1. The city auditor has completed his investigation into the implementation of a new joint billing system for Seattle City Light and Seattle Public Utilities customers (memorably known as the New Customer Information System, or NCIS), and concluded that the reason the NCIS went $34 million over budget is that … the system ended up being more complicated than anyone had anticipated, and took more time and manpower to implement.
Or, as assistant city auditor Jane Dunkel put it during a briefing before the council utilities committee Tuesday, “The simple answer is that it took … ten months longer than anticipated,” and the extra cost “was in labor—city labor and consultants.” Specifically, the city spent $10.8 million more than budgeted on consultants, and $20.6 million over budget on city staffing, in the 10 extra months it took to complete the new billing system.
Mike O’Brien, a former CFO himself, seemed incredulous at those figures. “When I look at $20 million over 10 months—so, $2 million a month— if a city employee is costing us $10,000 a month, that means 200 employees were on this project,” O’Brien said. “I’m shocked at the scale of that.” Dunkel said that many of those employees had probably been reassigned from other tasks, but acknowledged that 200 employees is a lot of city workers to dedicate full-time to a single project. (The city calculates costs in full-time equivalent employees, or FTEs, so 200 full-time workers is just a proxy for the total cost.) And, Dunkel said, the city decided to “prioritize quality over timeliness.”
That brought O’Brien to his second question: Why, if project leaders knew they were slipping over budget and behind schedule, did they not inform the council sooner? (Committee chair Lisa Herbold had the same question.) Dunkel acknowledged that the trend toward being over budget and late was obvious “in retrospect,” but said the people working on the project may have thought they could make up the money and time. “Is it just well-intentioned people who are optimistic and thinking, ‘If we just keep working harder and faster, we’re going to make it’? Or is it people saying, ‘Wait a minute, we’re not going to make it and we need to let someone know that,'” Dunkel said.
“There were vacations and leaves, there was mandatory overtime—there wasn’t a point when they said, ‘Let’s stop and recalibrate.’ And part of it is that it’s hard to come back and report on that. You don’t want to do that until you’re really certain that you can’t make that date.”
You can read the auditors’ recommendations—which include requiring the city’s Chief Technology Office, Michael Matmiller, to report back to the council monthly on the status of the city’s IT projects—as well as the auditor’s presentation and a report on best practices by an outside consultant—on the city’s website.
2. On Wednesday, Mayor Ed Murray’s Human Services Department announced the location of a new, 24/7, low-barrier homeless shelter on First Hill. The shelter, which will accommodate about 100 men and women, will be located at First Presybterian Church, at 1013 8th Avenue. The city will hold one community meeting on the shelter at the church, on May 22 and 6pm, and hopes to open the shelter in June or July. If opposition to a methadone clinic in the neighborhood is any sort of guide, expect protests.
3. HSD and the mayor’s homelessness director, George Scarola, came to the council’s human services committee yesterday armed with numbers that they say demonstrate the success of the city’s new Navigation Team. The eight-member team, which includes both police and outreach workers, notifies residents of homeless encampments when the city plans to remove them from public property, and provides information on services and shelter, including other, authorized encampments. Scott Lindsay, the mayor’s special assistant on public safety, said that of 291 homeless people the team has contacted since it formed in February, 116 went into “alternative living arrangements”—about 70 to traditional shelters, and 46 to authorized encampments. “That’s more than just a referral—that’s actually a connection,” Lindsay said. “Those are people who were weeks or days or months ago living on streets unsheltered, who are now living inside or at an authorized encampment.”
But how big of a victory is that, really? People who live in camps tend to do so for many reasons: Shelters tend to be dirty and crowded, and most don’t allow people to come in with partners, possessions, or pets. Major addiction problems and mental illnesses that make it difficult to sleep in close quarters with hundreds of other people can also be issues. And sanctioned encampments fill up as fast as the city opens them—a point HSD deputy director Jason Johnson acknowledged.
Tuesday’s sweep of the encampment under the Spokane Street Viaduct, which the city said was necessary because of an RV fire at the site last week, was less successful by the city’s standards. Of 38 “total contacts,” Lindsay said, 15 “declined any form of services,” and 8 agreed to go to shelter or an authorized encampment. The rest took referrals to employment, case management, and other services, Lindsay said.
4. Chris Potter, director of operations for the Department of Finance and Administrative Services, updated council members on the city’s new delivery service, which allows people to retrieve belongings confiscated from encampments without busing all the way down to the city’s storage facility on Airport Way. So far, Potter said, two people have asked for the belongings back, and one has gotten their “materials” returned. Pressed by council member Tim Burgess to explain why this was good news—given that the city has hundreds of bins full of unclaimed stuff taken from homeless encampments—Potter said, “Getting two calls represents a dramatic increase in the number of people who have reached out to us and said, ‘Hey, can I get my things back?'” But, he acknowledged, “It’s difficult to have a conversation with somebody whose material you’ve gotten and who hasn’t made a phone call to try to recover it from us.”
5. The Seattle Times ran a breathtakingly solipsistic, question-begging editorial this week calling on Mayor Ed Murray not to run for reelection. Their argument: Someone under such a “cloud” of “sordid” allegations can’t possibly win reelection, but could divide the electorate, leaving the city stuck with “Mayor Kshama Sawant, or some other extreme left-wing ideologue.” First of all, Kshama Sawant has repeatedly and explicitly said she does not plan to run for mayor—a minor detail the Times omits. (Obviously, people can change their minds, but this seems a somewhat crucial point.) Second, and more glaring: The Times itself is the publication that decided to publish all the sordid details about the allegations in the first place, including detailed allegations about rough sex and a mole on Murray’s genitals, so if anyone has created an environment of “sordid theater,” it’s them.
Finally, it requires a truly special sort of arrogance for a newspaper to first declare that its own story is “the biggest political scandal in Seattle in generation,” then claim that the subject of that story has been “transformed [by that story] from the bold big-city mayor into one who defers to his defense lawyer when he is invited to speak to The Seattle Times editorial board,” and then use that entirely reasonable deferral—which no one was aware of until the paper reported it, making the story about itself—as a justification for demanding his resignation. Traditionally, a newspaper that wants a public official to step aside cites public opinion or some other outside evidence to shore up such a demand; the Times cites only itself, and its own declaration that its own reporters have uncovered the biggest scandal in generations.
As I said on Twitter:
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