City Budget Hunger Games: Mercer Megablock Money Grab, Probation Expansion Skeptics, Homelessness, “High-Barrier Offenders,” and More

With literally hundreds of budget amendments in play during the final weeks of city council budget deliberations, it’s almost impossible to cover every issue that’s currently in contention: From the way the police department responds to sex workers to how the proceeds of the Mercer Megablock should be spent, nearly every aspect of Mayor Jenny Durkan’s proposed budget has been the subject of debate among a council that will say goodbye to at least four of its current members at the end of the year. What follows is a highly selective list of some of the proposals and policies that were in contention this past week.

The caveat for this entire post, of course, is that the city will have to completely retool its budget if Tim Eyman’s I-976, which would decimate funding for local transit, road, bridge, and transportation maintenance projects, passes on Tuesday.

• Mercer Megablock proceeds

A number of proposals would redirect or restrict funding from the sale of the Mercer Megablock property away from Durkan’s spending priorities toward other projects. Among the changes council members have proposed:

– Adding $15 million to the Office of Housing’s budget to fund low-income housing projects that are shovel-ready but unfunded under the city’s annual Notice of Funding Availability, which is perennially unable to fund all the projects that are ready to go. The funds would come from Durkan’s proposed Strategic Acquisition Fund (intended to buy land for future projects near transit) and homeownership and accessory dwelling unit loan programs that are aimed at helping moderate-income home buyers and existing homeowners get loans.

– Spending $2.45 million originally earmarked for that same fund to build a four-room child care center serving between 58 and 69 children in the basement of City Hall. Durkan, sponsor Sally Bagshaw noted, has proposed sidelining the City Hall facility and funding existing child care centers elsewhere, but “I do think that King County has solved this problem in the building right next door to us,” which has a child care center, so the city should be able to do the same thing.

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– Redirecting $2.5 million of the sale proceeds to pay for protected bike lanes in South Seattle, for a total of $10.9 million dedicated to bike facilities in the area. South Seattle—particularly Southeast Seattle—has been historically neglected in the city’s bike infrastructure spending, a fact the city’s Bicycle Advisory Board acknowledged when it recommended prioritizing projects in southeast Seattle neighborhoods in the scaled-back spending plan for the Move Seattle levy. The Seattle Department of Transportation’s implementation plan for the levy basically ignored the board’s recommendations, leaving south Seattle without a single complete connection to downtown. The $2.5 million, O’Brien said, would allow the city to either build a full protected bike lane along Martin Luther King Jr. Way South, or finish out a bike lane on Beacon Hill and connect the South Park and Georgetown neighborhoods.

The current bike master plan map, which includes huge gaps in South Seattle.

• “High-barrier offenders”

The council has been generally skeptical of Durkan’s proposal—based on controversial report by former city attorney candidate Scott Lindsay— to expand programs inside the criminal justice system to address people with severe addiction or mental illness who repeatedly commit low-level crimes. Durkan’s plan would expand probation and add funding for several still largely undefined programs such as “case conferencing” (in which cops and prosecutors discuss how to deal with “high-impact” individuals) and a jail-based “connector” program to direct people leaving jail after short stays to shelter and services.

Several proposals from the council would require that the city auditor take a look at how the mayor’s entire “high-barrier offender” plan would impact low-income people and people of color. Public safety committee chair Lorena Gonzalez, who also proposed zeroing out Durkan’s $170,000 proposal to expand probation, said that when she has asked judges what they’re doing to determine whether probation disproportionately harms people of color, “they have been unable to answer that question.” As for the case conferencing and “connector” pilots, Gonzalez said, “we need a concrete, developed plan from the executive and the law department before we agree to just give them the money… in a hope and prayer that they’re going to structure it appropriately.”

Bagshaw, who supports the mayor’s plan, suggested that the city auditor might not have the “expertise” to determine whether the proposal would harm people of color, and said she would prefer to set up a “roundtable” including judges and prosecutors, who generally support the proposal, and “get moving on it.” Gonzalez responded that the mayor’s plan was “admittedly a half-baked idea, and I think if we are serious about meeting some of the public safety and harm reduction strategies we have as a city, then we have to be serious about creating concrete plans with specific outcomes.” Advocates for harm reduction and pre-arrest diversion programs say the proposal simply throws more money at strategies that aren’t working.

In several related items, Gonzalez proposed funding arrest-diversion options for sex workers (who’ve been targeted by recent stings from the Seattle Police Department) and requiring SPD to work on correctly identifying people by race, including Latinx/Hispanic people. Currently, SPD doesn’t consistently track the ethnicity of the people it arrests, making it difficult to determine how Seattle’s criminal justice system impacts Latinx people.

• Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion

As I’ve reported, LEAD—a successful pre-arrest diversion program that provides case management and services to people committing low-level crimes in certain parts of the city—says it needs an additional $4.7 million a year in additional funding to keep up with growing caseloads. (Durkan’s budget essentially held LEAD’s funding steady at previous levels even though the program’s caseloads and geographic reach have been vastly expanded in recent years). The council seems poised to split the baby, partially funding LEAD with $3.5 million in new spending and directing the program’s backers to come up with private funding to pay for the rest.

“I have every bit of faith in Ms. [Lisa] Daugaard [the director of the Public Defender Association, which runs LEAD]  and the rest of us to be picking up the phone and talking to the private sector” to fund the remaining $1.2 million, Bagshaw said. Gonzalez, one of the co-sponsors (along with Kshama Sawant and Like O’Brien O’Brien) of proposals to fund the full $4.7 million with city dollars, said she had some “anxiety” about the restrictions that might apply to the private funding.

Image via Low-Income Housing Institute

• Tiny house villages

Council member Teresa Mosqueda, who’s on maternity leave (so this item was introduced by Bagshaw), proposed adding $900,000 for 100 new “tiny house village” encampment spots, which Bagshaw said she would like to earmark in some way for LEAD participants. This item, which had the support of all seven council members present, was notable mostly because of Gonzalez’ comments criticizing the so-called “Poppe Report,” which (along with a related report from Focus Strategies) suggested that the city has enough funding for homelessness and opposed tiny house villages and other kinds of interim encampments. The city and King County are about to release another series of reports, including one by Focus Strategies, as part of the Regional Action Plan that will inform the planned consolidation of the city and county’s homelessness agencies.

“One of the most unfortunate things that came out of that Poppe report was her absolute expression of disdain for tiny villages, [which] has hurt our city’s efforts to really provide meaningful solutions,” Gonzalez said. “I have really appreciated the fact that as city leadership we have, in a lot of ways, bucked that predisposition or ideology that she expressed in her report and really have committed to the tiny house village concept.”

• The Navigation Team

Durkan’s budget (like last year’s) seeks permanent funding for two new Navigation Team members (out of four added outside the normal budget process this year), both of whom were funded this year with one-time funds. Sawant’s proposal to eliminate the team—the subject of much hand-wringing among right-wing and even mainstream media last month—predictably received no support, while Lisa Herbold’s extension of a proviso that requires the team to report on what it’s doing appears poised to pass. The biggest debate last week was actually over a proposal, from Debora Juarez, to expand the team yet again to include two new members dedicated specifically to her North Seattle district, which Juarez says is overrun with dangerous encampments that need to be removed.

Gonzalez questioned why the city would fund expanding the team in such a geographically specific way (the team currently removes encampments and provides information about available services across the city) when “there’s nothing that prevents the Navigation Team from focusing their efforts on the north end if the need is there.” She added that “it’s really important, having just so quickly expanding the Navigation Team, [to] make sure that it is a model that is meaningfully connecting people to services, not just sending out referrals to people that are not followed through on.” As I reported, just 8 percent of Navigation Team “contacts” actually result in a homeless person going to shelter, and fewer than a third of shelter referrals do, suggesting that—as advocates have argued—the team is mostly engaged in pushing people from place to place, not getting them help.

• “Beacons” for people experiencing homelessness

Council president Bruce Harrell proposed giving $175,000 in city funding to a private company called Samaritan, which created an app that allows people with smartphones to connect with people experiencing homelessness who wear the company’s Bluetooth-equipped “beacons” and decide whether to donate money to organizations on their behalf. The app provides potential donors with information about homeless people whose beacons are within range, including why they became homeless and what they need funding for. The system requires people who want funding not only to wear the trackable beacons but to participate in case management in order to receive money through the program.

The pitch to individual donors is that they know what they’re giving money for and that the person will have to spend it with “safe partners,” rather than, say, on beer or junk food; the pitch to nonprofits is that the beacons will provide them with access to clients who will show up for case management (after all, they won’t get the donations if they don’t). In addition to requiring clients to jump through hoops (and wear trackable software that gives a private company access to information about their where they are and what they’re doing), the company charges its homeless clients $20 an hour for the kind of  “career consulting” that nonprofit agencies provide for free. Only Gonzalez and Sawant declined to sign on as cosponsors of Harrell’s proposal; Herbold wasn’t on the dais for the vote.

Image via Samaritan

• Labor laws

Harrell—apparently acting on the basis of conversations he had with unnamed “minority business owners” who have been “devastated” or even “forced to close” because of the city’s enforcement of worker protections—proposed funding a survey of business owners who have been investigated by the Office of Labor Standards. The survey would be conducted by the Office of Economic Development, which—unlike OLS—exists to promote the interests of local businesses. 

In a bizarre outburst, Harrell referred to OLS as “extremely unprofessional” and suggested that they were overzealously enforcing the city’s labor laws against businesses that had “good-faith disputes” with their employees that could be better resolved through “mediation” than enforcement. (A new council central staffer In recent years, the city has adopted a $15 minimum wage, safeguards against wage theft, sick and safe leave requirements, and protections for domestic and hotel workers, among other worker protections.

“There have been minority-owned businesses that have been literally put out of business or fined heavily without having any understanding that they were violating the laws,” Harrell said. “These are good-faith disputes, not employers that are committing wage theft in the traditional sense.”

Gonzalez, a former labor attorney, responded that city and state labor laws don’t require a business owner to maliciously intend to defraud or mistreat workers; they simply say that if a business breaks the law, they can be held accountable. As for spending $50,000 on a survey of businesses investigated by OLS, Gonzalez said, “I think this is unfortunately a survey that is, in my view, designed to be a bit of a hit piece on the Office of Labor Standards, and I just can’t support providing funding that is so lopsided and with such a “predetermined” outcome.

Bagshaw, Juarez, and Abel Pacheco raised their hands to co-sponsor Harrell’s proposal. In a separate action, Gonzalez proposed adding $1 million to a five-year-old program that provides outreach to small businesses to help them comply with the city’s labor laws; Harrell opposed this plan, which he said would just put more money into OLS’s “inadequate” business training.

• P-Patches

Durkan’s budget includes $3 million in one-time funding from the sugary beverage tax—the subject of significant contention earlier this year—to pay for “land acquisition, garden relocation, and capital infrastructure improvements” for community gardens. Members of the Ballard P-Patch have asked the city for funding to help them buy their garden from the church that owns the property and needs to sell it to fund renovations. However, the sweetened beverage tax is explicitly supposed to fund programs that promote healthy food in parts of the city that are most impacted by the tax—areas that do not include Ballard, which is one of Seattle’s whitest (and one of its wealthier) neighborhoods.

A budget change sponsored by council member Mike O’Brien (who represents Ballard) would redirect all but $500,000 of this funding toward food banks, Fresh Bucks vouchers, and water bottle filling stations at schools, among other programs. The proposal sparked debate last week about who P-Patches serve, with council member Lisa Herbold pointing out that (in general) about half of the people who use P-Patches are renters, and that low-income gardeners tend to use their gardens to supplement their grocery budget.

• Private waterfront shuttle

Pacheco proposed adding $1 million to the budget to keep funding a Downtown Seattle Association-run shuttle between Pioneer Square and Seattle Center that was originally part of the state-funded mitigation for the disruption caused by Alaskan Way Viaduct demolition. With that project wrapping up, the Washington State Department of Transportation will no longer pay for the free service after this year. Pacheco and Bagshaw argued that a waterfront shuttle was a way to “backfill” (in Bagshaw’s word) service that King County Metro was not providing; Gonzelez and Herbold questioned whether the city should be using public dollars to fund a private transit service that did not have to abide by the city’s labor standards and the mandate that public transit has to serve everyone, including people experiencing homelessness who use the shuttle as transit rather than as a tourist shuttle.

“I take issue with creating an equivalency between the public good and subsidization, using taxpayer dollars, of privatized services,” Gonzalez said. “This would effectively release a million dollars of SDOT taxpayer dollars intended for public transit to a for-profit, private entity that provides transit services in a particular corridor.”


4 thoughts on “City Budget Hunger Games: Mercer Megablock Money Grab, Probation Expansion Skeptics, Homelessness, “High-Barrier Offenders,” and More”

  1. the allocation of scarce rights of way is a key issue in the implementation of bike infrastructure in SE Seattle. Rainier and Beacon avenues South and MLK Jr. Way South have high ridership transit routes and intending riders have to go between the buses and the curbs. consider 12th Avenue South at South Jackson Street and how cycle tracks could be provided while also providing a transfer point with bus stops on four corners.

  2. Was it necessary to state the Ballard’s P-Patch is in a White neighborhood? It seems to imply that a P-Patch in a white neighborhood is a bad thing.

    1. The city funds P-Patches through a race and social justice lens, so this is highly relevant information. I’ve belonged to two P-Patches in the south end over the last decade (and have been writing about the program for at least as long), and the disparity in both resources and the purposes for which gardeners use the food they grow are both anecdotally obvious and supported by annual surveys conducted by the P-Patch program.

  3. Dear Erica Barnett, thank you for reporting on the Ballard P-patch request for Sweetened Beverage Tax revenue to purchase their garden property. The gnomes are asking for a $250,000 contribution from the city of Seattle toward the purchase. GROW is asking for $50,000 in relocation assistance for Immaculate p-patch, which is on the grounds of Immaculate Conception Church at 18th and Columbia. Joyce Moty, GROW board member, said in testimony before the October 22, 2019 budget committee that the church property will be put up for sale next year. The remainig $2.7 million is meant to address relocation or purchase of three p-patches–UpGarden on lower Queen Anne, Shiga in the U-District and Republican on Capitol Hill–and fund infrastructure improvements to p-patches.

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