Tag: Dow Constantine

“Compromise” Levy for Vets, Seniors Less Generous than County Exec’s Proposal

Advocates will make a last-ditch effort this afternoon to convince the King County Council to more than double the size of the King County Veterans, Seniors, and Human Services Levy, on the ballot this November. But after weeks of debate, and numerous proposals and counter-proposals, the council appeared last week to have settled on a compromise: A levy of ten cents per thousand dollars of property value—double the size of the previous levy—divided evenly between programs for veterans, seniors, and other vulnerable populations.

The argument over the levy has boiled down to two primary issues: How large it should be (County Executive Dow Constantine and advocates have argued for at least 12 cents, and some advocates have pushed for even more), and how it should be divided. The council’s three Republicans, not surprisingly, have advocated for a smaller, 10-cent levy.

Ordinarily, the Republicans would be outnumbered, and the Constantine proposal would prevail. But the Republicans have two Democratic allies in council members Dave Upthegrove and Rod Dembowski, giving them a five-vote majority. Dembowski, unlike Upthegrove, has made it clear that he would be willing to support a 12-cent levy, but only if that 12 cents was divided 50-50 between veterans and other beneficiaries; the other Democrats argued that it should be split evenly between programs for veterans, seniors, and everybody else. (The Dembowski split would be achieved by taking the third of the money that goes to seniors and earmarking half of it for seniors who are also veterans.) After a number of convoluted machinations at the council’s budget and policy committee, the full council, and a regional policy committee that includes representatives from several suburban cities as well as Seattle, the proposal to reserve more of the levy exclusively for veterans failed, and the “compromise” version the council will consider today is ten cents, evenly divided.

Council members who supported a more even distribution of funds argued that it was a matter of demographics and equity. At last week’s regional policy committee meeting, county council member Jeanne Kohl-Welles pointed out that while the number of veterans in King County continues to decrease, the number of seniors is about to skyrocket. “By 2030, we’re looking at a one to ten ratio of veterans to seniors,” Kohl-Welles said, “so my argument is that the best approach to take would be [the three-way split]. Even at that, the veterans are receiving way more, proportionally, than are the demographic of seniors in our population.” At least one local veterans’ group agreed with this analysis. ”

“Excluding seniors from this levy would be doing a disservice to our aging veterans and those that don’t identify as veterans for a number of legitimate reasons,” such as Ryan Mielcarek, co-chair of the King County Veterans Consortium, testified. “This levy is carried on the backs of veterans and we know that. To that I say, ‘Hop on. We will carry you.'” Even at the lower, 10-cent level, the levy would double what the county will spend on services for veterans.

Suburban members of the regional policy committee, including Mercer Island City Council member Dan Grausz, argued that voters outside Seattle might reject a 12-cent levy as too large. “I would hope that what we an do as electeds is always remember that our paramount duty is to get a result, and that sometimes requires compromise,” Grausz said. Seattle council member Kshama Sawant, who also sits on the regional committee, shot back, “The paramount duty of all elected officials, especially today, is to listen tot your constituents and respond to their needs—not to the political calculations of other politicians. Political realities on the King County Councilare no more etched in stone than they are anywhere else. If you call their bluff and send a 12-cent measure to the King County Council, they will have to go on record and say why they oppose it. If they really want to vote against 12 cents, let them do it. I don’t think it’s my job to make it easier for them.”

Arguments that voters might reject the veterans levy over two cents seem implausible in light of the levy’s overwhelming popularity. In August 2011, seven in 10 King County voters supported the levy—a massive margin for a property tax.

Advocates for the larger levy have pointed out that although it would only add $9 to the median property owner’s tax bill—an average of 75 cents a month more than the 10-cent version—it would increase county funding for services by $67 million over the six-year life of the levy ($407 million compared to $340 million for the 10-cent version.) That’s $21 million more for housing stability programs, $15 more in new services for vulnerable groups, $15 million more for veterans, and $15.5 million more for seniors. “We’re leaving $67 million on the table,” Seattle city council member Debora Juarez, who also sits on the regional committee, said last week. “To me, that’s unconscionable.”

King County Council chair Joe McDermott told me Friday that although he would be willing to support a levy of as much as 15 cents, he falls on the site of the political pragmatists. “I see the increased need around the entire county for all of these services, but part of legislating is working with colleagues and compromising,” McDermott said. “What came out of the [regional policy committee] is a compromise, and that’s the compromise I think we should all be looking at” on Monday.

If the council fails to reach a compromise this afternoon, the “drop-dead date” to vote on a measure for the November ballot is August 1, although that would require an emergency declaration from the council.

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Mayor: Just Kidding About That $275 Million Property Tax for Homelessness

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Just three weeks after rolling out a proposal to increase Seattle residents’ property taxes about $135 a year to raise $275 million for homelessness over the next five years, Mayor Ed Murray, joined by King County Executive Dow Constantine and other county officials, announced today that he was scrapping that proposal in favor of a countywide 0.1-percent sales tax, which will go on the ballot in 2018. The measure would raise $68.6 million in the first year, according to the city, rising to $91.1 million in year 10. (Murray’s original proposal would have raised about $45 million a year, but the new, higher figure will have to be spread across the county and its 39 cities).

Standing in a room filled with many of the same city and nonprofit agency staffers who flanked him at the last announcement, Murray called the new-look homelessness plan a “regional approach” that unites the county and city in fighting what Murray called a “regional problem” that impacts cities across the county, from Seattle to Bellevue to Enumclaw.

It was a remarkable, and remarkably abrupt, turnaround for a mayor who had touted his earlier proposal as a data-driven, results-oriented approach to homelessness, mental health care and addiction. Based on last year’s Pathways Home report from Ohio consultant Barb Poppe, the proposal would have invested heavily in short-, medium-, and long-term “rapid rehousing” vouchers, and would have gotten the city into “new lines of business,” in Murray’s term, such as mental health care and opioid addiction treatment. Signature gathers have been out in force over the past two weeks, collecting tens of thousands of names to qualify the measure for the August 2017 ballot—a path Murray chose for his measure, at least in part, because it would allow him to circumvent the red pens of the city council. All reports are that the measure, known as Initiative 126, was polling well, but not great, and with the mayor facing election in November, the prospect of fighting a pitched battle over property taxes with homeowners disinclined to like him anyway couldn’t have been appealing. (A handout provided by the mayor’s office included several data points about Seattle’s relatively low property taxes that would be non sequiturs if they didn’t come from a mayor who tends to get defensive when criticized about property taxes.)

On the other hand, the political calculus also includes King County Executive Dow Constantine, who is trying to pass his own taxes this year—one old, a levy that funds programs for health care and human services for veterans and other county residents, and one new, a sales tax for arts, science, and cultural education. Speculation at city hall today was that Constantine didn’t want all three measures to be on the ballot in the same year—arts and culture and homelessness in August, and veterans and human services in November.

Neither Constantine nor Murray would directly answer questions about what changed between three weeks ago and today, instead falling back on boilerplate about realizing the need for a regional approach to homelessness. “The conversation got started with the city about how we can team up and do a better job to do a comprehensive approach, and really put together a plan that involves all of the stakeholders in the community,” Constantine said. “If you don’t plan, if you don’t take into account where you can get the most value, you end up measuring success by the amount of money you’re putting in and that is not the right way to do it.”

While Constantine was throwing gentle shade at the mayor’s abandoned proposal, two of the men who helped craft that measure were openly disappointed that the plan on which they both collaborated was headed for the shredder. Nick Hanauer, the lefty billionaire whose entrepreneurial expertise was supposedly key to the original proposal, said he felt “a little sad to not be moving forward with our city initiative,” and Downtown Emergency Service Center director Daniel Malone said that “giving that up isn’t something that any of us were ready to do lightly. But,” he added, we’ve settled on something that is even better, bigger, and bolder … and still has the same key emphasis, which is to house people.”

Murray (and Hanauer) also carefully sidestepped questions about whether opposition from property owners helped sink the proposal, and whether a sales tax, which is more regressive (that is, it falls harder on the poor) than a tax on property, was the right way to fund services for homeless people (who don’t pay property taxes but do pay sales tax. Hanauer seemed to deny that the sales tax is particularly burdensome, with an ill-conceived comment that “I pay way more” in sales taxes than a homeless person, “because I buy way more stuff!” Murray launched into a verbal assault on the state’s tax system, which doesn’t allow an income tax. Gesturing at the officials around him, many of whom were state legislators once themselves, Murray said, “Washington State doesn’t have progressive taxes. There’s just no way around it. … Because of our state tax structure, we don’t have the tools here to try and change that.” A fact sheet passed out by Murray staffers at the end of the conference said the average household would pay $30 more in sales taxes per year, and a person making around $11,000 a year (the median low-income person’s annual pay, according to the mayor’s office) would pay an extra $9.

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, equipment, travel costs, website maintenance, and other expenses associated with my reporting. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

County, State Officials Raise Specter of Treatment Cutbacks

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Just three months after the joint Seattle-King County Opiate Addiction Task Force issued its recommendations for addressing the opiate addiction epidemic in the region, the federal government appears poised to slam the door on many of those proposals, county officials, state legislators, and experts on addiction and mental illness said Wednesday. Speaking at the county’s annual legislative forum on behavioral health at Town Hall, King County Executive Dow Constantine described a grim future if Congressional Republicans repeal the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act, a move Constantine said “would reduce or roll back access to treatment, particularly for people with substance use disorders. And even if there is treatment, it is more likely to be involuntary”–in places like lockdown mental hospitals and jails, Constantine said.

CARA, which President Obama signed into law this year, funds local programs to address heroin and opiate addiction, including traditional inpatient and outpatient treatment, medication disposal, distribution of the overdose-reversal drug naloxone, and medication-assisted treatment for opiate addiction with drugs like buprenorphine.

National Council on Behavioral Health president Linda Rosenberg noted that president-elect Trump and Congressional Republicans want not only to repeal the Affordable Care Act—eliminating mental health coverage for millions of newly insured Americans—but to turn Medicaid, the program that provides health care for the very poorest Americans, into a block grant to states, which would effectively end health care as an entitlement. Without ongoing funding for Medicaid expansion, King County Behavioral Health and Recovery Division Director Jim Vollendroff added, the county could find itself unable to fund drug treatment and other recommendations of the opiate task force recommendations. At the same time, “the county’s overall financial crisis threatens its ability to keep us all safe and healthy,” Vollendroff said.

One of the task force’s recommendations, supervised drug-consumption sites—where drug users could consume heroin, crack, meth, and other illegal substances under medical supervision—could be threatened from another corner of the new administration. Sen. Jeff Sessions, Trump’s nominee for attorney general, has made no secret of his opposition to drug legalization, speaking out strongly against legal weed. (“Good people don’t smoke marijuana,” Sessions once said.) It’s hard to imagine this drug warrior will sit idly by while a liberal city creates a space for people to use illegal drugs with impunity, and county officials say they are waiting on tenterhooks to see whether the new administration will crack down on innovative experiments like safe-consumption spaces.

So although the county distributed a short but ambitious list of federal legislative priorities—including full funding of CARA,  preservation of Medicaid expansion, and federal funding for 30-day treatment stays, rather than the current 15-day limit—it’s pretty clear that any real progress on improving the state’s treatment capacity will have to come from the state. The legislators gathered on stage at Town Hall last night promised to introduce a full slate of bills promoting addiction prevention and education, drug takeback programs, and programs to encourage people to enter the mental health-care field and keep them there. “The need is outstripping the number of workers in the field who can serve this community,” said freshman state Sen. Lisa Wellman, D-41. “We need to work, we need to educate, and we need to make sure this is a good paying job that people want to serve in.”

However, few legislators described how they would actually fund all these programs—Sen. Reuven Carlyle, D-36, talked about directing taxes from recreational marijuana toward treatment instead of the state’s general fund, a perennial Democratic goal—and none talked about safe consumption, the most controversial element of the task force’s recommendations. Sen. Mark Miloscia (R-30), the only Republican on the stage, has been vocal about his opposition to safe consumption sites—yesterday on Twitter, he characterized “decriminalization/legalization of heroin, rather than elimination” as “Death!”—and has proposed legislation that would prevent any local jurisdiction, such as the city or the county, from opening a safe consumption site.

Check out King County’s full list of state and federal legislative priorities here.

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 it 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.