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.

Homelessness Funding Could Be Flash Point in Upcoming City Budget Discussions

Things are fairly quiet on the city budget front this week as council members draft their first-found wish lists—ideas that may or may not see the light of day as full-fledged “green sheets,” proposed budget changes that require two co-sponsors and proposed cuts to balance any new expenditures—but council members did give a preview of their thinking on Mayor Jenny Durkan’s stay-the-course budget for homelessness last week. Meanwhile, advocates for homeless Seattle residents have presented a list of requests for the council’s consideration that includes $33 million in additional spending on housing, front-line workers’ pay, and SHARE’S basic indoor shelters, which the mayor’s budget assumes will close in June.

At briefings on the proposed budget for homelessness and the expansion of the city’s Navigation Team (which removes encampments and provides information about services to people living outdoors) last week, council members appeared concerned by the fact that Durkan’s budget proposal does not increase funding for actual housing production, focusing primarily on emergency shelter instead. The issue, council members said, is that when there is no housing for people to go to, the city ends up just shuffling them around and around—either from illegal encampment to illegal encampment (as Navigation Team leader Fred Podesta openly acknowledged the city is doing already) or in and out of the shelter system.

“[The budget] really places an emphasis on enhanced funding for immediate day to day assistance vs. those longer-term housing needs,” council member Teresa Mosqueda said last week, addressing her comments at Office of Housing director Steve Walker. “I don’t understand how we are goimg to be able to serve the number of people we have talked about today unless we provide housing [for them].” Durkan’s 2019 budget includes $24.9 million for all “housing” programs, including diversion (which usually involves helping a person identify somewhere they can stay for the time being, such as a relative’s house, rather than permanent housing); emergency services, which includes temporary transitional housing, totals $46.4 million, or more than half of Durkan’s proposed budget for homelessness.

Durkan’s proposal quietly extends a “rental housing assistance” program, originally begun as a pilot in 2017, which provides vouchers for up to three months for people on the waiting list for Section 8 housing vouchers from the Seattle Housing Authority. Noting that a high percentage of households that receive Section 8 vouchers end up having to return them because they can’t find an affordable rental unit with their voucher, Mosqueda asked why the Human Services Department would still consider it a “success” when “people maintain housing until they receive their Housing Choice voucher.” Would the city still consider the program a success if people stayed in their apartment for three months, got their voucher, and still ended up homeless because they couldn’t find a place to use it? HSD deputy director Tiffany Washington said the city was using a HUD standard for defining success and added that the city has “seen an improved rate of exits to permanent housing in 2018 compared to the same time last year, and an increase in households served”—something Durkan also touted in her budget speech.

Council members also zeroed in on the fact that the mayor’s proposed budget doesn’t increase funding for preventing homelessness in the first place, which is generally a much cheaper and less daunting prospect than helping people find housing once they’ve lost it. (What looks like a significant cut to prevention programs in 2019—from $6.5 million to $4.4 million— is actually an accounting quirk that reflects the fact that a program to move people off SHA’s waitlists was funded in 2018, but spent over two years. However, that program will expire in 2020, when the city will have to decide whether to fund it again.) Pointing to a recent report from the Seattle Women’s Commission and the Housing Justice Project that faulted the city’s lack of any integrated system for people facing eviction to get rent assistance, council member Lisa Herbold said, “We need some kind of collaboration or cooperation between [assistance] programs, because it happens so quickly. The reality is that your landlord is not under any requirement to accept rent from you after three days even if you have the total amount and the ability to pay.”

Two other sticking points were the future of the Seattle Housing And Resource Effort and Women’s Housing Equality and Enhancement League (SHARE/WHEEL) shelters that were defunded, then re-funded on a temporary basis, last year. SHARE’s high-barrier, nighttime-only shelters ranked dead last among shelter applications during last year’s competitive bidding process for HSD contracts, and the groups were given a grace period to come up with a plan to transition their shelter clients to other service providers or into housing. Herbold and her colleagues Kshama Sawant and Mike O’Brien pressed Washington on SHARE’s rate of success in getting people into housing (which is a matter of much dispute; SHARE claims a rate four times higher than the city average, which HSD says is not correct), as well as what the plan is to help its clients find other living or sleeping arrangements.

“I just want to make sure we remember why SHARE and WHEEL are not provided funding,” Washington said. “It’s actually not a cut—it was bridge funding from the mayor’s office to continue them through this year and for six months next year. … We asked all the agencies who weren’t funded to submit a transition plan to us. All of the agencies did except for SHARE and WHEEL,” who said they weren’t planning to close down. This issue of SHARE’s shelter funding, like the issue of whether the city will keep paying for bus tickets for its clients, has become something of an annual ritual—and every year, the council finds a few hundred thousand dollars to keep them going. If this year is any different, it will be a notable departure from tradition.

A few final quick-hit observations:

• The plan for the growing number of people living in their vehicles—a group that now makes up more than half the people living unsheltered in Seattle grew 46 percent this year, according to King County’s annual count—appears to be … well, it isn’t actually clear. The budget adds a mere $250,000 a year for a vaguely defined “new program” that “is still under development and will be informed by a workgroup made up of people with lived experience, a racial equity analysis using the Race and Social Justice Initiative (RSJI) strategy chart, as well as service providers, the City’s Navigation Team, other outreach workers, the Seattle Police Department and Parking Enforcement Officers, and officials working on similar programs in other jurisdictions.” Whatever the new program is, it will have to split that funding with yet another new pilot for a safe parking lot for people living in their cars, this one aimed specifically at “individuals living in vehicles who are largely self-sufficient and require a relatively low level of services.” The city budget adopted last year included $50,000 specifically to conduct “a needs assessment to identify programs and services most likely to help individuals living in their vehicles find permanent housing”; when O’Brien asked if that money had been spent, Washington replied, “Yes and no… how much of the $50,000 we’ll spend we don’t know, but we’ll definitely satisfy the intent.”

Support

• Low-barrier encampments like the one at Licton Springs, which is closing after months of complaints from neighbors about drug use on the premises (and drug dealers in the vicinity), may be too much of a hassle for the city, which is working to “reassess” the residents of that encampment and move them “to the top of the [housing prioritization] list,” according to Washington. Washington insisted that the encampment isn’t “closing”—”‘closing’ is not reflective, so what we’ve come up with is ‘shifting capacity'”—but the SHARE-managed encampment is in fact going away, thanks largely to neighbors who considered it an unwelcome or menacing presence. Sally Bagshaw, who represents downtown and Magnolia, appeared last week to agree. “One of the keys that I have heard over and over again is that the drug dealers have got to be arrested,” she said—a position that actually represents a departure from the city’s support for the LEAD arrest-diversion program, which focuses on low-level drug offenders and just expanded to North Seattle.

• As I mentioned above, the head of the Navigation Team himself acknowledged that the team is often reduced to moving encampments around and around—and that “there are more encampments that we’re not engaging with than we are engaging with; that’s just a fact”—reflecting the reality that as long as the city has a shortage of affordable housing, some people are going to prefer even the tenuous community and safety of an unauthorized encampment to a shelter system that can be chaotic and dehumanizing. Enhanced shelters—those that allow people to keep their possessions, offer case management, and don’t enforce sobriety requirements at the door—do a better job of getting people to come in off the streets, but there aren’t enough, and the city is creating more homeless people every day. (The eviction cases on the King County Superior Court’s weekly docket represent a steady drip-drip-drip of people being kicked out of homes and onto the streets.) “The team is no more interested in moving people around than anybody else,” Podesta said. “There are cases where we’ve had apartments [available] and they haven’t chosen to accept that”; however, he added, “no one should interpret that as anything but an exception.”