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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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.

Afternoon Crank: More Precise Homelessness Exit Numbers, More Library Levy Asks

1. After initially saying it would require a “700-page PowerPoint” to explain how many actual people moved from homelessness into housing last year, the city’s Human Services Department has done just that, producing numbers from 2017 and 2018 that show precisely how many households and how many individual human beings have exited from city-funded homelessness programs.

In her State of the City speech, Mayor Jenny Durkan claimed the city had “helped more than 7,400 households move out of homelessness and into permanent housing”; after I reported that this number actually accounted for exits from programs rather than “households,” resulting in duplication,  HSD’s deputy director suggested that the actual number mattered less than the trajectory; “no matter how you look at it, it’s getting better,” she said. On Tuesday, at a meeting of the council’s human services committee, interim HSD director Jason Johnson confirmed another way households could be duplicated—if someone exits from a shelter with a rapid rehousing voucher, then uses the voucher until it runs out, that person counts as two “exits.”

This number is a far more precise (though still imperfect) way of looking at exits from homelessness. And it actually confirms HSD’s contention that the city’s focus on new strategies such as enhanced shelter, with case management and services, is paying off. In 2018, HSD-funded programs helped move 3,559 households, representing 5,792 individual people, into housing from homelessness. That’s an increase from 2017, when HSD-funded programs moved 3,374 households, representing 4,447 people, into housing. (The numbers in the chart HSD provided when I requested year-over-year data, below, don’t quite add up because 36 households used homeless prevention programs and, at another point in the year, were homeless and then exited from homelessness. And, as Kshama Sawant’s aide Ted Virdone confirmed ) City-funded homeless prevention programs served 71 fewer people last year than in 2017, which HSD spokeswoman Lily Rehrman attributes to the fact that six prevention programs—Chief Seattle Club Prevention, Mother Nation Prevention, Seattle Indian Health Board Prevention, St. Vincent de Paul Prevention, United Indians Prevention, and Somali Youth and Family Club (SYFC) Prevention—were new last year.

HSD’s presentation to the council committee earlier this week also showed that the while the total number of basic shelter beds declined by 296, the total number of shelter beds overall went up by 366, thanks to 662 new enhanced shelter beds—a term that, according to the city, refers to shelters with “extended or 24/7 service” that offer “many services” such as meals, storage, and case management.

2. The city council’s special library levy committee had its first evening hearing on the details of Mayor Jenny Durkan’s proposed $213 million levy renewal Thursday night, and the conversation was almost entirely free from the topic that dominated the committee’s discussion on Monday: Whether the library should do away with fines for late returns, which disproportionately impact people in the city’s most diverse and least wealthy areas.

Despite what certain radio talk-show hosts and the Seattle Times editorial board might have you believe, there was no evidence of public outrage at the idea that kids might no longer punished for failing to return their books on time. Instead, most public commenters spoke about about the importance of the library in general (one speaker, historian Paula Becker, described how important the library was as a refuge for her late son, Hunter, during his active heroin addiction) or in favor of specific programs they used, like a book club for people with sight impairment. (Council president Bruce Harrell, who suggested earlier this week that fines send an important message about civic responsibility, did get in one plug for fines as a way to pay for some of the items his colleagues have suggested adding to the proposal). The bulk of the meeting was about five proposed amendments that would increase the cost of the proposal, and other ideas that aren’t formal amendments but could add millions more to the plan.

Those amendments include:

• A proposal by council member Lorena Gonzalez to fund existing programs for kids under 4  and youth through high school with levy funds, rather than through the Seattle Library Foundation, at a cost of $4.2 million over seven years;

• An amendment by council member Mike O’Brien to keep libraries open one hour later on weeknights throughout the system (on top of the additional hours in Durkan’s proposal, which would add morning and evening hours to three branches and open four libraries on Fridays), at a cost of $6.2 million over seven years;

• An proposal by council member Teresa Mosqueda to study the feasibility of co-locating child care services at library branches, at an unknown cost;

• Another proposal by Mosqueda that would add two more security officers to the library system, bringing the total from 19 to 21, at a cost of $1.3 million over seven years; and

• A final proposal by Mosqueda to fund three more case managers and a youth services support worker from the Downtown Emergency Service Center to connect patrons experiencing homelessness to housing and services, at a cost of $2.1 million over seven years.

In addition, the council will consider adding more funding for digital materials like e-books to reflect their rising cost; adding air conditioning and/or elevators at the Columbia City, Green Lake, and University branches; funding a small new South Lake Union library branch in the new Denny Substation.

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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.

City council member Debora Juarez, who chairs the library committee, said the amendments “all make sense and are great, but that “we still have to be mindful that we are in levy mode; we are not in general budget mode. … We don’t want to put a poison pill where [the levy] goes down because taxpayers are not going to be comfortable” with the amount. “We’re not voting on a child care levy. We’re not voting on a public safety levy. We are voting on a library levy. So we have to keep that in mind.”

3. Learn to trust the Crank: As I first reported on Twitter yesterday, council member Juarez is King County Executive Dow Constantine’s pick to replace former council member Rob Johnson (who left the council before the end of his term for a job as the transportation planner for NHL Seattle). The King County Council will have to approve Juarez’s appointment (technically, she will represent North King County on the regional board). One question that will likely come up is whether Juarez, who fought tooth and nail for the N. 130th St. light rail station in her council district, will be able to broaden her horizons as a member of the regional Sound Transit board. Perhaps anticipating such questions, Juarez said in her announcement, “I plan on working as hard for the people of the tri-county Sound Transit service area as I do for my North Seattle district.”

Fines Are a Barrier to Access: And Other Facts About the Proposed Library Levy

City council members discussed Mayor Jenny Durkan’s proposal to renew Seattle’s library levy and increase its size from $123 million to $213 million on Monday, and proposed some possible adds of their own.

The most controversial aspect of the levy, besides its size (which council member Mike O’Brien noted is an increase of about 35 percent once population growth and inflation are accounted for—not 78 percent, as the Seattle Times has claimed) is a proposal to eliminate fines for overdue materials, which studies from other cities have shown is an effective way to ensure access for low-income residents while actually increasing the number of books and other materials that get returned.

Council staffer Asha Venkataraman explained this somewhat counterintuitive conclusion. First, she noted, fines really are a barrier to access: About one in every five library cardholders currently has a blocked account, meaning that they can’t access library materials unless they pay their fines. The areas of the city with the largest numbers of blocked accounts, as well as the highest average outstanding fines, are mostly south of I-90, in Southeast Seattle, plus parts of far north Seattle—areas with lower average incomes and more people of color. Those areas also happen to be the places where wifi and computer usage in libraries is highest (suggesting the lack of computers at home).

Second, Venkataraman explained, a San Francisco study that looked into eliminating library fines found that patrons in cities that had partially or completely eliminated fines returned materials at the same rate or slightly faster, and that circulation increased overall (which makes sense, because when people fail to return books, the number of books in the system is reduced and circulation goes down.) The study also found that a major reason people avoided going in to get their account restored was “the negative interaction of having to go and pay off fines.”

Support The C Is for Crank
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.

Council president Bruce Harrell expressed concern that eliminating fines might discourage people from doing their civic responsibility, and suggested (perhaps tongue in cheek) that if the city is going to eliminate fines, they should also eliminate fees for people who simply fail to return books, which account for about $200,000 of the $1.1 million the library system takes in annually from fines and fees. (“Some people are operating in a higher theft area than others and I don’t want them being prohibited from being able to borrow from this public asset just because they couldn’t afford to pay the book back,” Harrell said.)  Harrell also suggested that the city create a system where people who want to pay can do so, but people who don’t want to pay won’t be penalized. “I don’t understand the policy reasons for waiving millions of dollars when some people might be willing to pay,” Harrell said. The library’s revenues from fines have been steadily declining, thanks largely to the growing use of online materials. Since 2013, fine revenues have decreased by 31 percent.

Council member Kshama Sawant responded that even if payment is “voluntary,” such a system would still require people returning books to indicate that they weren’t going to pay, and why. “What’s going to happen if you introduce that kind of policy … would be a sort of implicit shaming of people who can’t pay,” Sawant said. “There are children who shouldn’t have to figure out whether their parents are able to pay or not. That just seems to put the onus on the individual families to decide what they should do.”

Council members also discussed the question—raised, most recently, in a Seattle Times editorial that argued that the city should find alternative sources to pay for library capital projects—of whether revenues from the real estate excise tax on new development, or REET, could be used to supplant a significant portion of levy funding and lower the levy ask. The Times also claimed, erroneously, that the city has “slashed” REET spending on libraries from $3.8 million in 2016 to “only $564,000 this year.” (Over the life of the proposed levy, annual REET spending would be $500,000 to $800,000 a year, according to a staff analysis.) In fact, the higher spending in 2016 (and 2017) represented a historic anomaly. According to the adopted library budgets from those years, the city spent a total of $2.3 million in REET revenues on library capital projects in 2016, and a total of $1.9 million in 2017, largely  to  fund unanticipated repairs to the downtown library, including repairs to a sinking floor. Between 2013, when the last version of the levy went into effect, and 2015, average REET spending was $593,000 a year. “Not all library needs will and can be met to the scale that is needed by simply relying on REET,” council member Lorena Gonzalez said.

Source: Council central staff memo, April 8

Council members indicated that they were interested in adding a few items to the plan, including extended weeknight hours (council member O’Brien), programs targeted at kids under 4 (Gonzalez), and adding air conditioning and elevators at the Columbia City, Greenlake, and University branches.

The council will hold its first public hearing on the levy in council chambers starting at 5:30 this Thursday, April 11.