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.
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.
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.
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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