As Homelessness Contracts Leave the City, Seattle Still Wants a Say In How Its Money Gets Spent

Councilmember Andrew Lewis
Councilmember Andrew Lewis

 

By Erica C. Barnett

At the end of 2021, the city of Seattle will cede direct control over all its existing homeless service contracts to the King County Regional Homeless Authority. But the city’s 2022 budget deliberations have made one thing clear: The city still expects to have a direct hand in how the money it provides to the authority gets spent, down to the line-item level of earmarking funds for specific purposes.

The city could send the new authority up to $150 million next year, including both funding for existing contracts (which the authority will retain, unchanged, in 2022) and for extras requested by city council members and the KCRHA itself.  Of about $40 million city council members have proposed adding to the city’s budget for homeless services next year, about $12 million would expand or extend existing programs or fund new priorities, all through what the budget describes as “contracts” between the Human Services Department and the KCRHA, which is independent from the city.

For example, three budget amendments from homelessness committee chair Andrew Lewis would provide a total of $1.5 million for YouthCare, which serves youth and young adults, to provide COVID pay and time off for workers and continue or expand programs like a youth shelter relocated to a larger location during COVID and a barista training program. Another amendment, by Councilmember Dan Strauss, would expand funding for the city’s RV outreach and parking ticket mitigation program, which Durkan, for the second year in a row, has proposed eliminating.

A spokeswoman for the KCRHA, Anne Martens, said that any money the council adds through the city’s budget process “will be included in our service agreement with the City” but referred more detailed questions about how the contracts would work to HSD. According a spokesman for HSD, the contracts will be part of a “master services agreement” between the homelessness authority and the city, similar to an existing agreement between the city and county for public health services. 

Councilmember Andrew Lewis acknowledged that the city has few options to require the authority to spend money in a specific way, since the KCRHA is not part of the city, beyond passing a budget restriction called a proviso stipulating that the city won’t provide funding unless it goes to a specific purpose.

In addition to the amendments council members initiated on their own, the authority is asking for $27.6 million to fund a new high-acuity shelter for people living with serious physical and behavioral health challenges downtown, peer navigators to help unhoused access shelter and services, and funding for administrative costs that the KCRHA didn’t include in its initial budget.

Lewis, who sits on the regional authority’s governing board, acknowledged that the city has few options to require the authority to spend money in a specific way, since the KCRHA is not part of the city, beyond passing a budget restriction called a proviso stipulating that the city won’t provide funding unless it goes to a specific purpose. Councilmember Kshama Sawant has proposed just such a proviso on $9 million in funding for the authority, which, under her amendment, could only fund new and existing tiny house villages, a shelter type that KCRHA CEO Marc Dones has frequently criticized.

In recent years, the council has used provisos to try to prevent Mayor Jenny Durkan from repurposing funds for her own budget priorities, with mixed success.

Lewis said he isn’t too worried about the authority using city funds for a purpose the city didn’t intend. “I don’t really anticipate that, at this point, being an issue,” he said. However, if the KCRHA wanted to reallocate funds the city had earmarked and spend them on another purpose, Lewis added, they would need approval from the authority’s governing board, which includes three representatives from the city itself, plus the King County Executive.

Under the KCRHA’s charter, an implementation board of experts is responsible for writing the authority’s annual budget, but a governing board made up mostly of elected officials, including three from Seattle plus the King County Executive, can veto or amend the budget. “The governing board retains the power to veto the budget or send it back to the implementation board to work on some areas if the governing board isn’t satisfied with the initial budget,” Lewis said. “Those are the controls right now.”

Two years ago, when the city was debating the structure of the new authority, some elected officials expressed concern that this two-board structure would give too much power to politicians and not enough to subject-matter experts and people with lived experience of homelessness. The fact that the authority’s budget depends so heavily on Seattle is the fallout from another argument Seattle essentially lost: In response to concerns about taxation from suburban cities, the KCRHA is prohibited from raising any money on its own behalf. The KCRHA is funded entirely by the city of Seattle and King County; suburban cities, which hold several positions on the governing board, contribute nothing financially to the agency.

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