By Erica C. Barnett
On Friday, after a half-hour of discussion, the governing board of the King County Regional Homelessness Authority voted unanimously to move forward with a 2023 agency budget that would require Seattle and King County to come up with $209 million next year to fund the authority—$90 million more than its current “base” budget of $119 million.
Seattle, which provides about 60 percent of the authority’s direct local funding, just received a six-year budget forecast that includes cascading budget shortfalls after next year, including projected operating deficits of $146 million in 2024 and 2025. Seattle’s budget planners are currently discussing ways to reduce such shortfalls in the future, through better long-term financial planning, reducing the number of times departments can change their adopted budgets throughout the year, and making the budgeting process more transparent.
Seattle and the county are the only local funding sources for the regional authority, which also receives some federal funds, including short-term COVID dollars the authority is using to fund some ongoing programs. The Sound Cities Association, representing nearly 40 suburban cities, has voting representatives on the authority’s implementation and governing boards but does not contribute financially to the authority. The city and county agreed to this financial and power imbalance in 2019, when they signed off on a heavily amended agreement that also barred the authority itself from ever raising revenue or issuing debt to pay for homelessness programs.
“My constituents and my stakeholders, in my district and also in my city, are tired of being put in the position where we have to be the ones to say no to aspirational budgets and aspirational regional plans.”—Seattle City Councilmember Andrew Lewis
Seattle City Councilmembers Lisa Herbold and Andrew Lewis, who sit on the governing board, tried to pass an amendment to the budget clarifying that the proposal was unrealistic without additional funding and “that without such additional funding, the parties to KCRHA’s interlocal agreement will need to make adjustments to reduce” the proposal. The amendment, sponsored by Lewis, also asked the authority to list new spending requests in order of priority “when expenditures are anticipated to exceed current resources” in the future.
After representatives from suburban cities pushed back on the budget amendment—including Redmond Mayor Angela Birney, who said statements about funding required a “broader conversation—Lewis downgraded it to a nonbinding resolution, which passed. But Lewis said that in the future, the authority needs to stop sending the city and county budgets that it knows are unaffordable.
“My constituents and my stakeholders, in my district and also in my city, are tired of being put in the position where we have to be the ones to say no to aspirational budgets and aspirational regional plans,” Lewis said. “If we’re going to pass a budget we know we have no realistic ability to pay for, it puts the city in the position where we draw regional criticism and criticism from the media for not fully funding requests that we were never in a realistic position to be able to do on our own.”
The KCRHA’s budget request includes funding for safe parking spaces for up to 130 vehicles; a wage supplement for nonprofit homeless service providers; a new “high-acuity shelter” serving up to 55 people with significant behavioral and physical health needs; and “emergency housing,” a kind of intermediate housing between shelter and permanent housing, for up to 345 people.
Mayor Bruce Harrell promised to “identify” 1,000 new shelter or housing beds in the first six months of his term, plus an additional 1,000 beds by the end of the year. On Tuesday, he plans to make an announcement about progress toward that goal, which could include housing and shelter that was already in progress before he took office. Harrell will also unveil a new “dashboard” that could include the location of encampments in Seattle—an idea that many homeless advocates oppose, because they worry it will open unsheltered people up to additional harassment.