Morning Fizz: Some Good Budget News, a Durkan Departure, and Putting Fare Evasion in Context

1. Last month, Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff scoffed at the suggestion that the regional transit agency should stop sending riders to court over unpaid fines for fare evasion, arguing that efforts by King County Metro to offer alternative dispute resolution options have been 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.

Rogoff’s number is correct—of the 4,039 fare violations Metro recorded in 2019, 403 were resolved (meaning that the person either paid a fine directly to Metro, added money to their ORCA card in lieu of a fine, or used another alternative resolution route), according to Metro’s latest fare violation report, issued last April. However, that statement is missing some important context about the mission and purpose of transit. And it ignores the fact that a 10 percent resolution rate actually represents a significant improvement over the previous resolution rate of just 3 percent under the previous, punitive system, in which all unpaid fines went to court and collections.

Fare enforcement has been a contentious issue for Sound Transit, where failure to provide proof of payment to fare inspection officers can result in a $124 fine plus late fees, damage to credit, and even misdemeanor charges if a rider fails to pay their fine. The agency has agreed to make some changes to its policies, including new uniforms, clearer signage, additional warnings, and lower fines.

But they have resisted adopting alternative resolution options for people who can’t pay, arguing that this concession would reduce revenues as people realized there was no real penalty for nonpayment, raising costs to taxpayers and potentially impacting future capital projects or service. (For perspective, fare evasion cost Sound Transit, on net, around $550,000 last year.)

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The debate over fare evasion is really about the purpose of transit and the mission of transit agencies.

Metro spokesman Jeff Switzer says the agency’s fare enforcement policy isn’t primarily about fare revenue at all. In taking fare enforcement out of the court system and offering alternatives to fines, “Our goal was to decriminalize fare evasion and work to get fare resources into riders’ hands,” while “reducing and minimizing harm to people and not involving law enforcement,” he said. This goal is reflected in Metro’s fare enforcement mission statement: “to help minimize King County Metro Fare Enforcement Program’s contribution to negative outcomes for some of King County Metro’s most vulnerable riders.”

“Our goal was to decriminalize fare evasion and work to get fare resources into riders’ hands,” while “reducing and minimizing harm to people and not involving law enforcement.” — Metro spokesman Jeff Switzer

But even Sound Transit’s more conventional fare enforcement mission—”to understand the impacts of our current program and develop recommendations that provide an equitable and customer-focused experience, including safety for all riders and integrity of decision making, while ensuring strong financial stewardship of taxpayer dollars—is still compatible with adopting a more lenient fare enforcement policy. That’s because in reality, few riders on either system actually fail to pay their fare.

Historically, Metro has set a fare evasion target of no more than 5 percent; in 2019, actual fare evasion on routes where Metro deploys fare enforcement officers averaged 4 percent, down from 5 percent the previous year. If the argument for sending people to court for failure to pay a $3 fare rests on the argument that not doing so will lead to rampant fare evasion, Metro’s example is showing that, so far at least, this worst-case scenario has not come to pass.

2. The city council and Mayor Jenny Durkan got some good budget news for once on Monday, when the city budget office issued a new revenue forecast for 2020 and 2021 that adds $36 million to the city’s general fund in 2020 and $32.5 million in 2021. The CBO attributed the new, higher projections to increased sales and business and occupation (B&O) taxes between July and September, “driven by significant improvement in the national and regional economic forecasts, particularly employment, personal income and personal outlays.”

However, the forecasts notes, those increases will be offset by decreased revenues from other sources such as on-street parking fees, the commercial parking tax, school-zone camera fines, and the short-term rental (Airbnb) tax, which have all fallen short of previous projections or (in the case of school zone fines) disappeared.

Real estate excise taxes are projected to rise both years on the strength of single-family house sales. (More on how housing prices can continue to rise during a recession here.)

Overall, the new forecast could help the council, which is currently working to amend Durkan’s proposed 2021 budget, pay for some of their own priorities (such as immediate financial relief for people facing hardship due to COVID-19) while reducing the need for cuts to Durkan’s proposal.

However, the differences between the council’s and mayor’s priorities are not merely fiscal; as I’ve reported, a majority of the council is skeptical of Durkan’s plan to set aside $100 million for “BIPOC communities” and would prefer to invest in programs to which the city has already committed, like the $30 million that was allocated to equitable investment projects during the sale of the Mercer Megablock property last year.

3. Mayor Durkan’s longtime legislative affairs director, Anthony Auriemma, is leaving the city to take a job as a senior government affairs manager at Starbucks this Friday, PubliCola has learned.

According to a letter from senior deputy mayor Mike Fong provided by the mayor’s office, Durkan’s current director of major initiatives, Kylie Rolf, will take over the position on an interim basis. The legislative affairs director serves as a liaison between the mayor and the city council—working the phones, serving as a buffer, and communicating the mayor’s position during negotiations over legislation, appointments, and city budgets—like the one the council is hammering out now. Auriemma’s last day is this Friday, November 6.

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