As County Heads Into Homelessness Vote, City Council Considers Putting On the Brakes

As King County’s Regional Policy Committee heads into a vote on the much-altered regional homelessness authority proposal on Thursday morning, the fate of the plan remains far from clear. Although the proposal has enough votes to pass the RPC, Seattle City Council members have expressed major concerns, and could ultimately end up sending the county, Seattle, and suburban cities back to the drawing board. The RPC, King County Council, and Seattle City Council all have to vote to approve the plan for it to go into effect.

Council member Deborah Juarez, who sits on the RPC, will reportedly vote for the plan tomorrow morning but will make a formal statement that the city has outstanding concerns about the plan. (Juarez did not immediately return a request for comment Wednesday night). The city council will discuss potential amendments to the plan itself at their meeting tomorrow afternoon, and could introduce amendments formally on December 12, four days before the deadline to move the proposal forward this year. If the council amends the plan, negotiations with the county will start all over again next year.

A majority of the King County Council, with the approval of Mayor Jenny Durkan and King County Executive Dow Constantine, have agreed on significant changes to the proposal—which has been in the works for most of the last year—over the last few weeks.

Seattle council members, as well as representatives for Human Service Department employees who will eventually work for the new authority, have raised concerns about what they consider a rush to pass the dramatically altered proposal before they’ve had a chance to consider the impacts of the changes. Perhaps most significantly, the new plan would shift budgeting and policy authority away from a board of experts and onto a panel of elected officials, including representatives of suburban cities that aren’t paying into the plan. Seattle has pledged to pay for $73 million, or 57 percent, of the new authority’s budget.

A memo from the city council’s central staff explained the differences between the original plan and the new proposal, which has emerged over the past few weeks.  I’ve outlined the changes before, but here are a few of the most significant:

• The new plan would create a 12-member governing board made up primarily of elected officials from Seattle (three members), King County (three members), the Sound Cities Association of suburban cities (three members), plus three members with lived experience of homelessness, one of whom must live outside Seattle. Previously, this group was known as the steering committee and would have had seven or eight members, including two with lived experience.

The changes would mean that, in theory, the board could have as few as three Seattle representatives—compared to a minimum of four suburban representatives— despite the fact that Seattle is contributing 57 percent of the funding for the new authority while suburban cities are contributing nothing. Potential amendments could change some of the geographic requirements to give Seattle more mandatory representation on the board.

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• A lower-level “implementation board” made up of experts and people with lived experience would be appointed by the governing board and a new advisory committee.

This board would be stripped of most of the authority it had in the original plan, proposing budgets and policy plans that could then be amended by as few as six members of the 12-member governing board. (For example, if only the minimum quorum of nine members showed up to a meeting, a six-member supermajority of that quorum could vote its preferred policies through. Even if all 12 members were present and voting, the nine elected officials could overrule the three members with lived experience on any vote.) The only decision that would require more than this six-vote minimum is a vote to fire the executive director. Potential amendments, hinted at in the council memo, might make it more difficult for the board of elected officials to amend budget and policy decisions.

• The new plan requires “sub-regional planning” (meaning that suburban cities can have localized plans with policies that differ from Seattle’s) and removes a mandate that these plans be evidence-based and informed by race and social justice principles, in line with a still-incomplete Regional Action Plan. Low-barrier shelters and Housing First policies are examples of evidence-based practices that some suburban cities may be reluctant to embrace. “Given the exclusion of such language, it is possible that a five-year plan that includes sub-regional planning will not reflect a uniform, defragmented approach to ending homelessness,” the central staff memo says. A potential amendment might require these sub-regional plans to align with the goals and principles of the RAP.

The council memo also suggests that in lieu of approving the new proposal or adopting amendments in the next week—the council has scheduled its last special homelessness committee meeting for December 12, with a final vote on December 16—council members could adopt a resolution committing to continue work on the plan in 2020 and directing the city’s Human Services Department to move forward on the 2020 contracting process with the county.

Delaying until next year would mean that outgoing homelessness committee chair Sally Bagshaw wouldn’t get to vote on the final plan (which she characterized as “all good” at a briefing earlier this week), and would force the county to regroup and hold additional public meetings as well. But a month or two of delay could give the city a chance to take a closer look at a plan that looks far less “transformative” than proponents of regional governance—who’ve been pushing for major governance changes not for months, but years—have hoped.

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