Tag: Dow Constantine

Scratching Your Head Over Today’s Head Tax Defeat? Here Are Some Answers.

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After a raucous, nearly two-and-a-half-hour special council meeting that concluded in a 7-2 vote to repeal a $275-per-employee tax on high-grossing businesses (read my live blow-by-blow here), both proponents and opponents of the head tax were asking: What’s next?

Mayor Jenny Durkan and all nine members of the city council approved the head tax, which was supposed to be a “compromise” between the city and Amazon (the company that would be most impacted by the measure), without coming up with a Plan B, either failing to anticipate or underestimating business and public opposition to the proposal. Not only does the city have to go back to the drawing board, the drawing board is pretty much a blank slate: After meeting for five months, a task force appointed to come up with progressive tax options landed on the head tax as the only viable alternative to regressive taxes like sales and property taxes. Seattle leaders point to the need for “regional solutions” to homelessness, but the only regional solution that has been put forward so far is a countywide sales tax, which went nowhere after King County Executive Dow Constantine proposed it last year. Meanwhile, a countywide task force called One Table, which was supposed to recommend investments in regional homelessness solutions this spring, hasn’t met since April and has not scheduled another meeting after canceling the one planned for May.

So where does this leave Seattle? And what lessons should Seattleites take from the swift, overwhelming defeat of the head tax? Here are some opinionated FAQs about what just happened, who’s responsible, and what happens next.

Why did the council overturn the head tax by such an overwhelming margin after approving it unanimously just a few weeks ago?

Council members who have supported the head tax from the beginning, yet voted to repeal it today, gave a variety of reasons for switching their votes. Lisa Herbold, who co-chaired the progressive revenue task force and issued a blistering statement yesterday denouncing the Seattle Chamber of Commerce for its role in defeating the tax , said she is convinced that “the vast majority of Seattleites now believe that increased human suffering in our city is a result of government inefficiency.” Council member Rob Johnson told me yesterday that he was concerned that a referendum on the head tax could doom the Families, Education, Preschool, and Promise levy that is up for renewal in November. And council member Mike O’Brien echoed Herbold’s comments, saying he didn’t see a path forward “where, six months from now, eight months from now, we will have the revenue we need” because the head tax appears likely to lose if it goes to a vote in November.

Polling by head tax opponents, whose efforts were funded by Amazon, Starbucks, Vulcan, and represents of the hotel and grocery industries, has consistently shown that most Seattle residents currently oppose the head tax, but that isn’t the whole story. As several speakers (and council member Kshama Sawant) pointed out today, proponents could have put together a counter-campaign to make the case for the tax between now and a November vote on the referendum. (As someone shouted in council chambers, “That’s what campaigns are for!”) The problem was, no one wanted to. Council members have sounded increasingly resigned, in recent weeks, to the futility of trying to pass local funding for homelessness in the face of virulent neighborhood opposition on the one hand and energetic, well-funded business opposition on the other. As those two groups have coalesced in recent weeks (today, head tax opponents claimed to have gathered 45,000 signatures purely through “grassroots” efforts, a claim belied by the $276,000 the “No Tax On Jobs” campaign paid a Trump-affiliated signature-gathering firm called Morning In America last month), council members have increasingly expressed the view that most of the city is against them. Yesterday, O’Brien told me that it had become “increasingly clear” to him “that the public seems to be aligned with the business community, specifically the Chamber,” against the head tax. O’Brien, who has received dozens of harassing emails and was singled out for extra invective at a recent town hall in Ballard that devolved into a one-sided screaming match last month, said he currently plans to run again, but noted when we spoke yesterday that he has not yet filed his paperwork to do so.

Is this really all about Amazon? 

No, but you’d be forgiven for thinking it was. Council member Kshama Sawant, who exhorted her supporters to “Pack City Hall!” in a mass email yesterday, has consistently characterized the head tax as a “tax on Amazon” and Jeff Bezos, whom she described earlier today as “the enemy.” Demonizing individual corporations is rarely a path to building broad community coalitions, and that’s especially true when that corporation is Amazon, whose name many Seattleites (rightly or wrongly) consider synonymous with “jobs.” This is one reason head tax opponents were able to so easily spin the head tax as a “tax on jobs,” and to get ordinary citizens to gather signatures against a tax that would really only impact the city’s largest corporations.

But as council member Teresa Mosqueda, who voted with Sawant against repealing the tax, noted pointedly this afternoon, Amazon is only the most visible opponent (and target) of the tax, which would impact nearly 600 high-grossing companies in Seattle. Amazon’s estimated $20 million annual head tax payment may be budget dust to a multi-billion-dollar corporation, but other companies with slimmer profit margins, like Uwajimaya (which opposed the tax), would also be impacted, and tax proponents made a critical mistake in failing to address or at least consider their concerns.

This goes not just for Sawant and the socialist activists who support her, by the way, but Durkan and the rest of the city council. By focusing their efforts on getting Amazon to sign on to the tax (in a handshake deal that apparently wasn’t very solid to begin with), the council and mayor forfeited an opportunity to bring business (and the labor unions that opposed the tax) to the table to come up with a real compromise that would actually stick, instead of dissolving less than 48 hours after a deal was supposedly struck, as the head tax “compromise” did. The folks who held up a giant “TAX AMAZON” banner at today’s meeting may find this hard to believe, but the $15 minimum wage was not won solely by a movement of uncompromising socialists; it was the product of months of hard work and tough negotiations between unions, city leaders, and businesses. Ultimately, businesses and labor presented a united front in favor of a compromise version of the $15 minimum wage proposal, which defused opposition from both the right and left.

So all the head tax opponents who insisted today that they just want better solutions to homelessness than the head tax have an alternative in mind, right?

Not really. Head tax opponents, many of many of them wearing anti-tax T-shirts and holding “No Tax on Jobs” signs (according to the latest campaign filing, Morning In America spent $3,500 on T-shirts), demanded that the council be more transparent about how money for homeless services is spent, and have suggested that the city can find enough money in its current budget simply by spending money more “efficiently.” While they certainly have a point that the city could do a better job highlighting how it spends its resources (the Human Services Department’s “addressing homelessness” webpage hasn’t been updated since last year, and the department’s “performance dashboard” is down due to “technical difficulties,” according to a spokeswoman), it’s far from clear that the activists demanding “data” and “audits” would be satisfied with any amount of information about the city’s budget for homeless services unless it coincided with reductions in funding for those services. As for efficiencies, as Mosqueda and O’Brien both pointed out today, most of the growth in the city’s budget over the past several years has gone into utilities, police, and other services, not homelessness and housing. “My analysis is we absolutely need more resources,” O’Brien said today. “There is no way” for the city to pay for additional services for the 6,300 people living on Seattle’s streets with existing resources “without devastating cuts to other programs that we all rely on,” O’Brien said.

So … is the takeaway just that Seattle is screwed? 

Well… Kinda. After today’s meeting, I talked to proponents of the head tax who seemed bruised and demoralized by today’s decision, and understandably so—apart from the 2016 housing levy, which is focused more on housing construction than on shelter beds, housing vouchers, and other services that flow through HSD, the city has failed to pass new revenue since former mayor Ed Murray declared a homelessness state of emergency in 2015.

If I was an activist who worked on the head tax, I would turn my attention away from Amazon—which will never support any tax that impacts its bottom line—and toward business and labor groups that might be more amenable to a compromise. I would also start posing some hard questions about what happens next not just to the city council—which is an easy target, given their greater accessibility—but to the leaders who have stayed largely in the background as this fight has played out, namely Mayor Durkan and King County Executive Dow Constantine. Durkan brokered the deal with Amazon and acknowledged that she didn’t have a specific backup plan if the head tax failed—what’s her plan now that it has? And Constantine has been mostly absent on homelessness since the beginning of the year, when he convened the One Table regional task force (unless you count his statements denouncing Seattle’s head tax proposal). What are the county and city doing to redress the embarrassing failure of the head tax, and how will they ensure that the next tax proposal, if there is a next tax proposal, doesn’t meet a similar fate? These are questions advocates on both side of the head tax debate should be asking as they regroup, reflect, and prepare to rejoin the debate over solutions, which certainly won’t conclude with today’s head tax repeal.

Morning Crank: By the Numbers

Auburn Mayor Nancy Backus, King County Executive Dow Constantine, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan.

1. $1 million: The amount of money Mayor Jenny Durkan said Pearl Jam has agreed to donate from the proceeds of two reunion shows in August to support the cause of ending homelessness .

2. 75: The number of people appointed to serve on One Table, a group of business, civic, nonprofit, activist, and elected leaders from around the region that is charged with coming up with solutions for the “root causes” of homelessness, identified as a lack of affordable housing, inadequate access to behavioral health treatment, negative impacts on kids in foster care,  criminal history that impacts many people’s ability to find housing and employment, and “education and employment gaps making housing unattainable and unaffordable.” The committee met for the first time on Monday morning.  They sat at many different tables.

3. 200,000: The approximate number of people in King County who live below the federal poverty level, currently $16,240 for a two-person household).

4. 29,462; 24,952 The number of people King County says became homeless in 2016, and the number who exited homelessness that year, respectively. After a press conference following the One Table event Monday, King County Department of Community and Human Services director Adrienne Quinn acknowledged that the number of people who are no longer listed the county’s Homeless Management Information System doesn’t necessarily reflect the number of people who are currently housed, either permanently or temporarily; 11,767 of the 24,952 recorded “exits” are listed as “destination not reported,” which means that they could be in jail, in an institution, in drug or alcohol rehab, or on the street. The only criteria for an “exit” from homelessness is that a person hasn’t sought any housing or services in King County in the past three months. “Exits from homelessness” also include hundreds of people who left the shelter system voluntarily to go back on the street; those are listed, paradoxically, as an exit from homelessness into the category “unsheltered.”

5. 35,000: The approximate reduction between 2007 and 2016 in the number of housing units that were affordable to eople making less than 50 percent of the Seattle area median income, which was $33,600 for an individual, $48,000 for a family of four, last year.

6. Three: Number of times reporters asked King County Executive Dow Constantine and Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan if they planned to dissolve All Home, the agency that nominally coordinates efforts to address homelessness throughout the county, and replace it with a regional agency that would have the authority to actually implement policies, which All Home (whose director, Mark Putnam, recently resigned) does not.

7. Zero: Number of times either official answered the question directly. (Constantine also deflected questions about whether there would be a tax measure on the next November ballot to fund whatever solutions the group proposes.)

One (metaphorical) table.

8. 94: The percentage of people who have been booked into jail four or more times in the past year who suffer from some behavioral health condition, according to Brook Buettner, who manages the county’s “Familiar Faces” initiative.

9. $250. The amount Seattle CityClub, the civic engagement organization that holds monthly “Civic Cocktail” panels at the Palace Ballroom, is charging for its “Civic Boot Camp” on “Housing the Homeless,” part of a series of immersive, one-day trainings that take people who want to get involved in Seattle’s civic life on a deep dive into a single issue. Past boot camps have covered immigration, livable neighborhoods, and the waterfront. The high price of entry raised the eyebrows of some advocates for Seattle’s homeless residents, who wondered if that money would be going to agencies that provide housing and services or into CityClub’s coffers.

Diane Douglas, CityClub’s executive director, says the admission fees pay for scholarships for people who can’t afford to pay full price, stipends for the people who give presentations to the boot campers, food purchased from neighborhood businesses, and to rent space for the day from organizations working on the issue. In the case of the homelessness boot camp, she says, it makes more sense to spend the remainder of the fee supporting CityClub’s mission to get people engaged in the community by volunteering, campaigning for candidates, or donating to groups that provide direct services than to donate the proceeds directly to those groups. “When we survey people six months or a year later, we know that they’re volunteering more, they’re donating money, they’re communicating with elected officials,” Douglas says. “The purpose is really to get them engaged in the community. It’s a substantial amount of money for a day of training, but the idea is to leverage all those people so they’re all giving $250, so they’re volunteering, so they’re voting on the issues and causes that they’ve learned about.”

10. 77.4 cents: The amount a woman currently earns in Seattle for every dollar made by a man doing equivalent work, according to a presentation the Economic Opportunity Institute gave to the city council’s Housing, Health, Energy, and Workers’ Rights committee last week. Non-white women make significantly less than white women across the board, with black women, on average, earning the least; the wage gap is largest, at 29.3 percent, between Asian-American men and women.

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter of the site or making a one-time contribution! 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 time I put into reporting and writing for this blog and on social media, as well as reporting-related and office expenses. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

After Two-Year Gap, Detox Center Will Open on Beacon Hill

King County Executive Dow Constantine stands next to a detox bed at the soon-to-open Recovery Place.

The new detox and inpatient treatment center that will open later this year on Beacon Hill doesn’t look like much from the outside. A low-slung institutional building surrounded by a black iron fence and fronted by a small parking lot, it looks somewhat out of place in a residential neighborhood where brightly colored townhouses have sprouted like dandelions in recent years.

Even from the inside, you have to squint to imagine the transformation—from what Valley Cities Behavioral Health Care CEO Ken Taylor called a “ghastly” institution, run by Recovery Centers of King County, into a modern, brightly lit facility with fitness rooms, two large kitchens, and rooms for group meetings and private counseling.

The opening of the new facility, called Recovery Place, marks a significant milestone for detox and treatment in King County—the restoration of 32 beds for people needing medical detoxification from alcohol, heroin, and other drugs, and the first residential detox center in King County where people can access treatment for addiction and mental health issues simultaneously. (Most treatment centers do not deal with dual diagnoses).

The city’s Navigation Center, a new low-barrier shelter less than a mile away, will direct clients to Recovery Place, which will also take patients directly from emergency rooms and (eventually) on a walk-in basis. In addition to detox and a traditional two-to-four-week inpatient treatment program, the center will offer medication-assisted treatment with drugs like buprenorphine to heroin and opiate addicts. “We’re embracing a harm-reduction approach as much as an abstinence-based approach,” Milena Stott, Valley Cities’ director of inpatient services, said.

Valley Cities CEO Ken Taylor in the detox wing of Recovery Place

The last tenant to occupy the building, Recovery Centers of King County, went bankrupt and shut down abruptly in 2015, and since then, the 27 detox beds they provided have been distributed all over King County through contracts with institutions like Fairfax Hospital in Kirkland and the Seadrunar long-term treatment center in Georgetown.  Before RCKC closed down, Taylor said, the building “was dark and damp, and all throughout the central corridors there was plumbing and electrical running literally right down the middle of the corridor.” Outreach workers told me last year that RCKC was known for treating clients rudely and asking “inappropriate” personal questions in earshot of other patients; the new facility, in contrast, will have private consultation rooms. After RCKC closed, the building itself was taken over by squatters and stripped bare, with everything from the toilets to the copper wiring stolen and carted away.  Morgan Irwin, a Republican state representative (R-31) and Seattle Police Department officer who was on hand for yesterday’s tour, said that the last time he was inside the building, which is on his beat, “It was literally flashlight and gun out.”

The building cost $4 million to buy, plus $9 million to renovate. A million dollars of the budget to buy and fix up the building came from King County; the rest came from a combination of state and grant money and a $4.5 million loan that Valley Cities took out from Bank of America to cover the remaining costs. The state’s capital budget, which remains in limbo, is supposed to provide about $2 million toward the cost of repaying the loan, but Taylor said Valley Cities “is going to be able to repay the loan” ion its own if state funding doesn’t come through. “We’re very fortunate. Not every agency can do that.” Ongoing operations will cost about $5 million a year; that funding will come from the state and federal governments as well as from patients’ insurance payments. RCKC went bankrupt, King County Human Services Department director Adrienne Quinn told me, in part because of unfavorable state reimbursement rates, which she was quick to add have been addressed.

Contrary to common belief, not every person with addiction needs detox, although medication can ease the suffering and make it less likely that people withdrawing from opiates, for example, abandon treatment. (Severe alcoholism does require detox because going cold turkey can cause seizures, DTs, and fatal heart conditions.) Buprenorphine, and other opiate substitution medications, can help short-circuit the withdrawal process and get opiate addicts on a path to stability. “I hope that everyone for whom buprenorphine is appropriate will elect to do that,” Taylor said, “but sometimes it takes them time to get to that point.”

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.

Morning Crank: Maybe He Meant Because No One Can Afford To Live There

1. I’ve known Mike Fong, Mayor Ed Murray’s chief of staff, since he worked as an aide to city council member Heidi Wills. In fact, he started at the city right around the same time I started covering city hall, in the late spring of 2001.

Back then, he looked like this:

After 16 years working for the city—as a council staffer and, for the past two years, the mayor’s chief of staff—Fong is leaving city hall behind. (Other mayoral staffers surely won’t be far behind him, as the seventh floor of City Hall empties out in anticipation of current Mayor Ed Murray’s departure in December). He isn’t going far, though—just across the street to the office of King County Executive Dow Constantine, where he’ll be chief operating officer, overseeing Constantine’s cabinet.

Fong has been at city hall (and not just THIS city hall—the old one, too) through some of the biggest stories (and transformations) in the city’s history—from Strippergate to the ouster of former City Light director Gary Zarker to the council’s review of then-mayor Greg Nickels’ response to the 2009 snow storm, which ultimately contributed to Nickels’ loss (to Mike McGinn) that year. During that time, the old City Hall itself was razed, Seattle’spopulation grew from around half a million people to more than 700,000, and Amazon’s value rose from $3.6 billion to more than $500 billion. But as far as I can tell, Mike hasn’t changed all that much. He’s the kind of easygoing, no-bullshit staffer journalists love—he doesn’t spin or offer bland talking points, and his grasp on policy is peerless—and the kind of guy I’d want on my side if I was an elected official with aspirations for higher office. I know I don’t speak just for myself when I say he’ll be missed at city hall.

2. Constantine’s office has seen quite a few shakeups recently, including the departure of his longtime chief of staff (and onetime aide to former mayor Greg Nickels) Sung Yang last month. Yang, who also moved to Constantine’s office after a long  career at the city, left to join Pacific Public Affairs, the consulting firm owned by Constantine’s former deputy chief of staff, Joe Woods. Rachel Smith, the county’s government relations director (and another former Nickels staffer), is Constantine’s new chief of staff. Constantine’s campaign manager, Mina Hashemi Mercer, is also reportedly leaving to become the next Director of the House Democratic Campaign Committee, where she previously worked for two and a half years.

Constantine is eternally rumored to be considering a run for governor.

3. The city council’s housing and human services committee discussed legislation that would protect some people living in their vehicles from ticketing or towing for certain parking violations and provide them with access to services; in exchange, vehicle residents would register with the city and agree to abide by certain rules. The recommendations are designed to get people into permanent housing faster while recognizing the reality that homeless people don’t have the money to pay fines or get their vehicle out of impoundment. Another reality: Homeless people who lose their vehicles don’t just disappear; usually, they become homeless people living on the street, destabilized and in even more desperate straits.

North end neighborhood activists, including members of the so-called Neighborhood Safety Alliance, made familiar arguments yesterday against people living in RVs, claiming that they were responsible for an E. coli spike in Thornton Creek, accusing them of leaving literal “tons of garbage and human waste” all over neighborhoods, and suggesting that they, the north Seattle homeowners, might just decide to buy an RV and live in it so they, too, could enjoy the good life, exempt from rules and “homeowner taxes.”

One speaker, Phil Cochran, used his public comment time to demand that Mike O’Brien answer a “simple question.” Actually, he had two: “Do you believe that this ordinance will result in more RVs and more homeless junkies in the city of Seattle, yes or no?” and “What happens when some of these rolling meth labs—which we know they are—catch fire? Who should we sue?” Because public comment is not Adults Play High-School Debate time, O’Brien did not respond, except to say that he’d be happy to discuss the issue at literally any other time. And a member of the Interbay Neighborhood Association said the area around W Thorndyke Drive—at the base of Magnolia, near Dravus—was so totally taken over by RVs that that part of Magnolia is now “unlivable.”

Huh.

Maybe he meant “because no one who isn’t wealthy can afford to live there.”

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.

“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.

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, phone bills, electronics, website maintenance, and other expenses associated with my reporting. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

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

Dow-Ed-Claudia

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.