Homelessness Authority Budget Debate Raises Old Questions About Power of Elected Officials

Chart of King County Regional Homelessness Authority budget scheduleBy Erica C. Barnett

The King County Regional Homelessness Authority agreed earlier this month to a last-minute schedule change that will give its governing board, which includes elected officials from across the county, 12 days to look at its proposed 2023 budget before it moves forward to Seattle and King County budget writers next month. The changes came after several governing board members raised questions about a proposed timeline that gave the governing board no direct say in the budget process.

Originally, the authority planned to have its implementation board approve the budget, and transmit it to the city of Seattle and King County—the KCRHA’s two funders—in mid-April. This board, which includes members of the Lived Experience Coalition and homeless advocates, is authorized to consider the proposed annual budget and raise questions or ask for changes.

The authority later pushed that timeline up to mid-May, with approval by the governing board in June. Under either schedule, the implementation board would have a very short period to debate or “develop and recommend” the budget—one of its main duties under the agreement that established the KCRHA—and the governing board would have had to approve (essentially rubber-stamp) the budget after it went to the city and county, the two entities that actually fund the authority.

Redmond Mayor Angela Birney and Auburn Mayor Nancy Backus, both on the governing board, raised concerns about the schedule; because neither city contributes to the KCHRA’s funding, the governing board meeting will be their only formal opportunity to weigh in the budget. Approving or amending the budget is “the only job that we have,” Backus said at a recent governing board meeting, “and so allowing us time to provide adequate attention to the documentation that we receive is critical.”

Elected leaders at the county and suburban cities pushed for more power and won that battle. Now many of those same leaders, sitting the governing board itself, want to exercise their authority—as do Seattle officials who were initially on the opposite side of this debate.

Seattle City Councilmember Lisa Herbold also argued the governing board should get more time to review the budget before forwarding it to the city and county for approval. “It seems like we should get the recommended budget earlier, so that we have some time to have a real discussion … and have the chance to ask questions and understand the strategies and outcomes that the budget will be supporting so that we can best champion the budget request when it comes time” to fund the authority through the city’s budget process in the fall, Herbold said.

The council, which approved joining the authority on an 8-1 vote in 2019, originally wanted to give the governing board significantly less power than it now has—preferring an earlier proposal for structuring the authority, drafted largely by current KCRHA director Marc Dones in their role as director of a consulting firm called the National Innovation Service, that would have essentially required the governing board  to rubber-stamp decisions made by a separate “steering committee” made up of experts on homelessness. The idea behind the original proposed structure was to “insulate” the authority from political influence by elected officials.

Elected leaders at the county and suburban cities pushed for more power and won that battle. Now many of those same leaders, sitting the governing board itself, want to exercise their authority—as do Seattle officials who were initially on the opposite side of this debate.

One thing that has changed since 2019 that could be contributing to that impulse is that the KCRHA’s first budget did not go smoothly. Last year, some council members felt blindsided by the KCRHA’s request for $26 million in additional funding to build a new downtown shelter for high-acuity clients and hire 69 specialized case managers called peer navigators. Although Seattle increased its contribution to the KCRHA substantially—to around $100 million—the council declined to fully fund the new requests, asking the authority to come back with a more detailed plan for them to consider. Instead, the KCRHA got funding from private companies for the peer navigators, and the county announced it was funding a high-acuity shelter in SoDo earlier this year.

3 thoughts on “Homelessness Authority Budget Debate Raises Old Questions About Power of Elected Officials”

  1. Is this Seattle Process in action, or inaction? I’ve been impressed with Marc Dones’ approach early on, having listened to him in interviews several times. That he recommended a design for the KCRHA budget that relied on experts in homelessness- while he was a consultant and not vying for the job- makes sense.

    The part where the mayors of non-contributing cities now want skin in the game despite their unwillingness to support a collaborative effort that would focus on the areas with the biggest issues, sure sounds like both Seattle Process and politics over good policy.

    Between Frank Chopp, Sharon Lee, and Danny Westneat, I see Dones’ getting the “you’re not from here” treatment. Welcome to the Process, Mx. Dones’.

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