Tag: human services

A Ban on Natural Gas, a High-Security City Picnic, and More City Hall Departures

Gas, Fire, Hot, Cooking, Hotplate, Burner, Gas Stove
Verboten? O’Brien to propose ban on new gas hookups; image via Pixabay

1. Last Wednesday, at the direction of new Seattle Department of Human Resources Director Bobby Humes, several high-ranking staffers at the department were reportedly told to pack their bags and leave the building—a departure from the Durkan Administration’s more common practice of giving city staffers the opportunity to “resign” and stick around for a couple of weeks. I have calls out to the HR department for more information about the departures.

The three staffers reportedly included deputy director Laura Southard, who was closely associated with former director Susan Coskey and former interim director Sue McNab, and Deborah Jaquith, SDHR’s public information officer. (Southard’s and Jaquith’s outgoing voice mail messages feature the same voice saying they are no longer with the city.)

Crosscut has reported extensively on the department, which is responsible for investigating employee allegations of sexual harassment and other complaints. After Coskey resigned in 2017, Durkan appointed a succession of interim directors, including McNab, who withdrew her name from consideration for the permanent position after an internal investigation found she worked outside the city for two of her seven months in office, as Crosscut also reported.

Humes, the former HR director for the city’s parks department, was sworn in last month.

2. Amid turmoil at the city’s Human Services Department (the homelessness division is being dissolved as part of the merger into a new joint county-city public development authority overseeing homelessness, and many employees expect to lose their jobs in the process), HSD deputy director Audrey Buehring informed employees yesterday that the department had hired security guards to patrol the annual departmental picnic.

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“Because we value the safety of our employees, HSD has decided to hire security personnel to be at our event. There have been no reports of any specific safety issues; this is just to offer reassurance to you and your guests and to visibly deter any trespassers. Security personnel will be identifiable, so if you have any concerns or see anything that could pose a threat to our safety, be sure to report them immediately to security personnel,” Buehring wrote.

Asked for further details about the decision to hire security, HSD spokeswoman Meg Olberding responded, “There have been no reports of any specific safety issues; this is just to offer reassurance to our staff and their guests and to visibly deter any trespassers.” OK then!

The theme of this year’s HSD “Summer Jam,” by the way, was “’90s.”

3. City council member Mike O’Brien plans to introduce legislation that will, among other things, ban natural gas hookups in new buildings, another step (along with Durkan’s proposed tax on heating oil, which is designed to get homeowners to convert to cleaner energy sources by 2028) toward the city’s plan to become carbon neutral by 2050. Few details were available about the proposal, which O’Brien will introduce on Tuesday; a spokesman for Puget Sound Energy, which provides natural gas to more than 800,000 customers (many of them in Seattle) said the company had not seen O’Brien’s legislation yet. “Natural gas is critical to providing our customers with the safe, clean, affordable, and reliable energy they expect,” the spokesman, Andrew Padula, said.

4. An internal HSD email indicates that Mayor Durkan’s 2020 budget will include a 2.6 percent pay increase for front-line human service workers who work for city contractors, an increase from last year’s hotly contested 2 percent “inflationary” hike.

Last year, Durkan initially proposed a 2 percent increase just for workers funded through the city’s general fund. When council members, including Teresa Mosqueda, proposed paying for the raises with funding the mayor had added to expand the Navigation Team, Durkan initially characterized the move as a “cut” to critical services. (The Nav Team expansion had been funded with one-time dollars, but—as is often the case with such “temporary” programs—the expansion became permanent.)

Ultimately, the council found the money and the Navigation Team expansion stuck. HSD hasn’t yet confirmed the 2.6 percent increase (I sent requests for more information to the agency and the mayor’s office on Wednesday, and will update this post if I hear back), but it will be welcome news to human service workers, who often make just above minimum wage.

Will Durkan’s High-Stakes Gamble With Soda Tax Revenues Pay Off?

On Monday, the city council is poised to pass legislation sponsored by council member Mike O’Brien that would require any unanticipated revenues from the sweetened beverage tax (SBT) to be spent on their intended purpose—increasing funding for healthy food programs in the low-income communities most impacted by the soda tax.

Mayor Jenny Durkan has portrayed the move as a “cut” to programs that have historically been funded through the city’s general fund, but which the mayor’s 2019 budget started funding with the new tax, allowing her to use the “excess” general fund money to pay for other things. After Durkan and her department heads contacted human services providers last week to let them know that their funding could be eliminated if they didn’t help defeat O’Brien’s legislation, dozens of organizations—and the city’s own soda tax advisory board—rebelled, sending emails to Durkan and the council denouncing the hardball move. UPDATE: As of Sunday night, the groups opposing Durkan’s position—and supporting the idea that soda tax revenues should be spent on new or expanded programs, not used to backfill funding for existing ones—included groups representing the city’s farmers markets, human service providers, advocates for equitable investment in South Seattle, the Sweetened Beverage Tax Community Advisory Board, and 27 food banks.

Council member Mike O’Brien proposed the legislation after Mayor Jenny Durkan balanced her budget last year by taking away $6 million in general-fund spending on healthy-food initiatives (like food banks, Fresh Bucks, and school-lunch-related programs) and replacing that money with soda tax revenues; Durkan’s budget switcheroo went against the intent of the soda tax by using soda tax revenues to fund the city’s existing healthy food programs rather than expanding them or creating new ones. Effectively, Durkan’s budgetary sleight-of-hand eliminated the race and social justice compromise embedded in the tax: Instead of reinvesting the tax in the hardest-hit communities, the new budget maintained those programs at existing levels. Put another way, a regressive tax with a race and social justice component became just a regressive tax. O’Brien’s legislation would prevent this from happening in the future, by stating that (as a council staff memo puts it) “no SBT revenues could be used to supplant (i.e. take the place of) General Fund (GF) monies or other funding sources.”

In a letter to human services providers urging them to testify against O’Brien’s legislation Monday, interim Human Services Department director Jason Johnson Johnson wrote, “Your contract is in jeopardy because of a recent Seattle Council legislative action.

Although O’Brien made clear a year ago that he planned to propose this legislation (giving the mayor’s office ample time to make their case against it), Durkan didn’t respond publicly until this week, when she sent out a blistering press release “denounc[ing]” and “condemn[ing]” the council for “a proposed plan … that would cut $6.3 million funding they had approved for critical programs that provide nutrition assistance, child care for struggling families, and nursing care for low-income pregnant women.” (Durkan’s public statement followed a letter her budget director, Ben Noble, sent to the council making many of the same points late last month.)

Durkan’s press release went on to enumerate some of the previously existing programs that the city, under her budget, began funding with soda-tax revenues instead of general fund dollars last year, including the Fresh Bucks food voucher program, food banks, child care assistance, and the Nurse Family Partnership. (The council approved the budget 8-1. Durkan’s letter cites this vote to suggest that the the council supported this specific aspect of the budget, which many of them did not).

Council members O’Brien, Lisa Herbold, Lorena Gonzalez, and Teresa Mosqueda responded with a letter of their own, arguing that the legislation merely codifies what the law already said—that new soda tax revenues should go toward new programs promoting healthy food, not be used to supplant general fund revenues used to fund existing programs. “Community advocates led the fight to ensure sweetened beverage tax revenue have a direct community benefit for the most impacted community by this regressive tax,” the council members wrote. “[T]he very programs the Mayor claims would be ‘cut’ should see increases in funding to expand those programs in the Mayor’s proposed 2020 Budget, assuming she does not chose to once again raid those funds for alternate priorities.”

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Durkan’s lobbying efforts didn’t stop at the council; her deputy mayor, Mike Fong, directed interim Human Services Department Director Jason Johnson and Department of Education and Early Learning director Dwane Chappelle to send letters to the agencies whose operations were funded by the tax last year informing them “that they should commence contin[g]ency planning as soon as possible” and urging them to show up and testify against the proposal during the council’s public comment period on Monday. In his letter to providers, Johnson wrote, “Your contract is in jeopardy because of a recent Seattle Council legislative action.” (Bolds in original.)

Johnson’s letter continued:

Last November, the adopted and endorsed 2019-2020 Biennium Budget, passed by an 8-1 vote and signed by the Mayor, allocated Sweetened Beverage Tax revenues to support food and education related assistance programs. The law currently permits soda tax revenues to be used for food and nutrition programs, education and child-based programs, job retraining and placement programs for workers adversely impacted by the tax. Unfortunately, the Council has now changed its mind and would rather have this $6.3M in revenue support unspecified new programs next year while providing no funding to back-fill the cuts to currently funded programs.

This legislation is scheduled for the vote of Full Council at its Monday, July 22 meeting, which starts at 2:00 p.m. Councilmembers will take public testimony on the legislation before final action.

The effort appears to have backfired. Instead of agreeing to show up and lobby on the mayor’s behalf, the Seattle Human Services Coalition and Got Green, an organization that fights displacement and promotes economic opportunity and equitable investment in South Seattle, wrote letters of their own denouncing the mayor’s tactics. UPDATE: Four more organizations representing farmers’ markets, including the Pike Place Market Foundation and the Seattle Farmers Market Association, have signed a separate letter condemning the mayor for blaming any future budget cuts by her office—which writes the budget—on the council. To do so, the groups wrote, “assumes that we are uninformed of the City’s budget process and the funding sources used to support the totality of our programs.”

“If the mayor does not propose funding in the 2020 budget from a source other than [Sweetened Beverage Tax], as your Council Bill would direct, it would be the mayor who is proposing the cut, not Council.” —Letter from the Seattle Human Services Coalition about Durkan’s response to the council’s soda tax legislation

The Human Services Coalition, which represents nonprofit human services providers, wrote that they are “disappointed by the communications from HSD, DEEL, and the Mayor’s Office to our organizations. … Characterizing this legislation and its impact as ‘jeopardizing’ 2020 contracts to current, successful services is at best misleading.

“It is the Mayor’s role in our three-branch system to implement policies which City Council legislates, and so up to the mayor if she will propose cutting the services instead of identifying an alternate fund source from the $6 billion annual revenue that comes into the City of Seattle.  If the mayor does not propose funding in the 2020 budget from a source other than SBT, as your Council Bill would direct, it would be the mayor who is proposing the cut, not Council.”

“It is entirely in the Mayor’s power, and in fact, is her responsibility, to find an appropriate, more stable funding source for the programs where SBT revenues were used to supplant general fund dollars.”—Letter from local farmers’ market organizations

Separately, Got Green urged its members and supporters to show up Monday to support the legislation and prevent Durkan from “pull[ing] millions of dollars that the council and previous mayor had promised for Food and Early Childhood Education programs and dump[ing] it in the general fund (where it becomes impossible to track and she can spend it on whatever she prioritizes.”

The email calls Johnson’s letter to providers an “ultimatum that organizations will have funding reduced unless they show up at a council meeting on Monday to provide public testimony against the ordinance to protect Food Security and Early Education Dollars.”

“Efforts to portray this legislation and its impact as causing funding cuts to organizations in POC and low income communities is not only misleading, but intentionally deceptive,” Got Green’s letter continues. “As community-based organizations working tirelessly to serve vulnerable Seattle residents, most are allied and will refuse to take your bait in attempting to pit our organizations and our issues against each other in the name of scarce funding and funding cuts.”

The farmers’ markets’ letter notes that the soda tax is an unpredictable funding source (increasing when soda consumption is up and decreasing when it is down) that should be used for one-time programs, not to fund ongoing needs that would ordinarily be paid for by the more stable general fund. “In order for programs to establish themselves, show impact, and grow to meet the rising need for food security in the City of Seattle, reliable and consistent sources of funding for these critical programs are needed,” their letter says. “It is entirely in the Mayor’s power, and in fact, is her responsibility, to find an appropriate, more stable funding source for the programs where SBT revenues were used to supplant general fund dollars.”

The mayor’s office has confirmed that she plans to veto the legislation, which means it will eventually need the support of a veto-proof six-member majority to override her veto even if it passes with just five votes on Monday. If the council does decide to call the mayor’s bluff, it will mark a major shift in council-mayor relations: Although this council has frequently fought with Durkan over spending, they’ve typically gone along in the end—voting, for example, to kill the controversial “head tax,” which Durkan opposed, after passing it last year. Lately, council members (particularly Gonzalez, Mosqueda, and Herbold) have been pushing back on Durkan more forcefully—including last week, when the three called on the mayor to reopen police contract negotiations in light of a judge’s finding that the city is partially out of compliance with federally mandated reforms.

The council’s soda tax legislation passed out of committee unanimously, with five votes, on July 10. I’m calling around to council offices and will update this post if I find out more about how the remaining council members plan to vote.

Morning Crank: Perverse Incentives

FEMA tent in New Orleans via Wikimedia Commons

1. Interim Human Services Department director Jason Johnson looked visibly shaken at a meeting of the city council’s special committee on homelessness and housing affordability this past Monday, hours after Mayor Jenny Durkan announced that she was pulling his nomination to serve as permanent director. Johnson’s inability to secure council approval came up only once during the meeting—committee chair Sally Bagshaw mentioned briefly that “I know that today is a tough day in particular”—but the fact that he is serving without council approval will almost certainly be a factor in his relationship with the council at least through the next council election.

Although Durkan has the authority to keep Johnson on as an interim director indefinitely, council member Lorena González said this week that he will need to answer some of the questions that were raised during his appointment process about the culture at HSD and the relationship between management and employees. (A recent survey of HSD staff found that employees, especially those in the homelessness division, felt unappreciated, unheard, and out of the loop).

“Regardless of what [interim Human Services Department director Jason Johnson’s] title is, whether he’s permanent or interim, I think he has a responsibility to address the concerns that are being expressed by the people that we ask to do this hard work day in and day out.” —Council member Lorena González

“Regardless of what his title is, whether he’s permanent or interim, I think he has a responsibility to address the concerns that are being expressed by the people that we ask to do this hard work day in and day out in HSD,”  González told me. “The HSD director serves at the pleasure of the mayor. The mayor is his direct supervisor. And as a council member, it’s my expectation that the mayor provide Jason with the direction and the support he needs to be able to address some of the reasonable, legitimate concerns that I heard from HSD employees about the culture” of the department.

2. The subject of Monday’s meeting was how the city measures “success” among homeless service providers and when and how HSD will provide publicly accessible information about its performance metrics and how well providers are meeting them. As council member Teresa Mosqueda noted, the council has been requesting a “dashboard” showing which programs are working and which are underperforming. Johnson noted that while the city has been “laser-focused” on “exits from homelessness”—a term that refers to the number of exits from programs that get logged in King County’s homeless tracking system—”there is also debate about whether that is the right metric to pay attention to,” or whether returns to homelessness—a term that refers to people who leave the homelessness system in King County and then reenter the homelessness system in King County—is a better measure.

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However, members of a second panel, which included representatives from Family Works, Solid Ground, and the Public Defender Association, pointed out that the “returns to homelessness” metric is incomplete, and may actually discourage providers from accurately reporting information about those they serve. “When we look at returns to homelessness, I think it’s an important metric to look at, but we also have to keep in mind that it is an inaccurate number, because it only includes people that are coming back into homelessness that then go into another program” in King County, Solid Ground’s Shannon Rae said. “Folks that returned to the street and [are] not actually accessing other services… don’t show up” in the system—that is, the city may be counting them as “successes” when they have simply given up on trying to use local services. Additionally, a lot of the folks who Solid Ground serves end up homeless in neighboring counties, “so we’re not capturing all the returns to homelessness,” Rae said. On the flip side, she said, service providers get dinged by the new performance metrics—which determine whether agencies receive full funding or have a portion of their funding withheld by the city—when families decide to move in with other people, go into transitional housing, or do something else that’s “best for them” but doesn’t count in the system as an “exit to permanent housing.”

Lisa Daugaard, director of the Public Defender Association, added that the current measures of “success” create a perverse incentive for providers to serve people who are the easiest to serve, because clients who are the hardest to house—for example, chronically homeless men with severe addiction and criminal records related to that addiction—are also, by definition, the ones who are the least likely to result in “success” by the city’s measures. (They also tend to rank lowest on the county’s “vulnerability index,” putting them at the back of the line for housing and services.)

Instead of rewarding providers who manage to get the most difficult-to-serve people into better living situations, the city penalizes and rewards providers on the basis of how many bodies they get into permanent housing, without regard for the difficulty of housing certain populations, and no matter how much impact they have on neighborhoods, property crime rates, and the kind of general “disorder” that was highlighted (sensationalistically and misleadingly) in KOMO’s viral “Seattle Is Dying” report. As a result, Daugaard said, service providers end up “run[ning] away from the most difficult folks out there” for fear of getting dinged. “We should flip that on its head.” That, in fact, is one of the key recommendations homelessness consultant Barb Poppe made in 2016, when she advised the city of Seattle to “[p]rioritize for housing interventions those families and individuals who have the longest histories of homelessness and highest housing barriers” even if they don’t score highest on the vulnerability index.

The city did not put this recommendation into practice, and continues to penalize human service providers for falling short on five measures, which include exits to housing and returns to homelessness. This year, 20 of 46 service providers with HSD contracts failed to meet HSD’s standards and had 12 percent of their funding temporarily withheld by the city. “Financial incentives in contracts to do hard and important work should be true incentives rather than penalties,” Daugaard said Tuesday. “This really was one of the important national realizations in No Child Left Behind”—the George W. Bush-era law that withheld funding from schools that failed to meet testing-based performance standards—”that taking money away from  an institution that’s struggling to do hard work is generally not the best way to improve their ability to do that work.”

3. The question of how to measure success was on my mind when I watched a District 6 city council candidate forum held by the activist group Speak Out Seattle on Tuesday night. The questions for this forum, which featured ten of the candidates running for the Northwest Seattle’s seat, were similar to those at previous SOS forums—written, generally speaking, in a way that implied that homelessness is a choice caused primarily by the decision to become addicted to illegal drugs, and that the most effective solutions to homelessness tend to involve some kind of involuntary commitment. (One question at a recent SOS forum, written by an audience member and read verbatim by KIRO Radio’s Mike Lewis, was: “How do you plan to get the drug-using free campers off the streets? Will you enforce current ordinances about vagrancy, littering, public urination, [and] public drug use?”) Such questions can provoke interesting discussions if candidates are willing to pivot (as council member Lisa Herbold did, skillfully, at SOS’s forum in District 1); but sometimes they’re just the wrong questions.

A good case in point was a question at Tuesday’s forum, about whether the candidates would support erecting “FEMA-style tents or other emergency-type shelters to get people out of their vehicles”—which, practically speaking, would mean leaving their cars or RVs behind.

The assumption behind this question, as well as the city’s outreach to people living in vehicles, is that rational people will give up their last asset for a mat on the ground. The reason this is the wrong framing is not only because this isn’t what rational people will do—given the choice, most people would prefer the autonomy and relative dignity of sleeping in their own vehicle—but because people living in their vehicles consistently say that they don’t want to give them up to move into a shelter. When outreach workers (or policy makers, or candidates for office) offer a mat on the ground in a large group tent as an “alternative” to vehicular living, they’re actively insulting people living in their cars by ignoring their wishes. This is dehumanizing, and if you don’t care about that, it also doesn’t work. People experiencing homelessness, like people who are housed, do things for reasons, and when we listen to those reasons, we can craft solutions that actually help.

Creating safe lots for people living in their cars is a much better option than taking people’s cars away and relocating them into camps, because it respects people’s stated wishes and doesn’t require them to give up their last remaining asset, which happens to double as their home. (Someone living in their car could, theoretically, stay in a shelter as long as they make sure to return to their car and move it every 72 hours, but it’s pretty hard to justify adding another poverty chore to the long list faced by people existing on the margins of society, just because we don’t think people should sleep in cars.) And there’s another reason safe lots make more sense than FEMA tents, too: People living in vehicles tend to need fewer services than chronically homeless folks or those who run a circuit from treatment to shelter to jail. Given limited resources, it makes little sense to pour millions into “wraparound services”—another popular buzzword among the candidates at Tuesday’s District 6 forum—for people who really just need some help paying rent.

HSD Director Nomination Stalls Out; Library Levy Moves Forward

1. The nomination process for interim Human Services Department director Jason Johnson appears to be stalled due to a lack of support from city council members, who have the final say on mayoral department director nominations. It’s unclear whether or when the city council will revive the confirmation hearings.

Last week, council member Sally Bagshaw canceled a scheduled meeting of the council’s select committee on homelessness and housing affordability, which included consideration of Johnson’s nomination, and has not rescheduled it. Some council members were reportedly unsatisfied with Johnson’s responses to their questions about inclusivity, Johnson’s personal commitment to race and social justice, independence, and his vision for the department.

Mayor Jenny Durkan has been criticized by HSD’s own internal Change Team (which leads the department’s implementation of the Race and Social Justice Initiative), as well as the Seattle Silence Breakers and the Seattle Human Services Coalition, for nominating Johnson without a “transparent and inclusive process” for selecting a new HSD leader. Earlier this year, city council member Kshama Sawant proposed a resolution to halt Johnson’s nomination and start a new search for a new HSD director. That resolution failed, with Sawant, Mike O’Brien, and Teresa Mosqueda casting the dissenting votes. But concerns about the process and about whether Johnson is the right person for the job seem to have grown since the council began holding hearings in March.

At the most recent committee meeting, on March 28, Johnson attributed the results of a survey showing widespread dissatisfaction among HSD employees, particularly those in the homelessness division, to the “instability” and “immense change” that comes with every new mayoral administration. Johnson also responded to questions about whether he’d be “independent” from Durkan—first saying that the department always employs “evidence-based strategies,” then acknowledging that he wouldn’t say it’s “my way or the highway” if Durkan disagreed with his recommendations on an issue. Council president Bruce Harrell then asked Johnson if he had considered the ways in which white privilege had greased his path to the nomination. Johnson said yes, he was aware “that I was going to have a much easier time” than his African-American predecessor, Catherine Lester, then noted that Lester  “brought me to this organization and… when she resigned and was talking about next steps, offer[ed] her full confidence in my abilities to the mayor.”

Mayor Durkan’s office declined to answer questions about the nomination process or the reason for the delay. They also repeatedly requested the names of specific council members opposed to Johnson’s nomination.

An audit earlier this year concluded that HSD is not doing enough to coordinate the efforts of the agencies that do outreach to unsheltered people; has failed to identify and prioritize people who have recently become homeless for the first time; does not provide nearly enough restrooms or showers for the thousands of people sleeping  outdoors throughout the city; and does not have a good system in place for evaluating the success of the city’s response to homelessness. (Last year, the city and county announced plans to create a new, merged agency to address homelessness, which could help address concerns about coordination; at the same time, the lack of certainty around what that agency will look like, and where current HSD employees will fit in the new structure, has likely contributed to low morale in HSD’s homelessness division.)

It’s unclear exactly how many council members would vote against Johnson if his nomination came up for a vote today (Sawant, of course, looks like a pretty hard no), but sources inside and outside city hall say that he does not currently have the votes to secure the permanent appointment. Johnson has served on an interim basis for nearly a year—a fact to which Durkan has pointed as evidence that he’s qualified for the permanent position.

Bagshaw, who would have to reconvene the committee to revive the nomination process, said she had no comment “yet” about the nomination, and other council members declined to speak on the record.

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If you like the work I’m doing here, and would like to support this page financially, please support me by becoming a monthly donor on Patreon or PayPal.  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.  If you don’t wish to become a monthly contributor, you can always make a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by mailing your contribution to P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

2. The council added several million dollars to Durkan’s proposed $213 million library levy Wednesday and moved it one step closer to the ballot. The special committee on the library levy adopted the proposal after adding amendments that will, if the levy passes, expand the bilingual “Play and Learn” early-literacy program ($2.1 million); keep branch libraries, but not the downtown library, open an additional hour every day ($2.5 million); and add a youth services support social worker and a part-time case worker to do outreach to library patrons experiencing homelessness ($1.1 million). A couple of amendments that didn’t make it into the legislation: A study that would look into the feasibility of locating child-care facilities at library branches, and funding for two additional security officers.

The levy proposal goes to the full council next Monday, April 22.

For the basics on the levy, which would add library hours and eliminate library fines, check out my primer at Seattle magazine.

After Acrimony and Battles, Council Passes Mayor’s Budget Mostly Intact

L-R: David Helde, Downtown Emergency Service Center; Teresa Mosqueda and Lorena Gonzalez, Seattle City Council

After a surprising amount of acrimony for a document that contained so little fiscal wiggle room, the city council adopted a 2019-2020 budget today that increases the size of the Human Services Department’s Navigation Team, grants modest wages to front-line human service workers, spends tens of millions of dollars on retroactive back pay for police who have been working without a contract since 2015, and funds projects in every council district.

The debate over this year’s budget—during much of which I was out of town—centered largely on a few million dollars in human services funding, including, in the last few days, funding for the Navigation Team, which removes homeless encampments and offers services to people displaced by their activities. After council member Teresa Mosqueda proposed using some of the funds Durkan earmarked for Navigation Team expansion to broaden a 2 percent “inflationary” pay increase for city-contracted human services providers to include all such workers (rather than only general fund-supported workers, as Durkan initially proposed), Durkan denounced the move.

Describing the reduced expansion as a “cut” that would harm neighborhoods, Durkan’s office claimed that the new positions that she had proposed in her budget had already been filled and that reducing the amount of new funds would “cut” those critically needed jobs—a statement that local conservative media took as a cue to write largely inaccurate pieces claiming, for example, that Mosqueda was “slow[ing] tent cleanups with huge staff cut to Nav Team.” (Durkan also reportedly contacted council members to let them know that if they voted against the Navigation Team expansion, it would be on them to explain to their constituents why they had allowed crime to increase in their districts; all seven district council positions are on the ballot next year. UPDATE: Durkan’s office categorically denied that any such calls took place.) However, this turned out not to be the case; as a central staffer told the council in a followup memo, the positions have only been filled on a temporary or emergency basis. “These are all short term actions that are funded with the $500k [in one-time funding] from the County and would be discontinued” once the budget passes, the central staffer wrote.

No matter—despite all the drama, the council figured out a way to fund the full Navigation Team expansion and add one mental health counselor to the team while also giving service providers their 2 percent increase (which is actually below the local inflation rate). The money, a little less than $500,000 a year, came from eliminating the a business and occupation tax exemption for life sciences companies, which Mosqueda said has been dormant since 2017.

In a press conference between the morning’s budget meeting and the final adoption of the budget at 2pm, four council members, plus 43rd District state representative and former Downtown Emergency Service Center director Nicole Macri, joined several front-line human service workers and representatives from housing and human-service nonprofits at DESC’s offices in the basement of the Morrison Hotel homeless shelter.

David Helde, an assistant housing case manager at DESC,  said that since he started at the agency three years ago, every single person who worked in his position when he started had left the agency. Jobs at DESC start at just over $16 an hour, or slightly more than Seattle’s $15 minimum wage. “The rewards do not outweigh the benefits,” Helde said. Recalling a client with a traumatic brain injury who had short-term memory impairment but still remembered him when she returned to the shelter after a year away, Helde continued, “that is why the staff turnover is unacceptable—because it affects the quality of life for the most vulnerable people in this city.”

Council member Mike O’Brien, who has been raising the issue of human service worker pay for several years, said the city needed to figure out a way to “normalize” cost-of-living increases for employees at nonprofit human service agencies, in addition to city employees (and cops.) However, asked about how the city would ensure that (as Mosqueda put it) “we’re not back here every year,” O’Brien acknowledged that “the level of specificity is not extensive” about how to ensure future COLAs. “This is about expectation-setting,” O’Brien said. “In a budget where we have finite resources and we’re making tradeoffs, we have to figure out how we identify a three-, five-, ten-year [plan] to make changes” so that human-service workers can have not just sub-inflationary pay hikes, but living wages, in the future.

Although Durkan did (mostly) get what she wanted on the Navigation Team, the group will be required to submit quarterly reports showing progress on steps the city auditor outlined a year ago before the council will release funding for the coming quarter—a significant change that amplifies the council’s power over the team.

Other notable changes the council made to Durkan’s budget included:

• Additional funding for food banks, which will come from excess revenues from the city’s sweetened beverage tax. Council member O’Brien wanted to use some of the excess money from the tax—which Durkan had proposed using to replace general fund revenues that were paying for healthy-food programs, rather than increasing funding for those programs—to fund outreach programs, as a community advisory board had recommended. The budget puts a hold on the outreach spending, a total of about $270,000, but keeps it alive for future years; today, Juarez objected to this provision, arguing that  spending $270,000 promoting healthy food when the soda industry spent $22 million to pass the anti-soda-tax Initiative 1634 was tantamount to “wast[ing]” the money. “Why are we attempting to counter corporations prepared to spend millions of dollars on advertisements with a $250,000 campaign?” she asked.

• A total of $1.4 million for a supervised drug consumption site, which council member Rob Johnson—who sponsored the additional funding—said should be enough to allow the city to actually open a “fixed-mobile” site this year. Durkan’s initial budget simply held over $1.3 million in funding for a site that was not spent the previous year, with the expectation that no site would be opened this year.

Support

• About $100,000 for a new attorney to help low-income clients facing eviction. Council member Kshama Sawant had sought $600,000 for six more attorneys, but the rest of the council voted that down.

• An expansion of the city’s vacant building inspection program, which keeps tabs on vacant buildings that are slated for redevelopment to ensure that they aren’t taken over by squatters or allowed to fall into disrepair. The proposal, by council member Lisa Herbold (who proposed the original legislation creating the program last year) would ramp up monitoring and inspections of vacant buildings that have failed previous inspections, and would not take effect until next June. Council member Johnson continued to oppose Herbold’s proposal, on the grounds that it represented a sweeping and burdensome policy change that was inappropriate for the budget process; but council president Bruce Harrell reiterated his support for the plan, noting that the council would have time to hammer out the details next year before it took effect. “We’ll have, I think, ample time to work with the department [of Construction and Inspections, which sent a letter to council members last week raising concerns about the bill) to get their feedback,” Harrell said, and “if there has to be some tweaks there will be time to make tweaks.”

City Budget Office director Ben Noble sent a memo to council members today opposing the budget item, which Noble said would force the city’s Department of Construction and Inspections to expand the program too much, too fast. “As proposed, the enhanced program would likely be over 25 times the size of the current program,” Noble wrote, comparing the number of inspections last year—179—to a possible 5,000 inspections that would be required under the new program.  Noble said Herbold’s proposal did not reflect all the costs associated with increasing vacant building inspections so dramatically.

The budget put off the issue of long-term funding for additional affordable housing, which lost a major potential source of revenue when the council and mayor overturned the employee hours tax on businesses with more than $20 million in gross revenues earlier this year. Council member Sally Bagshaw has said that her priority in her final year on the council (she is not expected to run again next year) will be creating aregional funding plan to pay for thousands of units of new housing every year. Such a proposal might be modeled, she suggested recently, after a tax on very large businesses that was just approved by voters in San Francisco.

Budget dissident Kshama Sawant—who had earlier proposed numerous dead-on-arrival proposals to fund about $50 million in housing bonds by making cuts to various parts of the budget—delivered a 13-minute speech denouncing her colleagues for passing an “austerity budget” before voting against the whole thing. The room was noticeably subdued as Sawant quoted MLK and demonized Jeff Bezos—the red-shirted members of “the Movement,” whose efforts she cited repeatedly during her oration, were mostly absent, and instead of the usual applause, shouts, and cheers, Sawant spoke to a silent chamber.

2018 City Budget Passes Without Head Tax. Now What?

Seattle may be rolling in tax revenues thanks to an economic boom that just won’t quit, but this year’s budget process played out like a recession-year knock-down-drag-out battle. It started when the council’s new budget chair, Lisa Herbold, proposed a budget that presumed the council would agree to a head tax on large employers (and made their top-priority projects dependent on the tax). When the tax failed on a (somewhat predictable) 5-4 vote, council members were left scrambling to come up with a new “Plan B” that would preserve their top priorities. This plan—call it Plan C—included deep cuts to incoming mayor Jenny Durkan’s office, without commensurate cuts to the legislative branch, whose budget included some literal padding in the form of $250,000 for new carpet in council members’ offices.

Over the weekend, though, council members decided to have mercy on the mayor, reducing the proposed cuts to her office by half (and sacrificing their top-dollar carpet in the process). That change would have meant less new funding for the Human Services Department, but a last-minute amendment by council member Kirsten Harris-Talley increased HSD’s funding by dipping into the budget for the Department of Construction and Inspections, which administers permits and inspects buildings (including rental housing) for code compliance. That change, along with numerous other last-minute amendments, happened almost in the moment, and council members who hadn’t seen the proposed changes before today appeared to be reading them on the fly in the moments before voting them up or down. The public, meanwhile, had no way to read or absorb many of the proposed amendments unless they were physically in council chambers, where staffers made hard copies of (some of) the amendments available as the council discussed and voted on them.

Council member Kirsten Harris-Talley

The debate over how much additional funding the council should allocate for HSD—which administers all the city’s grants for homeless services, a job that has grown in scope as the city’s budget for those services has increased—broke down along somewhat surprising lines. On the center left-to-socialist spectrum of Seattle politics, HSD’s mission is strictly centrist, and its director, Catherine Lester—appointed by former mayor Ed Murray in 2015—is a staunch defender of that mission. This year, HSD rebid all its homeless service provider contracts under a new system known as “performance-based contracting”—a process critics say favors large, established service providers that prioritize people who are easier to house at the expense of smaller, scrappier groups that focus on more challenging clients. The agency’s job next year will be to administer those projects and implement Pathways Home, a controversial plan developed in collaboration with Ohio-based consultant Barb Poppe. In 2016, Poppe did a report that concluded that Seattle already has plenty of resources to house every person living outdoors, a conclusion many (including this blog) have contested.  Pathways Home, which is based on that report, directs HSD to shift spending away from transitional housing programs that provide long-term assistance and toward more “cost-effective” solutions like  “rapid rehousing”—short-term rent subsidies to move people directly from homelessness into market-rate apartments. Critics of this approach have argued that expecting people to move from homelessness to full self-sufficiency in a matter of months is unrealistic in a city  where the average one-bedroom apartment now rents for around $1,800.

Murray and Lester butted heads with the left wing of the council (as well as many homeless advocates) over rapid rehousing, performance-based contracting, and Pathways Home, but you wouldn’t know that from this month’s budget debate, in which HSD was often portrayed as a direct social service provider rather than a contract administrator. (This happened a lot earlier in the process, too, when hundreds of thousands of dollars were shifted from the Department of Finance and Administrative Services to HSD). On Monday, Harris-Talley described Lester as “a jewel of the community” and said she had “deep concerns about what has happened in regards to HSD, how that department has been treated.” It was disappointing. she added, “to see a department with a black woman at the helm” taking on significant additional responsibility without a commensurate amount of additional funding. It’s unclear whether Durkan—who supports Pathways Home—will appoint her own HSD director or keep Lester on board.

Comic Sans and public opinion in the ladies’ room.

The employee hours tax tax isn’t dead. In fact, several council members attempted to forcibly resurrect it yesterday, by proposing a budget amendment that would have required the council to pass the head tax after going through the motions of a four-month process to come up with a sustainable revenue source for homelessness. The five council members who voted against the head tax, unsurprisingly, weren’t interested in committing in advance to the same tax they just rejected, and they (also unsurprisingly) prevailed, inserting language into the amendment that commits the council instead to coming up with “progressive taxes” of some sort that will yield at least $25 million for homeless services. Any proposal they come up with will likely include a head tax, because the council’s taxing authority is quite limited, and council members made that clear. That didn’t stop the crowd from screaming “Bad!” and “Shame!” and booing council members so loudly they had to repeatedly stop the proceedings. (A couple of people were kicked out). Sawant, too, repeatedly denounced her council colleagues, as she has throughout the budget process, as “corporate politicians” kowtowing to their masters at the Chamber of Commerce. This kind of rhetoric definitely riles up the base, but it doesn’t win any currency with people like Rob Johnson, an earnest liberal who fought (against Herbold!) to ensure that supervised consumption sites were fully funded in this year’s budget, a position that I’m betting scored him zero points in his Northeast Seattle council district.

Social service and safe consumption site advocates line up hours early for yesterday’s 2pm council meeting—as they do whenever they know council member Kshama Sawant has invited her supporters to “pack city hall”

A cynical observer might point out that by keeping the discussion over the head tax alive, council members who did not prevail last week got another opportunity to make rousing speeches and rally the base on Monday. The council’s resident (official) socialist, Kshama Sawant, has encouraged her supporters (on social media and through her official city council email list) to “pack city hall” for every budget discussion and vote, and they have done exactly that, showing up at every budget meeting to wave red “stop the sweeps” signs, applaud Sawant’s lengthy speeches (one of many she made yesterday stretched nearly 15 minutes) and shout down council members who voted against her proposals.

A word about the screaming. It may be directed at the three women and two men who vote the “wrong” way, but it has the effect, in the moment, of shutting down all discussion. When you use brute verbal force against political opponents (both those on the dais and those who are scared to speak because, well, they’re worried about screamed at) it goes beyond merely “disrupting business as usual.” It’s disrespectful, counterproductive, and, most importantly, intimidating—social service advocates whose programs are in the budget still show up (hours early, to get ahead of Sawant’s supporters) to speak at council meetings, but otherwise, public comment is overwhelmingly dominated by a single set of voices. People who used to show up don’t show up. Dissent—the normal give and take of democracy playing out in public—is almost literally drowned out when one side asserts their right to own a public space by shouting everyone else out of the room. This year, I was disturbed to hear council members explicitly equate “the people here in the room today” with “the community” at large. Most of the 700,000 people in Seattle, and indeed most of the much smaller group of people who have an opinion about the 2018 city budget, weren’t represented in council chambers, and rarely are. This, even under ordinary circumstances, is perfectly understandable—most people have to work during the day, for one thing—but council members should take that into account, and not conflate “people with time to sit in council chambers day after day” with “a representative sample of the community at large.”

It will be interesting to see what happens to the council’s left wing—Lisa Herbold, Kshama Sawant, and Mike O’Brien—once council member-elect Teresa Mosqueda takes office, replacing Harris-Talley, next week. Mosqueda defeated the far left’s preferred candidate, Jon Grant, and will not be a reliable vote for the Sawant wing of the council, who couldn’t muster a majority for the head-tax-based budget even with Harris-Talley on the council.

Sawant, who represents council District 3 (which includes Capitol Hill and the Central District), was the only council member to vote against the budget—as she has since her election in 2013.

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