Morning Fizz: What Is Transit For?

Mockup of new, clearer signage Sound Transit has proposed to reduce fare evasion and errors

1. Sound Transit board members had some pointed questions for agency CEO Peter Rogoff on Thursday, when staffers presented the agency’s plan to address concerns about fare enforcement to the board.

The proposed changes, which come after months of community outreach and both onboard and online surveys, include new signage that will indicate more clearly that people must pay fare in order to enter light rail stations; reduced fines for people who still fail to pay their fare; more warnings before a rider receives a fine; and new, in-house “fare education ambassadors” who will replace the private security guards who currently check fares and issue citation.

Board members, including Joe McDermott (West Seattle), Claudia Balducci (Bellevue), Victoria Woodards (Tacoma), Dave Upthegrove (Federal Way), and Seattle mayor Jenny Durkan, wanted to know why Sound Transit staff have not proposed taking fare evasion and fines out of the court system, as King County Metro has done. Failure to pay fare on Sound Transit’s system, which includes Link Light Rail as well as express buses and Sounder trains, can result in a $124 fine plus late payments and potential criminal penalties if a rider does not pay the penalty. Unpaid fines can end up in collections and can damage a rider’s credit for years.

What would it take, Balducci asked, to get the staff to take requests from board members seriously and come up with a plan that didn’t expose riders to financial hardship and a potential criminal record for failing to pay a $3 fare?

“The challenge we have is figuring out for those folks who are persistent fare violators and are not among those classes that I just cited—people who clearly are economically distressed or are drug-addicted or homeless—what, then, do we do, if not the courts?” Rogoff said.

It’s unclear exactly how many people fit into the category of “persistent fare violators” that Rogoff described. According to Sound Transit spokeswoman Rachelle Cunningham, about 7.6 percent of riders did not pay their fares in October. (Sound Transit has been charging fares since July, after making rides free for several months in response to the COVID-19 epidemic. Currently, fare enforcement officers do not scan riders’ cards individually to see if they’ve paid their fare; instead, they ask riders to show that they have a card or a ticket.)

“Fares are critical to pay for transit services, and Peter’s comments referenced concerns about the potential level of non-compliance that could result if penalties were reduced to the point that it became known over time that there was little or no consequence for fare evasion,” Cunningham said. “The result of that would be increased costs for taxpayers and potential impacts on projects and services. It can be reasonably assumed that some segment of riders, potentially increasing over time, would respond with chronic fare evasion.”

But there may be an additional reason Sound Transit is so reluctant to bring fare evasion penalties in-house. “State law vests the District Court with exclusive jurisdiction to impose fines for fare evasion infractions,” Cunningham says. In other words: The state legislation that created the agency establishes that failing to pay fare is a civil infraction that must go through district court. Taking fare enforcement out of the jurisdiction of local courts might require a change in state law. Historically, Sound Transit has tried to avoid reopening its authorizing legislation, since Republican legislators have tried to change it in the past to, for example, make Sound Transit’s board an elected body.

“Difficult” is not the same thing as “impossible.” But any major changes to Sound Transit’s fare enforcement policy would require a significant shift in thinking at the agency about its mission as well as the reasons people don’t pay fares. Rogoff’s response indicated that his longstanding position on “fare evasion”—a concept that implies conscious ill intent, if not outright criminality—has not changed, even as the political environment in Seattle and across the country undergoes a seismic shift.

At a time when agencies at all levels of government are working to undo and prevent future harm to Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) communities, Rogoff is still drawing distinct lines between the people who don’t deserve to get caught up in the criminal justice system—”someone who’s poor… someone who’s homeless, someone who’s drug-addicted”—and the modern-day turnstile jumpers who will keep robbing the system unless there are harsh consequences when they do.

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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. We’re truly grateful for your support.

During yesterday’s meeting, Rogoff suggested that King County’s alternative fine resolution program, which is intended for people who can’t pay that agency’s $50 maximum fine, has been something of a failure. “Within King County, some 90 percent of [alternative resolution participants] never show up for their appointment and then nothing becomes of those cases, which is to say that there is no consequence for persistent violators in that circumstance,” Rogoff said. “We need a better mousetrap, and we’re trying to figure that out with the community and with King County Metro.” Continue reading “Morning Fizz: What Is Transit For?”

Evening Fizz: Another Call for Durkan’s Resignation, More Questions About Homelessness Reorganization

Two city commissions have called on Mayor Jenny Durkan to resign, and at least one more is considering it.

1. On Wednesday, the Seattle LGBTQ Commission—one of five volunteer city commissions that deal with the rights of marginalized groups—voted narrowly to demand Mayor Jenny Durkan’s resignation, joining the Human Rights Commission, which made a similar demand earlier this month.

In a letter outlining the reasons for their decision, the commission said the mayor had failed to take meaningful action on police violence and accountability; had continued to remove encampments without providing unsheltered people with adequate places to go; and had “repeatedly undermined the budget proposals supported by Black communities,” by, among other things, using JumpStart payroll tax revenues that were already allocated to COVID relief and housing for vulnerable communities to pay for a new $100 million “equitable investment” fund to be spent based on recommendations from a mayor-appointed task force.

The letter notes that deputy mayor Shefali Ranganathan was dispatched to speak to the commission to make the case for Durkan, as she did earlier this week at the Women’s Commission when it considered a similar move. According to the letter, Ranganathan told the commission that the mayor does not have direct authority over police actions (such as the use of tear gas against protesters) and that she supports a regional payroll tax, just not the local payroll tax the council already passed. (She made similar arguments at the Women’s Commission meeting Monday night).

“Mayor Durkan’s role is to serve as the executive for Seattle and not as a lobbyist in Olympia,” the letter says. “Ultimately, Mayor Durkan’s opposition to the Jumpstart legislation disempowered the process taken to get there, which included months of work from Black communities, Indigenous communities, other communities of color, labor, and many more to find a way to fund affordable housing.”

The mayor appoints nine members of the Human Rights, LGBTQ, and Women’s Commissions. All three commissions have numerous vacancies and expired seats, but there is currently no major imbalance between council-appointed and mayor-appointed board members on any of the three commissions.

Durkan is up for reelection next year.

2. As we’ve reported, the city council, mayor, and homeless advocates have been working toward a tentative agreement on a new approach to unsheltered homelessness—one that could include dismantling the Navigation Team and creating a new process where unsheltered people move quickly through hotel-based shelters and into new permanent supportive housing or market-rate units through rapid rehousing, a kind of short-term rental subsidy.

The mayor’s budget allocates nearly $16 million to lease 300 hotel rooms for six months, which works out to about $5,300 per room, per month, and about $9 million for rapid rehousing dollars to serve up to 230 households (which works out to an average per-household cost of about $3,300 a month).

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PubliCola is supported entirely by generous contributions from readers like you. If you enjoy breaking news, commentary, and deep dives on issues that matter to you, please support this work by donating a few bucks a month to keep this reader-supported site going—and expanding!

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. We’re truly grateful for your support.

“I’m guardedly optimistic,”  Alison Eisinger, the head of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, told PubliCola. “I have some hope that there are folks [at the city] who recognize that requiring people to move, without addressing the state of homelessness, was never effective before COVID and is completely deficient now.” 

One element of the plan that has gotten little attention so far is that it would be extremely short-term. Funding for the hotel would run out after about 10 months—right around the 2021 election, if the city started leasing the hotel rooms at the beginning of next year. The extra funding for rapid rehousing would also come from temporary COVID relief dollars that expire next year. The upshot is that if the city wanted to rent the 300 hotel rooms and continue the rapid rehousing expansion after the one-time runs out, they would have to find a new source of funding for both. Continue reading “Evening Fizz: Another Call for Durkan’s Resignation, More Questions About Homelessness Reorganization”

Maybe Metropolis: Improvising in the Time of COVID

by Josh Feit

A dazzling array of posters adorns the entrance to the Crocodile, Seattle’s destination music venue on 2nd Avenue in Belltown. The colorful posters are an eerie museum of ghostly show bills announcing 2020 concerts that never happened: Wye Oak March 20; Vundabar March 30; Lords of Acid April 13; Patoranking April 26; Juana Molina May 5, Gioli & Assia May 6.

For your convenience, I made a Spotify playlist called “Museum of Lost Shows” commemorating the Crocodile’s spectral season.

“A survey of 51 King County music venues revealed that in the first few months of [COVID-19] 2,100 events were canceled, 650 staff were laid off, and 17,000 musicians’ paid gigs were canceled,” according to Keep Music Live, a relief fund started by local music community advocates who have a goal of raising $10 million to keep Washington state’s small venues (under 1,000 occupancy) open through and after the pandemic.

Their rallying cry that “music venues are hubs of a cultural and economic ecosystem that make Washington’s cities vibrant” is borne out by the numbers. According to the National Independent Venue Association’s 2019 Seattle impact report on live music venues, Seattle clubs generated nearly $67 million in direct economic impact, employed 1,200 people, and sold 1.3 million tickets last year. In short: When it comes to the defining attributes of successful cities, creative music scenes are on the list right alongside dense housing, jobs, universities, mass transit, restaurants, regional medical facilities, cultural diversity, and the fine arts.

Support PubliCola

PubliCola is supported entirely by generous contributions from readers like you. If you enjoy breaking news, commentary, and deep dives on issues that matter to you, please support this work by donating a few bucks a month to keep this reader-supported site going—and expanding!

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. We’re truly grateful for your support.

A line around the block for a music show is a political win for any city planning office. Be it Seattle’s Comprehensive Plan or a Saturday night out, SDOT planners and Kremwerk DJs are both trying to figure out how to make things last.

When it comes to the arts, you make it last by getting creative.

So, it’s with some Seattle pride that I note this bit of city planning news: Despite the empty stages, quiet dance floors, lonely box offices, and locked club doors, Seattle’s Earshot Jazz Festival is improvising this year’s programming by partnering with Town Hall Seattle, the Royal Room, and the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute to make sure the festival goes on with a series of virtual shows.

With outstanding local jazz acts like the Johnaye Kendrick Quartet (Friday, October 23), Marina Albero (Sunday, October 25), the Benjamin Hunter Quintet (Saturday, November 7) taking the stage for live feeds from the aforementioned venues, Earshot will be streaming a series of 25 shows over four weekends this month and into November. It’s a scaled-back version of the festival’s typical 60-concerts-in-30-days tradition, but the resilience of our nationally recognized festival, which debuted in 1989, is an example of Seattle’s crafty and incorrigible arts scene. Continue reading “Maybe Metropolis: Improvising in the Time of COVID”

The C Is for Crank: A Precarious Compromise on Homeless Outreach Inches Forward

Seattle Police Department officers—identifiable as members of the Navigation Team by their khaki pants‚look on during an encampment removal in Ballard earlier this year.

By Erica C. Barnett

On Monday, city council homelessness committee chair Andrew Lewis introduced a proposal that would restore funding for outreach to homeless encampments and lay the groundwork for what Lewis described as a new city “unsheltered outreach and response team” that would replace the controversial Navigation Team.

The surprising part is that the council and mayor’s office worked together on the legislation. 

It’s a whiplash-inducing turn, given the mayor’s vehement opposition to the council’s efforts to dismantle the team and spend the savings on outreach workers. But it isn’t entirely unexpected. For weeks, deputy mayor Casey Sixkiller has been working with council members and service providers to craft a new approach, one that may be at odds with the mayor’s own personal views about how to tackle unsheltered homelessness.

To recap: Late last month, Durkan’s office sent a scorched-earth letter to the council informing them that, in response to their budget direction, she would immediately disband the Navigation Team and suspend the city’s outreach and engagement efforts. In a statement, Durkan said that the city’s Human Services Department “will no longer be deploying staff to conduct outreach or address unauthorized encampments until the Council restores funding for these positions.” Indignant council members responded that they had never suggested eliminating outreach altogether, and in fact had allocated $1.4 million specifically for that purpose—but that Durkan had declined to spend it. The mayor’s office contends that this money never existed, since using it would require laying off staffers who work on 

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PubliCola is supported entirely by generous contributions from readers like you. If you enjoy breaking news, commentary, and deep dives on issues that matter to you, please support this work by donating a few bucks a month to keep this reader-supported site going—and expanding!

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. We’re truly grateful for your support.

Since then, deputy mayor Sixkiller has been attempting to mend fences with the council and homeless advocates, by quietly working with council members Lewis, Tammy Morales, and Lisa Herbold on the compromise proposal Lewis introduced on Monday. That plan includes a new team inside the city’s Human Services Department that would serve as a kind of coordinating body for nonprofit outreach providers’ work in the field, plus funding for those outreach providers to expand their work. (The exact extent of the internal team’s coordination role, and their authority over the work of city contractors, remains unclear).

The goal of the new joint effort would be twofold: improving safety and safety and hygiene at existing encampments, and moving unsheltered people quickly into permanent housing. By utilizing new hotel-based shelters and triaging people quickly into services, case management, and appropriate housing, the new approach could, in theory, house a lot more people than the old approach of sweeping encampments and providing shelter referrals to their displaced residents.

That’s the plan, anyway. But there still are plenty of potential pitfalls and points of contention. Continue reading “The C Is for Crank: A Precarious Compromise on Homeless Outreach Inches Forward”

Morning Fizz: Police Attrition, Demands for Resignation, and the Latest on Durkan’s Latest Task Force

Seattle City Council member Tammy Morales, via Flickr.

Fizz is back after a week in the mountains. Thanks to Paul and Josh for holding down the fort!

1. Last week’s city council budget discussions included the revelation that Mayor Jenny Durkan’s proposal to spend $100 million annually on unspecified “investments in BIPOC communities” relied on funding the city had already allocated to equitable development in neighborhoods where there’s a high risk of displacement and low access to opportunity—AKA BIPOC communities.

The mayor’s budget plan abandons a commitment made in 2019 to create a Strategic Investment Fund, financed by the sale of the Mercer Megablock property, that was supposed to build “mixed-use and mixed-income development that creates opportunities for housing, affordable commercial and cultural space, public open space, and childcare,” according to Durkan’s 2019 budget.

Fizz predicts that the Equitable Investment Task Force could become 2021’s One Table—a group that reaches consensus around a set of basically uncontroversial proposals while the real budget and policy action happens elsewhere.

Council members suggested last week they may propose reducing Durkan’s $100 million “equitable investment” fund by $30 million to recommit to the plan the city adopted in 2019. “I just think it’s ironic that [the Strategic Investment Fund] is now cut so that we can fund a new program with a new process,” council member Tammy Morales said. “I’m struggling to understand the logic here.”

2. While the council debated whether to whittle down Durkan’s $100 million proposal, the mayor announced the members of a new task force that will discuss how the city should spend the money. Given the council’s lack of enthusiasm for the mayor’s blank-check proposal, Fizz predicts that the Equitable Investment Task Force could become 2021’s One Table—a group that reaches consensus around a set of basically uncontroversial proposals while the real budget and policy action happens elsewhere.

Support PubliCola

PubliCola is supported entirely by generous contributions from readers like you. If you enjoy breaking news, commentary, and deep dives on issues that matter to you, please support this work by donating a few bucks a month to keep this reader-supported site going—and expanding!

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. We’re truly grateful for your support.

One Table, as you may or may not recall, was a task force, spearheaded by Durkan and King County Executive Dow Constantine, to come up with a regional approach to homelessness. After meeting sporadically for eight months, the group announced a set of recommendations that included rental subsidies, job training, and behavioral-health treatment on demand. None of the recommendations were ever officially implemented. 

3. On Monday, council public safety chair Lisa Herbold added some context to a recent Seattle Police Department announcement that a record number of officers left the department this year. As Paul reported last week, the department reported a loss of 39 officer positions in September, for a total of 110 positions this year, compared to an early projection of 92. Mayor Durkan said the departures showed the need to recruit hire additional officers “committed to reform and community policing.”

But Herbold pointed out that the city council adopted a rebalanced 2020 budget that assumed 30 additional officers would leave this year, for a total of 122 departures—a milestone that SPD has not yet hit, despite the spike in September. (The projection has since been updated to 130 officers by the end of the year.) “One month’s data does not make a trend,” Herbold said. Continue reading “Morning Fizz: Police Attrition, Demands for Resignation, and the Latest on Durkan’s Latest Task Force”

Seattle Police Department Announces Record-Breaking Attrition

by Paul Kiefer

On Friday morning, Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office released a new report from the city’s Budget Office and the Seattle Police Department showing a record-breaking number of attritions from SPD in September. In that month alone, 39 officers and officers in training left the department — double the number of officers leaving in the next-highest month on record. Without an end to the ongoing hiring freeze (a part of the city’s COVID-related austerity), SPD and the Budget Office project the department to continue hemorrhaging sworn staff well into 2021, potentially exceeding the staffing cuts proposed by the City Council during the summer.

The pending staff shortage places the department at risk of falling further out of compliance with the conditions of the Federal consent decree, increasing the likelihood that SPD will remain under the supervision of the Department of Justice for years to come. (Federal District Court Judge James Robart, responsible for overseeing Seattle’s consent decree for the Department of Justice, already ruled the city partially out of compliance in 2019).

Dr. Antonio Oftelie, the new court-appointed monitor for the consent decree, told PubliCola that the consent decree required SPD to scale up its staffing to improve specialized investigation units, departmental audits, and use of force reviews. “The specialty units that are required by the consent decree will likely be the first to feel the effects of budget cuts and the loss of offices,” he said. “SPD’s ability to audit itself, its ability to develop policy, its force investigation team and training units are also required by the consent decree and are also put at risk if the department has a massive staffing shortage.”

Continue reading “Seattle Police Department Announces Record-Breaking Attrition”

Mayor Announces Membership of New Equitable Communities Task Force, Faces Criticism from Social Justice Activists

by Paul Kiefer

Today, a little more than four months since Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan first said she would invest $100 million in services for BIPOC communities, and more than two weeks after she announced she was creating a task force to recommend how to spend the money, she announced the initial members of the task force.

The 28 members of the group, the Equitable Communities Initiative Task Force, are drawn from an array of BIPOC-led nonprofits and civic organizations around Seattle, including well know civil rights leaders such as Estela Ortega, the Director of El Centro De La Raza, and Dr. Sheila Edwards Lange, President of Seattle Central College. They will be tasked with “develop[ing] recommendations for a historic $100 million new investment in Black, Indigenous, and people of color communities to address the deep disparities caused by systemic racism and institutionalized oppression,” Durkan said in the announcement, ostensibly building on existing city investments

At present, the mayor’s proposed budget would take that $100 million from the revenues of the new Jumpstart payroll tax the City Council passed earlier this year. The council originally intended to use the Jumpstart tax revenue for COVID-19 relief for Seattle residents for the next two years, and later to fund affordable housing, projects outlined in the Equitable Development Initiative, Green New Deal investments, and support for small businesses; many of those budgetary priorities were the result of years of lobbying and activism by local BIPOC organizations.

As PubliCola reported last month, city budget director Ben Noble told reporters in September that “budget priorities for the city have changed, arguably, since that [JumpStart] plan was developed,” justifying the mayor’s affront to the council’s legislation.

Because the task force is expected to divert city dollars from JumpStart projects championed by racial and climate justice activists — and not from the Seattle Police Department — the Equitable Communities Initiative has raised alarms among some activist and nonprofit leaders in the past month.

Continue reading “Mayor Announces Membership of New Equitable Communities Task Force, Faces Criticism from Social Justice Activists”

Maybe Metropolis: The Pandemic Has Forced Seattle To Reconsider Its Neo-Suburban Model

By Josh Feit

Judging by the sheer number of permits the city has issued in the past five months allowing businesses to turn sidewalks, parking spots, and city streets themselves into places for people to hang out, there’s an unforeseen consequence of the pandemic: A citywide Seattle neighborhood renaissance.

Under a temporary program called “Safe Starts,” SDOT has issued 135 such permits since the COVID-19 crisis hit, with 73 more local business requests for permits in the queue. (The numbers, based on data through September, are actually much higher because the West Seattle Junction Business Improvement Association got an unprecedented single permit allowing all 230 shops and restaurants in the district to set up a single table and chair outside their storefronts).

Seattle’s neighborhood businesses are using all these permit options (they’re free) to turn neighborhoods outside the downtown core into people-centric hot spots. Just grab a table in the middle of the street on 9th Avenue N. between Thomas and John Streets in South Lake Union, and you’ll quickly get a sense of the new block-party atmosphere that’s helped redefine the city in recent months.

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PubliCola is supported entirely by generous contributions from readers like you. If you enjoy breaking news, commentary, and deep dives on issues that matter to you, please support this work by donating a few bucks a month to keep this reader-supported site going—and expanding!

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. We’re truly grateful for your support.

Neighborhoods aren’t merely dedicating more public space for eating and drinking. The elevated energy is also being formalized on neighborhood side streets. As part of another SDOT program called “Keep Moving Streets,” 13 stretches of neighborhood streets, totaling more than 20 miles, have sidelined cars in favor of people. Instead of reading “Street Closed,” SDOT signs barring cars could just as logically read “Street Open.”

The takeaway for city policy makers should be clear. While inveterate single-family-zoning advocates continue to decry urbanization in any form (in order to preserve neighborhood character, they say), Seattle’s neighborhoods are not as fragile as the naysayers have claimed. On the contrary, the uptick in neighborhood action seems to have amplified, rather than destroyed, neighborhood character.

Hilariously, one business that has chosen to convert sacred parking space into café seating, Café Javasti, was an adamant parking space patriot during Wedgwood’s retrograde fight against a protected bike lane on 35th Ave. NE.

“I don’t understand why we’d ever go back.” — West Seattle Junction BIA Executive Director Lora Swift

From “outdoor cafés to outdoor retail racks,” West Seattle Junction BIA Executive Director Lora Swift said, the neighborhood has a “new cadence” and a “more European feel.”

She says she’ll be advocating to keep the permits in play through “at least 2021,” adding that she’d like the programs to stay in place longer than that. “I don’t understand why we’d ever go back,” she said, noting that her enthusiasm is “underscored by requests from the community… to continue to this new Seattle. We’ve gotten so many emails.” Continue reading “Maybe Metropolis: The Pandemic Has Forced Seattle To Reconsider Its Neo-Suburban Model”

Next Month, King County Voters Will Decide On the Future of the Sheriff’s Office. Here’s What’s at Stake

by Paul Kiefer

A pair of amendments to the King County charter on the ballot next month open a door for significant reshaping of the King County Sheriff’s Office (KCSO). The measures have sparked two opposition campaigns — one closely tied to the King County Police Officers’ Guild (KCPOG), which represents sheriff’s officers — that have cast the amendments as radical attacks on law enforcement, while the measures have received limited vocal support from the most prominent local police accountability advocates.

The first amendment, Charter Amendment 5, would make the King County Sheriff an appointed, rather than elected, position. The second, Charter Amendment 6, would grant the King County Council the ability to set the structure and duties of the sheriff rather than relying on the duties specified in the state code. While the amendments’ sponsors, including council members Rod Dembowski and Girmay Zahilay (who wrote a PubliCola op ed supporting it), crafted the ballot measures to stand independently of one another, their practical implications and political significance have bonded the two measures together. In fact, in a July 14th council meeting, council member Claudia Balducci called them the legislative equivalent of a “Reese’s peanut butter cup”: a natural pair.

For their most vocal proponents, namely Dembowski and Zahilay, the amendments are vital steps towards an accountable sheriff’s office with a more appropriate scope of duties and a sheriff that better represents the needs of the King County residents they serve. The opponents of the amendments, including the sheriff’s guild, cast the measures as part of the broader “defund” movement to undermine law enforcement and as a power grab by the executive and the council.

As contemporary as those arguments may seem, they’re part of a longstanding debate in King County. In November, voters will face a choice between two paths for KCSO; both have been tested in the county before, and neither has transformed the department in the ways the amendments’ opponents fear or the ways their champions hope.

Continue reading “Next Month, King County Voters Will Decide On the Future of the Sheriff’s Office. Here’s What’s at Stake”

By Opting Out, Suburban Cities Could Blow an $8 Million Annual Hole in Homeless Housing Plan

Image via King County.

By Erica C. Barnett

At least half a dozen cities have chosen to opt out of a proposed countywide “Health Through Housing” sales tax increase that would provide permanent supportive housing for an estimated 2,000 chronically homeless people.

The cities, which include Renton, Issaquah, Kent, and Covington, will use authority granted by the legislature this year to impose their own 0.1 percent sales tax for affordable housing, a category that includes not just housing for very low-income people but “workforce housing” for people making up to 60 percent of the Seattle-area median income.

The council’s committee of the whole voted 8-1 on Tuesday to approve the countywide tax measure, which would impose an additional 0.1 percent sales tax on purchases throughout King County, on Tuesday, and the full council will vote on the tax proposal next week. Assuming it passes, the county will have to come up with a plan to spend the money.

But how much money will there be? The county originally estimated that the tax would bring in a little under $68 million in 2021; bonding against half that revenue stream, the maximum allowed under state law, could give the county around $400 million to purchase sites and turn them into affordable housing. The cities that have opted out of the tax so far have taken more than $8 million off the table. That brings the county’s annual revenues down to just under $60 million.

Leo Flor, the director of the county’s Department of Community and Human Services, says the county needs between $27 million and $30 million a year (that is, half of $54 to $60 milliion) to purchase bonds worth $400 million. The county could hit that threshold, if retail sales don’t slip below forecasts and if no more cities pull out of the taxing district. “We’re still moving forward,” Flor said Thursday, but “every dollar counts. Even at the full size [with every city opting in], 2,000 people is less than half of the people experiencing chronic homelessness in King County right now.”

Issaquah’s tax, Flor notes, will expire if the city signs a memorandum of agreement with the county to allocate the revenues raised within Issaquah to projects in that city. If revenues prove too low to fund a $400 million housing measure, the county could opt to build less housing.

No matter how much money the county brings in, the plan will require a change in state law to allow the county to purchase distressed properties, such as hotels and nursing homes, and convert them into permanent supportive housing. 

Support PubliCola

PubliCola is supported entirely by generous contributions from readers like you. If you enjoy breaking news, commentary, and deep dives on issues that matter to you, please support this work by donating a few bucks a month to keep this reader-supported site going—and expanding!

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. We’re truly grateful for your support.