it does not plan to get into the treatment business.

Shelter beds in the west wing of the King County Jail, pre-opening earlier this year

Durkan’s budget also sets aside funding for a new program that would keep offenders with substance use disorders in jail until a bed in a 28-day treatment facility opens up, then transfer them directly to that facility. Once an offender “graduates” from the 28-day program, a parole officer would closely monitor their attendance at mandatory outpatient treatment, a process that includes random drug and alcohol tests, to make sure they’re complying. Research has shown that mandatory 28-day inpatient treatment is the least effective intervention for the kind of severely addicted, chronically homeless people Durkan’s jail-to-treatment proposal is supposed to address.

Last week, council members pressed Feldstein to explain why Durkan was proposing untested new programs inside the criminal justice system instead of expanding programs like Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD), which has been proven to reduce recidivism among people who are least likely to show up to court appointments or stick to the terms of their parole. “I think it’ s a reasonable policy question for us as a council to ask, when we’re talking about this number of dollars for new strategies and programs focused on high-barrier individuals, whether or not it makes sense to invest in unproven ideas rather than invest in proven interventions that are evidence-based and where we know what the outcomes are for this same population,” council member Lisa Herbold said.

“As I look at criminal justice reform work across the country, many jurisdictions are moving away from supervision and away from probation, period,” council member Lorena Gonzalez added. “It seems contradictory for us at the city of Seattle to actually be doubling down on probation and supervisions as a solution to address the needs of this population.”

Feldstein said the new programs, which also include a coordinator at the jail to direct short-term stayers to shelter and services and a proposal to add “case conferencing” between police and case workers (something LEAD already does), are meant as additions, not replacements, for existing programs. “There was a sense that they needed some additional tools [and] that there was not overlap between those programs,” Feldstein said. Under questioning from Teresa Mosqueda, Feldstein confirmed that the city had not done any race and social justice analysis of the proposal, nor included any community advocates or people who had actually been through the criminal justice system in the group that came up with the recommendations.

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Housing

Gonzalez also raised questions, in a separate meeting last week, about Durkan’s proposal to use $6 million of the Mercer Megablock proceeds to help middle-class homeowners making up to 120 percent of the Seattle median income, or about $130,000 for a family of four, finance the construction of small accessory dwelling units (ADUs) in their backyards or basements. Any homeowner who took advantage of the loan program would be required to keep the new unit affordable to someone making 80% of median income (about $61,000 for a single) for 10 years.

(The rest of the proposals for the Megablock proceeds, which include new homeownership opportunities near transit, affordable rental housing, and a revolving loan fund for the city’s Equitable Development Initiative, have been less controversial.)

When Durkan rolled out the ADU proposal in July, Gonzalez requested, and “was assured” that the city would undertake, a race and social justice analysis of the plan, which she suspected would mostly benefit wealthier white homeowners. That analysis, newly appointed Office of Housing director Emily Alvarado confirmed, was never done. “I still have questions about whether this is reaching deeply into low-income communities that are likely to be displaced,” Gonzalez said.

Transportation

In addition to general questions (from council member Mike O’Brien) about why there is so little specificity in how $16 million in megablock proceeds will be spent on underfunded projects in the Bicycle Master Plan, council members asked whether there would be geographic parity in which projects the Seattle Department of Transportation decides to build. (Earlier this year, SDOT came out with an updated implementation plan for the BMP that eliminated many of the projects that the city’s Bicycle Advisory Board had identified as their top priorities, most of them connecting low-income and underserved areas of South Seattle to the rest of the city.)

SDOT director Sam Zimbabwe said the bike projects the city plans to build with the extra funding are ones that are designed and ready to move forward, and are spread all across the city. Pressed to name a few examples in District 2, which includes the Rainier Valley, Beacon Hill, and Georgetown (three areas where high-priority projects got cut), Zimbabwe pointed to a bike project on South King Street and one by the Wing Luke Museum, both in the International District just south of downtown. “It’s a big district,” he said.

O’Brien suggested that the mayor’s office and SDOT were dragging their heels on congestion pricing, which Durkan announced a plan to study about a year and a half ago. “I thought was going to take six months to study. Now we’re at 18 months, and I’m  not even sure what phase we’re in,” O’Brien said. (The first, “preliminary” findings of the city’s study came out in May.) “If there’s really no plan for that, I would propose that we actually use the money on some things that we could actually get done.”

Mobility operations director Mike Worden, shortly after his appointment as director of mobility operations for the city

Council members also questioned the role of retired Air Force General Mike Worden, whose official title is Director of Mobility Operations and who reports not to SDOT, but to Durkan. The job duties of “the General,” as city employees are still directed to call him, are unclear; as I reported last month, his official schedule consists largely of “out and about time” during which the mayor’s office told me Worden is riding transit and talking to riders and drivers. Budget director Ben Noble suggested that Worden’s job mostly consisted of emergency response, then said his job was “to coordinate across the departments” to improve mobility and reduce traffic congestion in the city and region by identifying gaps in the regional response to incidents.

“Not to say that work is not happening, but I am not aware of any of the work,” O’Brien said.

Child Care

Council member Teresa Mosqueda, who has proposed building a child care center at city hall, wanted to know why mayor’s office had expanded eligibility for the city’s child care affordability program (CCAP) to wealthier families without getting budget approval from the council. Durkan proposed expanding the program to families making just over $90,000 a year for a family of four as part of the budget, but went ahead with the expansion without formal approval at the beginning of September. Noble said the administration “thought the expansion was worthwhile in itself, in terms of eligibility, and [that] to increase its breadth was important and worthwhile.” As for jumping the gun before the council could approve the expansion, Noble said the beginning of the school year “forced some decisions” by the mayor’s office. It also puts the council in a position where, if they think the money used to expand eligibility for CCAP could be better spent, they will have to backfill that funding with other resources or cancel the program expansion after families have already signed up.

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