Council Whittles Budget Wish List Under Shadow of Eyman’s Anti-Transportation Funding Measure

Although an analysis by the city council’s central staff shows that Tim Eyman’s Initiative 976, which appears to be passing, could reduce the Seattle Department of Transportation’s current funding for buses and road maintenance by as much as $33 million next year (when Seattle’s local $60 car tab measure is set to expire), the council moved ahead with next year’s budget on Wednesday without resolving the question of whether and how to fund the shortfall. Mayor Jenny Durkan and city attorney Pete Holmes are holding a press conference on Thursday to announce a lawsuit challenging the initiative, which overturned the vehicle license fees that fund roads, bridges, maintenance, and transit projects throughout Washington state.

(UPDATE: In a press conference Thursday morning, Seattle Department of Transportation director Sam Zimbabwe said the council and SDOT were still figuring out how to fund the 2020 transportation if a court does not grant the injunction against implementation of I-976 when the city files its lawsuit challenging the initiative as unconstitutional next week.)

Here’s a first look at some of what’s in and out in council budget chair Sally Bagshaw’s initial “balancing package,” which—unlike the wish lists council members have been presenting until now—has to be balanced.

What’s In: 

• Funding to expand the successful Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program, which provides outreach and services to people committing low-level street crimes, often because of mental illness and addiction. Although the group that runs LEAD, the Public Defender Association, had asked for $4.7 million to keep up with growing caseloads, the council settled on $3.5 million. (Mayor Jenny Durkan’s initial budget provided essentially no new funding for the program, which the city has expanded geographically several times.) PDA director Lisa Daugaard told me the group has secured private funding for the remaining $1.2 million but declined to name the funder yet.

• About $1.3 million for mobile restrooms like the ones that have been successfully operating in San Francisco for severa6l years; the restrooms would include toilets, a drop box for needles, and a place to dispose pet waste.

• $1.8 million in funding for two new tiny house village encampments, which would bring the total number of tiny house villages to ten. One of the new villages would be designed for people referred from LEAD (which serves some homeless clients but is not primarily a homeless services organization) and the city’s Navigation Team, which removes unauthorized encampments from public spaces.

• A small amount of funding—$158,000—for the use of the University Heights Center parking lot in the University District as overnight parking for five to 10 people or families living in their cars. The most recent point-in-time count of people experiencing homelessness found more than 2,000 people living in their vehicles across King County, a number that was lower in the latest count, in part, because All Home King County adopted different (lower) assumptions about how many people are sleeping in a single vehicle.

Earlier this year, Mayor Durkan scuttled plans to open several larger “safe lots” for people living in their cars around the city. In lieu of larger lots where people living in their cars can access services and showers, Durkan has proposed spending $375,000 to open up to 40 spaces citywide by persuading religious institutions to host a few cars at a time. The budget action, from District 4 council member Abel Pacheco, redirects $125,000 of that money to the U District community center.

Once downloaded, the app pings when a homeless person wearing one of the company’s bluetooth-equipped “beacons” is nearby, providing information to about their story and what they need. If the smartphone owner decides to donate, the homeless person can receive vouchers for goods and food (though not alcohol) at participating retailers, but only if he or she has agreed to go to counseling with a nonprofit case manager once a month.

• $75,000—down from the $175,000 proposed by council president Bruce Harrell—to fund a company called Samaritan that has developed an app-based homeless donation system. Once downloaded, the app pings when a homeless person wearing one of the company’s bluetooth-equipped “beacons” is nearby, providing information to about their story and what they need. If the smartphone owner decides to donate, the homeless person can receive vouchers for goods and food (though not alcohol) at participating retailers, but only if he or she has agreed to go to counseling with a nonprofit case manager once a month. (Specific details about clients’ case management visits is provided to anyone who downloads the app, including medical information that they choose to mention in their summaries.) Case management is free, but “career counseling” costs $20 an hour, according to media reports.

The proposal is controversial. The Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness says it’s “flat out unacceptable to put public [money] into [a] for profit private enterprise,” especially one that charges for “career counseling.” They’re pushing for the council to remove the spending—which, council member Lisa Herbold pointed out, does not include funding for the mandatory case management obligations the program creates for its clients—in the next budget round.

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• Reflecting the fact that the regional homelessness agency likely will not be in place by the beginning of next year as originally planned, the balancing package eliminates $345,000 earmarked to fund staff for the new agency. The document describing the budget cut mentions an April 1, 2020 start date for one of the positions, but it’s unclear whether the new authority will be in place by then; members of the Sound Cities Association, which represents King County’s suburban cities, plan to discuss the proposal at their November 20 Public Issues Committee Meeting, which is one day after the November meeting of the King County Regional Policy Committee, which must approve any plan before it goes to the full King County Council. Suburban cities have expressed concern that the proposed governance structure is too Seattle-centric, that the governing board is unaccountable, and that the proposed public development authority isn’t the appropriate structure for merging the city and county’s homelessness agencies.

• Taking $12.75 million from several programs Durkan had planned to fund with the sale of the Mercer Megablock and reallocating it to low-income housing projects that are shovel-ready but unfunded under the city’s annual Notice of Funding Availability, which always gets far more appilcations for housing projects than it has money to fund. The budget edit would cut funding from Durkan’s proposed Strategic Acquisition Fund (intended to buy land for future projects near transit) and homeownership and accessory dwelling unit loan programs that are aimed at helping moderate-income home buyers and existing homeowners get loans to buy houses or build affordable rental units on their property.

• Fully funding at least one safe bike connection between Southeast Seattle and downtown, as proposed in the 2014 Bicycle Master Plan and endorsed this year by the city’s Bicycle Advisory Board. Durkan’s Department of Transportation dramatically scaled back the BMP Implementation Plan in response to soaring costs earlier this year, but her proposed cuts seemed to center disproportionately on Southeast Seattle, the poorest and most diverse part of the city. A $2 million 2020 add from council member Mike O’Brien would enable SDOT to complete a bike lane on Beacon Ave. S. or one on Martin Luther King, Jr. Way S. before the levy expires in 2024.

What’s out: 

• In conjunction with the new funding for tiny house villages, the balancing package eliminates $1 million Durkan had proposed spending to relocate a tiny house village in Georgetown, which has the support of neighbors but has been on its current site longer than the two-year limit imposed by the city. The council could choose to change the law to allow the village to stay in Georgetown, help residents relocate to a property owned by a faith institution (which would not be subject to the limit) or close the village, which is operated by the Low Income Housing Institute.

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