Afternoon Fizz, Part 2: Durkan Explains Odd Votes, City Funds Alternatives to Policing

The details of Sound Transit’s plan to lower fares on its Sounder commuter trains, which Mayor Jenny Durkan cast the lone vote against. 

1. Sound Transit’s full board voted unanimously on Thursday to approve a resolution updating the agency’s fare enforcement policies while keeping fare enforcement squarely within the courts and criminal justice system, after a dramatic discussion one week earlier, which PubliCola covered most recently here

Durkan, along with the rest of the board, voted for the fare enforcement motion, after noting that it was only a first step toward decriminalizing fare nonpayment entirely. 

Oddly, Durkan made exactly the opposite argument after casting the lone “no” vote on a proposal to lower fares for low-income, disabled, and elderly Sounder riders. Initially, Durkan cast the vote without comment, but revisited it several minutes later, saying that she wanted to clear up any confusion about why she voted against the fare reduction. (Her staff pays close attention to Twitter). “The reason I voted against that,” she said, “is, I believe that people should have free transit and not pay anything, and we should follow [the lead of] Seattle and give students and low-income people” access to free transit passes.

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Durkan has not proposed such a measure in her three years on the Sound Transit board. The reasoning Durkan gave for her vote also contradicts her own previous vote in favor of lowering fares on more widely used Sound Transit Express buses, as well as her vote in favor of the fare enforcement resolution just moments earlier, which she justified by saying, essentially, that the perfect should not be the enemy of the good.

Contacted after the vote, mayoral spokeswoman Kelsey Nyland said, “The Mayor believes that Sound Transit has the infrastructure and ability to make transit free for youth, low-income, older, and disabled riders, and she will continue to vote according to that belief and principle.”

2. During the same meeting, Durkan voted against an amendment to Sound Transit’s 2021 legislative agenda calling on legislators to “adopt legislation to base vehicle taxes on a more accurate and current value of a vehicle” for purposes of determining the Motor Vehicle Excise tax on which Sound Transit relies. Sound Transit’s valuation schedule was the subject of a lawsuit by vehicle owners who believe it unfairly overvalues more expensive, late-model used cars.

Durkan did not give the depreciation schedule as her reason for voting against the amendment—which county executive Dow Constantine voted for. Instead, she said she believes the MVET itself is inherently “regressive,” because many low-income people have no choice but to drive long distances to get to work, including those who commute to Sound Transit’s park and ride lots.

This claim that taxes on driving are inherently regressive has been made for decades, usually by people who have not owned a cheap used car for many years, if ever. Sound Transit’s valuation schedule may overvalue late-model used cars—the kind people buy for $30,000 at a dealer, for example—but it also appears to undervalue the older used cars that low-income people tend to actually drive. In this sense, it is actually a progressive tax—people who can afford to buy almost-new cars pay more, and those who buy 20-year-old cars for cash pay less. 

3. On Friday morning, the Seattle Office for Civil Rights (OCR) announced $1 million in grants for community organizations to “develop alternatives to and address the harms created by incarceration, policing, and other parts of the criminal legal system.”

The first grant recipient is the Collective Power and Capacity Building Coalition, which includes four well-established Black-led nonprofits: Choose 180, Community Passageways, Collective Justice and Creative Justice. All four have additional contracts with HSD to provide services ranging from mentorship and felony diversion to a crisis response team that specializes in gang-related shootings in South Seattle and the Central District. The coalition will use the OCR grant to expand their staff and programming, including a restorative justice program for LGBT/BIPOC youth managed collectively by all four nonprofits.

The second recipient is the Seattle branch of Brothers United in Leadership Development (BUILD), which has never held a city contract. The group, which has been active in South Seattle and South King County since 2013, describes itself as “a grassroots organization with the vision that Black men are empowered leaders and mentors who make positive change in our community by instilling pride, hope, perseverance in Black men.”

Earlier this year, BUILD received funding from the Seattle Foundation to create and facilitate safe spaces and healing circles for Black men and boys in Kent and South Seattle; the OCR grant will fund roughly the same work. While BUILD has kept a lower profile than  the members of the Collective Power and Capacity Building Coalition, some members of its leadership team work closely with the coalition, including Willard Jimerson, a facilitator for King County Public Health’s Zero Youth Detention program.

OCR chose the two groups through the office’s Collaborative Grantmaking program, in which a group of community volunteers review grant applications and issue recommendations to OCR. According to a press release from OCR, the group included several “anti-racist organizers who identify as BIPOC, some of whom also work for non-profit organizations or local government agencies”; PubliCola has asked OCR for a list of members.

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