Tag: city budget

Durkan’s Proposed $20 Million Cut to Police Is Just $4 Million More Than Initially Planned

The overall budget picture, via City Budget Office.

After weeks of soaring, budget-speech-style rhetoric about “reimagining the police” and “working with community,” Mayor Jenny Durkan’s proposed midyear police budget cut of $20 million, or just 5 percent of the department’s $400 million budget, was underwhelming. Moreover, according to sources familiar with Durkan’s initial budget balancing package, the proposed cut is only one percentage point (or $4 million) higher than the one Mayor Durkan proposed internally three weeks ago, before protests against police violence upended the city’s business-as-usual approach to public safety. That $4 million can be accounted for by Durkan’s proposal to delay the construction of a second North Precinct for the department.

Despite demands from activists against police violence to start cutting SPD right away, the 5 percent cut will not even reduce the size of the police force. As a presentation on the budget cuts makes clear, SPD is on track to hire and train enough new officers to make up for the expected rate of attrition through the end of the year. The presentation emphasizes that SPD is taking the biggest budget hit, in dollars, of any department; it does not point out the fact that this is because SPD is by far the largest department in the city.

SPD spent an extra $6.3 million this year policing protests over a period of 12 days, including the ones that led to the Capitol Hill Organized Protest zone near the East Precinct. That $6.3 million paid for 72,619 hours of overtime.

None of the changes proposed for SPD’s budget in 2020 represent a realignment of priorities; rather, they nibble around the edges by cutting things like new IT investments and cars.

SPD’s midyear budget adjustment also does not include any changes to the Navigation Team, the group of police officers and Human Services Department employees who do outreach and remove encampments around the city. Currently, the SPD budget includes $2.4 million for the Navigation Team, which pays for one lieutenant, two sergeants, and nine officers. School resource officers—police who provide security at schools, a role that is also extremely controversial—have been repurposed to go out with the Navigation Team while schools are closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

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The mayor’s budget announcement included a commitment from SPD to come up with proposals to cut its own budget by 30, 40, and 50 percent for 2021, and a commitment from the city to “engage community to provide substantive input on what 2021 SPD budget choices should be made.”

It’s standard for the city to ask departments to come up with potential cuts themselves, but the case of SPD is different because protesters are clamoring for its budget to be cut in half (to begin with) and for the entire concept of public safety to be reimagined in a way that does not center police. The Human Services Department, for example, came up with 2020 cuts that include not filling vacancies and reducing or eliminating travel and trainings—but, unlike the ongoing outcry over police funding, no one is clamoring for fewer human or social services, so the process of asking HSD to propose its own cuts is less politically fraught.

The police department spent an extra $6.3 million this year policing protests over a period of 12 days, including the ones that led to the Capitol Hill Organized Protest zone near the East Precinct. That $6.3 million paid for 72,619 hours of overtime.

The mayor’s proposed 2020 budget balancing package would also draw on funds from several voter-approved levies to pay for normal city operations. For example, $10 million will be shifted this year from the Move Seattle Levy, which was supposed to fund new transportation capital projects, toward the day-to-day operations of the Seattle Department of Transportation. The library levy, which was supposed to fund increased services, will now pay for basic operations—keeping the lights on at branches that might otherwise see reduced hours or closures.

The council will be discussing the mayor’s proposed budget cuts this afternoon. Most members of the council support passing a progressive tax to reduce the impact of next year’s budget shortfall. A payroll tax on large employers with high-paid workers, proposed by council budget committee chair Teresa Mosqueda, has five co-sponsors (a majority), but council member Kshama Sawant has threatened to put her own competing employee hours tax on a citywide ballot if Mosqueda’s proposal goes through in its current form. Durkan has not endorsed Mosqueda’s package and has never supported any tax proposal at the city level.

Budget director Ben Noble said yesterday that the budget cuts the city expects to make in 2021 (again, in the absence of any progressive revenue package) will amount to about 10 percent of the city’s overall budget—an “unprecedented” amount that even dwarfs the cuts the city made under former mayor Mike McGinn during the Great Recession.

Council Bans Use of “Less Lethal” Weapons and Chokeholds as Cop Funding Discussion Gets Underway

Police stand by during a recent encampment removal by the Navigation Team, which is made up mostly of Seattle police officers.

This story first appeared in the South Seattle Emerald.

The Seattle City Council voted unanimously today to ban the Seattle Police Department from owning or using so-called “less lethal” weapons such as blast balls, tear gas, and pepper spray for any purpose, and, in separate legislation, to ban the use of “chokeholds,” a term that includes various methods of restraining a person by cutting off their air supply or blood flow to their brain.

City council member Lisa Herbold, who chairs the council’s public safety committee, had proposed delaying the legislation barring less-lethal weapons for one week at the request of the Office of Police Accountability and the Office of Inspector General, which asked the council for one week to review the legislation and make recommendations. The OPA and OIG, along with the Community Police Commission, are the three accountability groups charged with implementing and overseeing police reforms required by a 2012 federal consent decree.

Delaying a week would not have allowed police to resume the use of blast balls, tear gas, and other weapons against protesters, thanks to a federal court ruling from Friday, June 12, barring the use of force against peaceful protesters for two weeks. However, council member Kshama Sawant, who sponsored the legislation, said on Monday morning that she was “at a loss to understand how any council member can play a role in delaying the passage of what is absolutely bare minimum legislation.” 

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Sawant continued to inveigh against Herbold at the full council meeting at 2pm, calling an amendment that would allow police to use non-lethal weapons under circumstances unrelated to free speech or “crowd control,” such as subduing individual suspects, “nothing less than a racist amendment [and] a betrayal of the movement and the Black community.” Earlier, Sawant called the same amendment “horrific” and suggested that it would “create giant, truck-sized loopholes that will allow these weapons to be used in virtually any situation.”

Herbold’s amendment mirrored language adopted by the Community Police Commission in 2015 and in 2020 recommending a ban on these weapons specifically for crowd control purposes. The CPC, OIG, and OPA have not weighed in on whether less-lethal weapons should be banned outright, a move Herbold—a longtime advocate for police reform—said she worries could have unintended consequences.

Herbold didn’t directly address Sawant’s accusation, but did agree to withdraw the portion of her amendment to Sawant’s bill that would have allowed less-lethal weapons to be used for purposes other than crowd control. Her amendment, which ultimately passed, added language to Sawant’s bill asking the OPA, CPC, and OIG to “make a formal recommendation to the City Council on whether the Seattle Police Department should be reauthorized to use less-lethal weapons for crowd dispersal purposes” by August 15.

The council is sending the legislation to the Department of Justice, Federal District Court Judge James Robart, who presides over the consent decree, and court monitor Merrick Bobb, who was appointed to oversee the decree. The consent decree is an agreement, signed by the city in 2012, that committed the city to police reform after the federal court found a pattern of excessive force and racially biased policing. 

In early May, Mayor Jenny Durkan asked the judge to find the city in long-term compliance with federally mandated reforms, one of the final steps before the dissolution of federal oversight SPD. Less than three weeks later, George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis and police in Seattle responded to mostly peaceful protests with violent force. 

The discussions about less-lethal weapons are just the first phase of discussions about the size and purpose of the police department, which will continue on Wednesday at 2pm with a discussion in the council’s budget committee about proposals to defund the department and invest in community organizations that provide alternative approaches to community safety and prosperity.

 

The City Has Been Renting Two Shower Trailers Since March. If They Open, Each Shower Could Cost $500.

Image via VIP Restrooms.

This post has been updated to reflect the fact that the city’s estimate of 16 showers per day was for each trailer, not for both trailers combined. This changes the total cost per 15-minute shower to $500 each, not $1,000, a change that has also been reflected in the headline. 

On March 10, Seattle Human Services Department director Jason Johnson sent a memo to Mayor Jenny Durkan proposing to spend $1.3 million from the city’s 2020 budget to “rent up to five” mobile shower and restroom trailers to  serve people experiencing homelessness during the COVID-19 pandemic. The city council added the money to Durkan’s proposed budget last year to buy five shower trailers outright, but the mayor’s office didn’t take action until the COVID-19 pandemic was well underway. By the time the city started looking for trailers, many other cities were doing the same.

Eventually, the city rented two three-stall units from a California company called VIP Restrooms, securing a last-minute credit limit increase to charge the first week’s rental fee of $28,700 on a city credit card. That eclipsed what King County was paying for similar, but much larger trailers, and the city’s outlay continue to rise week after week, while the trailers sat unused. As of this afternoon, both trailers remain in storage, and have not provided a single shower since the city first started paying for them back on March 26, nearly two months ago.

A series of emails shows city staffers scrambling to increase the credit limit on a city MasterCard to pay for the trailers before another city could snag them. “We are trying to both rent and procure sanitation trailers, along with every other major city,” SPU director Mami Hari wrote. “Suppliers are demanding cash/credit card/check and will not accept PO’s. The available pool diminishes each day and we have a bead on 2 trailer rentals and a couple for purchase.”

Last month, I reported that the trailers would  “likely cost the city hundreds of thousands of dollars a month,” based on an estimated cost of $36,000 per month just to rent the trailers, plus a range of potential costs to pump out wastewater and an unknown cost to hire security and staff for each unit.

The documents from SPU show that this estimate was, if anything. According to memos and spreadsheets created by the city to estimate costs for FEMA reimbursement, the monthly cost for rental, wastewater, and materials will be around $159,000, with pumpout costs at the low end of the city’s original range. Staffing the trailers, according to the city, will add another $333,000. That’s a total cost of $484,000— nearly half a million dollars a month for two rented hygiene trailers that will provide, according to the city, between 16 and 24 individual showers per day. If the showers operate every day (not a given), and provide 16 showers each per day, that works out to a cost of about $500 per shower.

 

This spreadsheet has been altered to remove unrelated costs for portable toilets. The unaltered spreadsheet, with the additional numbers in place, is available here.

Since the city has not actually used the trailers since paying for them on March 26, of course, the actual cost has been lower. But that’s the same logic that enables the city to claim that it is paying less than expected for the 155 rooms it has rented out at the Executive Pacific Hotel in downtown Seattle. As long as the rooms are empty, the city doesn’t have to pay for food. As long as no one is using the showers, the city doesn’t have to pay for water and staffing.

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SPU’s records show that as the pandemic began shutting things down from coast to coast, the city became increasingly desperate to get their hands on showers—any showers. A series of emails on March 26 shows city staffers scrambling to increase the credit limit on a city MasterCard to pay for VIP’s trailers before another city could snag them. “We are trying to both rent and procure sanitation trailers, along with every other major city,” SPU director Mami Hari wrote in a mass email to mayoral, council, and city finance staff. “Suppliers are demanding cash/credit card/check and will not accept PO’s.  The available pool diminishes each day and we have a bead on 2 trailer rentals and a couple for purchase.”

Three hours later, the city’s charge had gone through, and the trailers were on their way to Seattle.

SPU spokeswoman Sabrina Register confirmed, “There was a shortage of available hygiene trailers for purchase because of the pandemic and we couldn’t secure any trailers without prompt payment. In order to move more quickly, we used a City-issued credit card to secure two trailers in Southern California.”

Since the city has not used the trailers since paying for them on March 26, the actual cost has been lower. But that’s the same logic that enables the city to claim that it is paying less than expected for the 155 rooms it has rented out at the Executive Pacific Hotel in downtown Seattle. As long as the rooms are empty, the city doesn’t have to pay for food. As long as no one is using the showers, the city doesn’t have to pay for water and staffing.

The city considered many potential locations for the trailers, documents obtained through a records request reveal, including Wallingford, City Hall Park, the downtown library, and Regrade Park in Belltown. (Much of the information reported here comes from documents provided by Seattle Public Utilities in response to a records request. The Human Services Department, which was initially in charge of the shower program, has not yet provided records in response to a similar request.) The city’s latest plans would place the trailers outside the Exhibition Hall at Seattle Center and in front of King Street Station in Pioneer Square. It’s unclear exactly when and whether this will happen, although recent chatter indicates that the Seattle Center site could finally open in the next week.

City maps show one shower trailer at Seattle Center’s Exhibition Hall, which is currently functioning as a shelter.

Not everyone was on board the mobile shower bandwagon,. On April 2, one day before the trailers were schedule to arrive, Hara and SPU strategic advisor Danielle Purnell sent a memo to Deputy Mayor Casey Sixkiller raising questions about whether the shower trailers were really the best option. “As SPU researched shower trailer operational plans, it was discovered that experienced mobile shower providers in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Oakland and Denver have suspended operations due to COVID-19 siting pandemic safety and transmission concerns,” the memo said. (Emphasis in original).

Instead of opening showers, the memo continued, the city could consider handing out “enhanced hygiene kits” with body wipes and sanitizer, doing more outreach about the existing showers that remain open, or offering “safe, controlled shower and hygiene services utilizing large scale locker room and shower facilities at volunteering universities, public high schools, health clubs, churches, etc.”—something advocates for people experiencing homelessness have pushed for.

The list of alternatives to mobile showers is listed from least to most expensive, with the most expensive being “seeking emergency sheltering agreements with major hotels (i.e. Westin, Hyatt, Sheraton) similar to efforts in Oakland, Chicago, UK and others.”  However, it should be noted that hotels offer a few more amenities besides showers, including a bed and a safe, secure place to stay. Mayor Durkan has rejected this option repeatedly, preferring to move people into “de-intensified” mass shelters where they sleep six feet apart but share bathrooms and common areas.

SPU also expressed concern that showers, as well as portable toilets, would be magnets for illegal activity, such as “drugs, prostitution, [and] vandalism.”

The city plans to seek FEMA reimbursement for the cost of the shower trailers as well as portable toilets that were rolled out in April. About $1.5 million in funding will come from the original budget line item for mobile showers, plus about $250,000 that was supposed to expand shower services for homeless people at community centers.

Gaming Out the Latest “Amazon Tax” At the Start of an Unprecedented Recession

Let’s start out by stating the obvious: Barring a miracle, the “Amazon Tax” proposed by Seattle council members Kshama Sawant and Tammy Morales will not become law in its current form. The bill, which the council will continue discussing into next month, would slap a 1.3 percent payroll tax on companies with more than $7 million in payroll expenses, raising more than $500 million a year from about 800 Seattle companies.

Sawant and Morales decided to designate the bill as an “emergency,” which makes it invulnerable to a future voter referendum; the tradeoff is that they need 7 votes for approval, plus the support of Mayor Jenny Durkan, since the city charter requires mayoral approval of all emergency legislation. In other words, even if Morales and Sawant got five other council members on board—unlikely, if comments at Wednesday’s budget committee from council members who are ordinarily sympathetic to tax-the-rich arguments are any indication—the mayor could simply let the proposal die without a formal veto. Durkan fought Sawant’s last effort to “tax Amazon,” a $275-per-employee tax on employees of companies with gross receipts of more than $20 million, and is implacably opposed to this one as well.

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There is also some question whether the proposal complies with an emergency order issued by Gov. Jay Inslee in March, and extended this week, barring public agencies from adopting or discussing legislation unless it’s “routine” or “necessary to respond to the COVID-19 outbreak and the current public health emergency.”

Despite all that, it’s still worth taking a look at the legislation, which dwarfs the “head tax” the council passed in 2018, then overturned, by a factor of more than ten. What would happen if, against all apparent odds, the bill were to pass in its current form?

In its first year, 2020, the legislation would fund cash payments of $2,000 over four months to 100,000 low-income Seattle residents to respond to the COVID crisis. (This is the part of the bill most obviously compliant with Inslee’s order). Because revenues from the tax wouldn’t be available until 2021, the bill would fund these checks by taking a short-term loan from six city funds that, according to a companion bill, have “sufficient cash” to contribute up to $50 million each. Those funds would be paid back in 2021, plus $5 million interest.

From then on, assuming all the assumptions that went into the proposal remain correct, the tax would pump more than $500 million a year into funding for “social housing” for people making between 0 and 100 percent of the Seattle median income, operational support for permanent supportive housing, and funding to implement the Green New Deal, which includes strategies like weatherization and converting buildings from gas to electric heat. The amount of funding from the tax would be less, of course, if the number of businesses spending more than $7 million annually on payroll declined because of the recession.

Even if the legislation is safe from any future referendum, it would still be subject to lawsuits, and there’s no guarantee that litigation over the tax would be resolved quickly, or in the city’s favor.

The $200 million “interfund loan” would come from six voter-approved levies and taxing districts, including the Move Seattle levy; the Families and Education Levy; the Seattle Parks District; and the Library Levy. Some of these funds do have “sufficient cash” to give up $50 million in the short term, but it’s worth taking a look at why that is, and how this might impact their ability to fund promised projects.

The Low Income Housing Fund, which receives money from the Housing Levy and payments from developers through the Mandatory Housing Affordability program, has more than $146 million on hand because property taxes have continued to flow in to fund future projects that are not yet off the ground. That money is in the city’s “bank,” but it’s already spoken for. Other funds, such as the Library Levy Fund, the Move Seattle Fund, and the Parks District Fund, have significantly less than $50 million lying around. The Parks District fund, in fact, is actually in the red; the 2020 budget makes up a $6 million shortfall with an interfund loan, to be repaid as more revenues come in. Some of these funds simply aren’t that big to begin with—the library levy, for example, is supposed to raise just over $200 million, total, over seven years,

None of that might matter if the $200 million could be repaid in just one year as proposed. But even if the legislation is safe from any future referendum, it would still be subject to lawsuits, and there’s no guarantee that litigation over the tax would be resolved quickly, or in the city’s favor. If funding from the tax didn’t come through quickly, or ever, it’s unclear how the $200 million would be repaid. If, say, the Library Levy found itself short $50 million, that could significantly impact the library’s ability to provide services promised to voters—especially as the recession eats into the city’s tax base.

There are also other interests competing for that money. As city budget director Ben Noble noted in his grim revenue forecast presentation Wednesday, the city may have to dip into some of the dedicated levy funds to pay for basic services—using the parks levy to fund basic maintenance instead of new capital projects, for example. “If the base levels of funding for which the levies were intended to be additive are no longer feasible, the question is whether it would make sense to use the levy funds for operational purposes,” Noble told the council Wednesday. Continue reading “Gaming Out the Latest “Amazon Tax” At the Start of an Unprecedented Recession”

Navigation Team Switches Gears During Storm, More Homelessness Funds on Hold? And Speculation on KC Exec’s Political Future

Left: HSD director Jason Johnson; right: Mayor Durkan

1. UPDATE on Thursday, Jan. 16: According to HSD, the Navigation Team made 41 referrals to shelter on the first two nights of the winter storm—14 on Monday and 27 on Tuesday. Additionally, HSD spokesman Will Lemke said that there was no shortage of mats or other supplies at any of the emergency winter shelters. “The City is not low on supplies,” Lemke said. “Far from it. The City has strategic caches of supplies placed around Seattle for events like this. These supplies include supplies, cots, mats, sleeping bags, blankets, and first aid-kits.” A source who works for the Salvation Army, which staffed the downtown shelters, said people were sleeping on the floor or in chairs at the Seattle Municipal Tower on Tuesday night with only “thin blankets” to protect them in the chilly lobby, which has a revolving door.

At a briefing on winter storm response on Tuesday, officials with the city’s Human Services Department emphasized efforts by the city’s Navigation Team to get people living in encampments into shelter during the freezing weather, noting that members of the team—which ordinarily removes encampments—were out “from 7 am to midnight” on Monday making contact with encampment residents. What they weren’t able to say was how many people actually accepted an offer of transportation or shelter from the team, whose job ordinarily involves removing encampments and telling their displaced residents about available shelter beds, typically with few takers. HSD director Jason Johnson would not answer followup questions about the Navigation Team’s success rate, pointedly ignoring calls of “Jason!” from several reporters as he rushed out of the briefing room at the city’s Emergency Operations Center.

In a followup conversation, HSD spokesman Will Lemke said he would not have an exact number of shelter referrals, contacts made, or the number of people who received transportation from the Navigation Team until the city had crunched the numbers and entered them into the Homeless Information Management System. “I just haven’t been able to verify those numbers yet. Everything is very much in flux because everyone’s out in the field right now,” Lemke said when I asked for more detailed information. The number is reportedly in the single digits.

Last year, the city did publish the numbers right away, and did not issue any subsequent corrections to indicate their early numbers were wrong. On the first major snow day last year, February 8, the Navigation Team reported getting 18 people into shelter. On the 9th, 50. On the 10th, 67.

At the briefing, Durkan said that the city “saw greater uptake [on offers of shelter] last year on the second or third day of the storm. … We had a great deal of success with the Navigation Team going out to encampments and saying, ‘Hey you should come inside. It’s a good place. It’s safe.'” 

Johnson said that none of the shelters were over capacity and denied that there were any issues providing enough mats or other supplies to its severe weather shelters, which include space at the Seattle Center Exhibition Hall, in the lobby of the Seattle Municipal Tower, and at the Bitter Lake Community Center. There is also space for men only at the King County Administration Building. All shelters are operated by the Salvation Army.

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2. Last week, I reported on the fact that Mayor Jenny Durkan has hired an $86,000 consultant to evaluate the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program and make recommendations that will inform whether LEAD will receive funding approved in last year’s city budget to reduce caseloads and expand into new parts of the city. But LEAD isn’t the only human services program that might not receive operational funds that were approved last year. At least two other programs are under review by the mayor’s office.

One, a $700,000 pilot program called Homes for Good that would provide small “shallow” rent subsidies to people who receive federal disability payments and are at risk of homelessness, is under review because Durkan is reportedly cautious about funding a pilot program without a plan to continue paying for it in the future. David Kroman wrote several stories about this issue for Crosscut. Continue reading “Navigation Team Switches Gears During Storm, More Homelessness Funds on Hold? And Speculation on KC Exec’s Political Future”

Durkan Withholds Funding for Nationally Recognized LEAD Diversion Program

Mayor Jenny Durkan on a tour of Ballard businesses in October.

After squabbling with the city council over funding for Seattle’s nationally recognized arrest-diversion program Mayor Jenny Durkan has decided to withhold a majority of the program’s funding for 2020 and hire a consultant to analyze the program and make recommendations on whether and under what conditions to fund it.

The Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion Program, created and run by the Public Defender Association in collaboration with city and King County law-enforcement agencies, provides case management and referrals to services and housing for people engaged in low-level drug and prostitution crimes. Started as an arrest-diversion program in Belltown in 2011, LEAD has expanded to cover much of the city, and now accepts referrals through “social contacts” in addition to arrest diversions. Last year, PDA director Lisa Daugaard won a MacArthur Foundation award (commonly known as a genius grant) for her work on the program.

The council agreed to provide an additional $3.5 million to LEAD last year after lengthy negotiations and a promise of $1.5 million from Ballmer Group that was contingent on the $3.5 million in additional city funding. The money was supposed to allow LEAD to reduce case managers’ caseloads and expand the popular program geographically. Last month, though, at Durkan’s direction, the city’s Human Services Department sent LEAD a contract that only includes the $2.6 million the mayor proposed in her initial budget, with the rest contingent on an evaluation by New York City-based consultant Bennett Midland, which signed an $86,000 contract with the city in late December.

“The consultants will address appropriate protocols for referrals in partnership with SPD and LEAD and surface best practices in case management, behavioral health treatment and diversion,” senior deputy mayor Mike Fong told LEAD’s senior management in an email in December. “This information will inform their recommendations of relevant performance metrics to be incorporated into an amended contract and for overall consideration of what caseload levels should be. We expect the final report and recommendations this Spring.”

“Revising the contract to add the increased funding of $3.5 million will be informed by the recommendations from an independent program evaluation,” Fong wrote.

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According to Bennett Midland’s contract, the goal of the consultants’ work will be “to establish a shared understanding of LEAD’s existing deliverables, reporting capabilities, protocols, and procedures in order to develop an appropriate set of performance metrics, inform future program evaluations, and align future budget resources and contract provisions with the program’s foundational goals.”

LEAD says that if the mayor does not release the approved funding this year, LEAD will have to cancel its expansion plans and lay off staff. Currently, LEAD project director Tara Moss says, “LEAD is breaking, because legitimate demand far exceeds our capacity to provide case management. By its nature, it’s a program meant to help officers resolve new current problems, as well as provide long term support to people whose behavior has been problematic in the past.  So for LEAD to be healthy and useful, it has to take appropriate, priority new referrals from police and businesses.  Our police partners are making appropriate high priority referrals that we have no space to absorb, and even if we shut our doors to new referrals tomorrow—which would be the end of LEAD as we know it—we can’t even sustain the current caseload.”

“We are hopeful that the Mayor’s office will release the full funding. We would be really disappointed to see the nature of our grant fundamentally change from expanding a successful program to simply paying for something we thought government had agreed to fund. That would be a loss for the city.” — Statement from Ballmer Group

Durkan’s decision to withhold approved funding from a city contractor is highly unusual and introduces a new uncertainty into the annual budget process. Ordinarily, the mayor proposes a budget, the council amends it, and the adopted budget becomes the budget for the following year. There is little if any precedent for for the mayor’s office to reject the adopted budget for a specific program on essentially a line-item basis. Council member Lisa Herbold, who chairs the council’s human services and public safety committee, says she can’t recall “any budget adds not being funded” after a budget was finalized and passed in the two decades she has worked as a council aide or council member. A resolution “declaring that the City is committed to ensuring that evidence-based, law enforcement-engaged, pre-booking diversion programs, such as LEAD, receive the funding necessary to accept all priority qualifying referrals” passed unanimously in November.

Funding from Ballmer Group was explicitly tied to the $3.5 million in additional city funding, although [UPDATE] a spokesperson for the group says they do not intend to rescind the funding now. In a statement, Ballmer Group said, “We are hopeful that the Mayor’s office will release the full funding. We would be really disappointed to see the nature of our grant fundamentally change from expanding a successful program to simply paying for something we thought government had agreed to fund. That would be a loss for the city.”

“Very sad that we are facing this uphill battle AGAIN.  I thought we had your funding straightened out and on a smooth path; after our budget was complete, Council’s  intentions to fund LEAD expansion was clear.”—Former City Council member Sally Bagshaw

LEAD had already begun to expand its services to include new parts of the city, signing leases on new field offices in SoDo, Capitol Hill, and North Seattle and preparing to add staff through a nationwide search, Daugaard told key LEAD stakeholders in an email last month. “Now it’s far from clear that we should proceed with any of this.” According to Moss, LEAD’s current preference is to “act as if” the $3.5 million will come through midyear, but that’s a gamble—one that Moss says “requires City assurance that the approved funding will be made available by mid-year,” regardless of whether Durkan decides to fund the program after her consultants come out with their report.

Continue reading “Durkan Withholds Funding for Nationally Recognized LEAD Diversion Program”

City Budget Roundup, Part 1: Soda, Short-Term Rentals, and Legacy Businesses

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.

Sweetened Beverage Tax 

As I reported on Twitter (and Daniel Beekman reported in the Times), council member Mike O’Brien has expressed frustration at Mayor Jenny Durkan for using higher-than-expected revenues from the sugar-sweetened beverage tax, which is supposed to pay for healthy food initiatives in neighborhoods that are most impacted by both the tax and health problems such as diabetes and obesity, to balance out the budget as a whole. In a bit of budgetary sleight-of-hand, Durkan’s plan takes away general-fund revenues that were paying for those programs and replaces them with the “extra” soda tax revenues, which flatlines spending on healthy-food initiatives (like food banks, Fresh Bucks, and school-lunch-related programs) aimed at reducing consumption of unhealthy food… like soda.

“The intent was pretty clear when we passed the legislation last year about how the funding would be spent,” O’Brien said last week. “What we saw in this year’s budget was [a proposal] that may have technically met the letter of it, but certainly not the spirit.”

O’Brien’s proposal would create a separate fund for soda-tax proceeds and stipulate that the city should use the money from the tax in accordance with the recommendations of the advisory board that was appointed for that purpose, rather than reallocating them among the programs the tax is supposed to fund, as Durkan’s budget also does. (See chart above). The idea is to protect the soda tax from being used to help pay for general budget needs in future years, and to ensure that the city follows the recommendations of its own soda tax advisory group.

Airbnb Tax

When the city passed a local tax on short-term rentals like Airbnbs, the legislation explicitly said that $5 million of the proceeds were to be spent on community-led equitable development projects through the city’s Equitable Development Initiative. This year, state legislators passed a statewide tax that replaced Seattle’s local legislation, but council members say the requirement didn’t go away. Nonetheless, Durkan’s budget proposal stripped the EDI of more than $1 million a year, redirecting those funds to pay for city staff and consultants, prompting council members including O’Brien, Lisa Herbold, and council president Bruce Harrell to propose two measures restoring the funding back to the promised $5 million level and creating a separate equitable development fund that would include “explicit restrictions” requiring that the first $5 million generated by the tax go toward EDI projects, not consultants or overhead.

“I think the mayor did this intentionally,” O’Brien said last week. “I don’t think she doesn’t like the equitable development initiative—I think she’s just struggling to make the budget balance—but this is a priority. We’ve seen with the sweetened beverage and the short-term rental tax that …  when we say we are going to impose a new revenue stream and here’s how we’re going to dedicate it, and then less than a year later someone says we’re going to dedicate it a different way, I think that is highly problematic on a much larger scale than just these programs.”

The council appeared likely to reject a separate, tangentially related proposal by council member Rob Johnson to exempt all short-term rental units that existed prior to September 2017, when the council first adopted rules regulating short-term rentals, from the new rule restricting the number of units any property owner could operate to a maximum of two. Currently, this exemption only applies to short-term rental units downtown and some units in Capitol Hill and First Hill; by providing the same exemption to short-term rentals across the city, Johnson said, the council could provide some certainty that the city would actually bring in $10.5 million in annual revenues, which is what the state projected and what Durkan assumed in her 2019 budget.

O’Brien, who drafted the original short-term rental regulations, suggested Durkan had jumped the gun by assuming the state’s projections were right before the legislation had even taken effect. “Typically, we try to be conservative when we have new revenue sources,” he said. Sally Bagshaw, who represents downtown and Belltown, said she had heard from constituents who bought downtown condos as retirement homes who told her their buildings have turned into 24/7 party hotels with few permanent residents. “The idea of opening this up just for budget reasons is disturbing,” Bagshaw said.”

Totem poles

Photograph by Rick Shu via Wikimedia Commons

As Crosscut has reported, local Native American leaders want the city to remove the totem poles erected in Victor Steinbrueck Park, because they have nothing to do with the Coast Salish people who have long populated the area in and around what is now Seattle. Other totem poles in Seattle, including the Tlinget pole in Pioneer Square, are similarly controversial. Council member Debora Juarez, a member of the Blackfeet Nation, is sponsoring an item that would direct the city’s Office of Arts and Culture to address the issue—not by simply removing the offending poles (which is controversial among some historic preservationists and Pike Place Market advocates) but by reviewing and making recommendations about all the Native American art on all city-owned land in Seattle. In response to Juarez’s proposal, budget chair Sally Bagshaw cautioned that she didn’t “want to get bogged down” in a massive study if the problem of offensive or inappropriate art could be addressed on a case by case basis “when they come to our attention. Otherwise,” Bagshaw continued, “I can imagine someone [stalling the process by] saying, ‘Well, we haven’t looked at our 6,000 acres of parks.'”

Legacy Businesses 

In announcing a proposed $170,000 add for the legacy business program—a plan to protect longstanding neighborhood businesses by providing cash assistance and incentives for landlords to keep renting to them—council member Lisa Herbold called it the policy for which she is willing to “fall on [her] sword” this year. Previous budgets have provided funding to study such a program, but Herbold’s proposal this year would actually get it off the ground, by providing startup and marketing costs for the program. “Much like landmarks are a bridge to our city’s culture and history because of their physical form, sometimes businesses as gathering places are also a bridge to our city’s history and culture,” Herbold said.

Support

Critics have said Herbold’s proposal, like similar programs in other cities, could prevent the development of badly needed housing by saving struggling businesses out of a misguided sense of nostalgia.

In response to a question from council member Teresa Mosqueda about whether the program might allow businesses to relocate or reopen in new developments, Herbold said yes, citing the Capitol Hill writers’ center Hugo House as an example. However, it’s worth noting that the Hugo House is a nonprofit, not a for-profit business, and it was “saved” not by government intervention but by the  private owners of the old house in which Hugo House was originally located, who promised to provide the organization with a new space when they redeveloped their property.

 

After Defeat of Head Tax, Council Scrambles for Plan B

City council budget committee chair Lisa Herbold made a risky gamble this week, and she lost. As a result, the council will pass a budget this coming Monday whose details were thrown together largely at the last minute, after a budget proposal that hinged on the passage of the controversial employee hours tax failed to secure a majority.

The gamble Herbold took was fairly straightforward, First, she proposed a version of the budget that incorporated revenues from the head tax—a $125-per-employee tax on businesses with more than $10 million in gross receipts, known as the HOMES tax. Second, she made sure that city council members’ top-priority projects would be on the chopping block without the tax, so that any council member who voted against the tax would risk losing funding for her favorite projects. Third, instead of coming up with a backup plan in collaboration with head tax opponents, she crafted a “Plan B” that included draconian cuts to council members’ priorities (including the criminal justice diversion program LEAD, housing for homeless Native Americans, and trash removal at homeless encampments), giving them an additional incentive to vote “yes” on the tax.

The problem was with step 4—the one where a majority of council members were supposed to fall in line and support the tax. That didn’t happen, for a number of reasons. First, some council members were simply dead set against passing the tax, or—to hear council members like Lorena Gonzalez tell it—opposed to passing it on a rushed timeline without an opportunity to do deeper analysis and look at other alternative revenue sources. (Council members have had less than three weeks to consider the proposal.) Second, several council members bristled at the way Herbold’s initial balancing package, in council member Debora Juarez’s words, “held hostage” so many important projects by putting them “in the head tax parking lot.” Juarez, in particular, was indignant about this forced tradeoff. And third, potentially persuadable council members may have been put off by the behavior of the head-tax supporters who showed up, many at Sawant’s behest, day after day, screaming invectives (“Shame!” “Their deaths are on your hands!” “Republican!”) at council members who didn’t fall in lockstep behind the proposal.

After the tax failed, it became clear that Herbold didn’t have a backup, and the council ended up canceling a scheduled budget meeting to hammer one out. The result was that the process that led to a final budget package was disorganized and chaotic, with some council members reportedly in the dark about budget amendments until less than an hour before they had to vote them up or down. (Many amendments weren’t available in hard-copy form until minutes before they were voted on.)

A few things stand out about the substance of the budget package that will go before the council on Monday. First, it includes aggressive cuts to incoming mayor Jenny Durkan’s budget. If the budget passes unchanged on Monday, the city’s first female mayor in nearly a century will have to reduce her budget 17 percent, the equivalent of five mayoral staffers. (This was one of the budget amendments that reportedly came through at the last minute). Much of the money that would have gone to the mayor’s office will now fund new contract management positions in the Human Services Department.

Council members who supported cutting the mayor’s budget, including Mike O’Brien, said they were merely bringing it down to the “baseline” level established under former mayor Mike McGinn. However, that characterization is misleading: McGinn had a skeleton staff because he became mayor during the worst economic recession in recent memory, and made the cut at a time when the city faced ongoing annual revenue shortfalls in the tens of millions. As the economy recovered and all city departments expanded back to pre-recession levels, McGinn’s successor, Ed Murray, staffed up too. While budget cuts during recessions are standard, I can recall no recent precedent for slashing the mayor’s budget so dramatically in the middle of an economic boom. Notably, the council did not propose any cuts to its own staff budget, which council members increased by 33 percent just last year.

Outgoing mayor Tim Burgess fired off a sassy response to the council’s cuts, saying that if the council, “in their wisdom[,] believes these funds are needed for other purposes, and remembering that the Legislative Department’s budget is twice the size of the Mayor’s budget, then the funds should come proportionately from the Mayor’s Office and the Legislative Department.” Should Durkan want to respond to the cuts more directly than Burgess did, she could take a hard look at the dozens of statements of legislative intent the council also adopted today, each of which constitutes a request for the mayor’s office to craft legislation or produce reports and analysis. Or the council could decide to dial back the cuts on its own; they still have until Monday to find cuts elsewhere if they don’t want to pick this fight with the new administration. Durkan, it’s worth noting, did quite well in several council members’ districts, including O’Brien’s (Northwest Seattle) and Herbold’s (West Seattle). Both council members are up for reelection in two years.

The cuts to Durkan’s office highlight another unusual aspect of today’s budget proposal: It shifts a significant amount of money into the city’s Human Services Department from other departments, primarily the Department of Finance and Administrative Services. Although intuitively, it makes sense to move funding for things like homeless encampment removals to the department that hands out contracts for homeless services, HSD was not necessarily clamoring for the change, and will need time to hire seven new employees and train them to do the work FAS has been doing. Durkan, meanwhile, presumably has her own ideas about how the department should be run, and who should run it (the current director is Catherine Lester).

Today’s budget debate also solidified the ideological fault lines on the council—and highlighted the need for someone to serve as de facto council leader. As budget chair and a council veteran (before her election in 2015, Herbold was a staffer for former council member Nick Licata for 17 years), Herbold had a chance to be that leader, by counting votes and dealing with both sides to come up with a best-case scenario for the council’s left wing as well as a viable Plan B that could win the support of a council majority. Instead, Herbold went for broke—proposing a budget that was, in essence, an ultimatum, and declining to work with council moderates like Rob Johnson on a backup plan. That gamble didn’t pay off, even with a reliable ally like Kirsten Harris-Talley temporarily on the council. Once the council equation shifts in November (when Teresa Mosqueda, who handily defeated Herbold-endorsed socialist Jon Grant, replaces Harris-Talley), she could find herself increasingly isolated—insufficiently socialist for Sawant (whose supporters yelled “Shame!” and “Republican!” as fervently at Herbold as they did at Johnson), insufficiently “moderate,” (which is to say, conventionally liberal) for the council’s new majority.

I’ll have more to say about the final budget package on Monday.

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter of the site! For just $5, $10, or $20 a month (or whatever you can give), you can help keep this site going, and help me continue to dedicate the many hours it takes to bring you stories like this one every week. This site is funded entirely by contributions from readers, which pay for the substantial time I put into reporting and writing for this blog and on social media, as well as costs like transportation, phone bills, electronics, website maintenance, and other expenses associated with my reporting. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

Morning Crank: “Meets All Necessary Privacy Requirements”

Image via Hope to the End.

1.  Some little-picture observations about the proposed city budget, which interim mayor Tim Burgess released on Monday:

• The budget includes extremely sunny ridership projections for the South Lake Union and First Hill streetcars, assuming that farebox revenues from the two streetcars combined will be 25 percent higher than actual 2016 revenues, and 21 percent higher than the assumption that was used for the 2017 budget.

• The budget includes $343,000 to expand the city’s Our Best program, which is aimed at increasing mentors for young African American men and improving black male outcomes. As I’ve reported, this fix-boys-first focus can black girls, who face very different challenges than black boys, behind; programs like Our Best also tend to emphasize traditional gender roles, including a heteronormative family structure in which the man is the breadwinner and the wife stays at home.

• The phrase “African American/Black” occurs 10 times in the city budget itself. Nine of those 10 times, it precedes either “male” or “boys.”

• In addition to increasing funding for homelessness-related programs and services by $2 million, the budget for the city’s Human Services Department includes funding for new Homeless Management Information scan cards, which are just what they sound like—bar-coded scan cards identifying and tracking homeless people who use the city’s shelter system. According to the budget book, the cards will, “for a small investment, significantly decrease the burden on people using homeless services to provide information and decrease the burden on agencies to enter duplicative data while significantly increasing efficiencies in the homeless service delivery system by ensuring data quality.” The proposed new homeless scanning system, HSD assures readers, “meets all necessary privacy requirements and is used in homeless response systems around the

• In another nod to HSD’s renewed emphasis on “performance-based contracting” and “measurable outcomes,” the department’s budget also includes two new data analysis staffers.

• And in a nod to the fact that addressing homelessness was never going to be a short-term problem, the budget takes two positions that were created in 2017 to execute the city’s interim response to homelessness and makes them permanent.

 

“The Navigation Center is finding that mapping out a strategy to get them housed could take more than 60 days.”

 

2. Speaking of homelessness as a long-term problem: The first annual report on Pathways Home, the new city homelessness framework that emphasizes “rapid rehousing” and “performance-based contracting,” is out. Overall, the city gives itself high marks for moving people from unsanctioned to sanctioned encampments and for getting people into safer (if still precarious) living situations. HSD praises itself, in particular, for the work of its new Navigation Teams—groups of police and outreach workers who offer services and safer shelter or housing to people living in unsanctioned encampments that are about to be swept by the city—and for two new low-barrier shelters, the city-run Navigation Center and a new low-barrier shelter run by Compass Housing, which together provide 175 new shelter beds.

However, the number of people served by the city-run Navigation Center remains low. (The Compass facility just opened last month). Between July and September, according to the report, the center has seen just 105 people—and 30 percent of those left the program in the first 45 days it was open. The goal of the Navigation Center is to get hard-to-house and chronically homeless clients with complicated problems, including addiction, into long-term shelter, permanent housing, or treatment. When the center opened, HSD said it would aim to get people through the shelter and on to their next living situation within 60 days; the progress report released Monday, however, concedes that “[p]eople coming inside from being unsheltered have a big adjustment to make and multiple issues to address and many barriers to housing stability; the Navigation Center is finding that mapping out a strategy to get them housed could take more than 60 days.” Next year, the city will switch to a system that awards contracts to shelter providers based in part on how many of their shelter clients “exit shelter to permanent housing,” which could weigh against shelters like the Navigation Center that serve clients that are among the most challenging to house.

“There is an urgent need to provide unsheltered people with real time referrals to shelter and housing by using scan card technology in the field to link outreach workers and housing resources.”

 

The report also touts the Navigation Teams, praising the groups for getting people living in unsafe encampments into “safer alternative living spaces.” Overall ,64 percent of the people the Navigation Teams “engaged” accepted some kind of services (down from the 69 percent an SPD lieutenant described as “staggeringly high” back in May). Thirty-nine percent accepted alternative living arrangements (up from 32 percent), which include other (sanctioned) encampments; although the city tracks this number closely, HSD has told me it does not know how many people in that group actually got permanent housing, as opposed to a shelter bed or reassignment to another outdoor encampment.

In a nod to the budget line item adding funding for homeless scan cards, the Pathways Home report says “there is an urgent need to provide unsheltered people with real time referrals to shelter and housing by using scan card technology in the field to link outreach workers and housing resources.”

3. Eli Sanders, the Stranger writer-turned-speechwriter/deputy communications director for interim Mayor Tim Burgess, has said he plans to use what he sees and hears while embedded at the mayor’s office as material for a piece of “experiential journalism” when he returns to his job at the paper full-time in November. (Sanders will continue to host the Stranger’s political blog, “Blabbermouth,” one day a week.) On Monday, the city provided me with Sanders’ offer letter for the position, which consists primarily of writing Burgess’ speeches and public remarks, not taking media calls or dealing with external communications. Sanders, according to the letter, will make $55.598 per hour, plus a five percent bonus for his first 520 hours; after that point (which Sanders will likely never hit, given the short-term nature of his assignment), he will receive a ten percent bonus.

Doing the math: Sanders started his new job on September 19; the job will conclude on November 28, when a new mayor takes office. At 8 hours a day, and assuming he receives no pay for additional hours or other bonuses, Sanders will make $26,153.30 for his 56 full days of work for Burgess, which (if extrapolated out to the full year) would amount to a salary of $125,762.78. This places Sanders’ starting salary within the top third of mayoral staff salaries; only 16 of the 47 mayoral staffers make more than Burgess’ new hire.

Also Monday, I got a request to remove Sanders’ personal email information from his offer letter, which is a public record available to anyone. The ask was reasonable, and I removed the address, but I couldn’t help but note a certain irony in the request, as I told the staffer who asked for the redaction:

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please considerbecoming a sustaining supporter of the site! For just $5, $10, or $20 a month (or whatever you can give), you can help keep this site going, and help me continue to dedicate the many hours it takes to bring you stories like this one every week. This site is funded entirely by contributions from readers, which pay for the substantial time I put into reporting and writing for this blog and on social media, as well as costs like transportation, equipment, travel costs, website maintenance, and other expenses associated with my reporting. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

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