Morning Fizz: Downtown Hotel May House Homeless; Mayor Bullish on Homeless Agency Hiring; a Look Back at Pedersen’s Provisos

1. PubliCola has learned that the city is in conversation with the downtown Executive Pacific Hotel to provide temporary housing to hundreds of unsheltered Seattle residents using federal COVID relief dollars. The hotel is one of at least two in or near downtown Seattle that the city hopes will serve as way stations between homelessness and permanent housing. The city has pledged to fund as many as 300 hotel rooms for 10 months; the plan is to move people quickly from living on the street to either permanent supportive housing or market-rate apartments, using temporary “rapid rehousing” subsidies.

Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office would not confirm that the Executive Pacific, which has 155 rooms, is under consideration for the program. “The City is in negotiations with a number of hotels and it would be premature to announce any possible locations as that may impact those ongoing negotiations,” Durkan’s communications director, Kamaria Hightower, said. 

The city contracted with the Executive Pacific early in the pandemic to provide rooms for first responders. As PubliCola reported, most of those rooms remained vacant while shelters continued to operate at full or nearly-full capacity.

2. At a meeting of the King County Regional Homelessness Authority’s governing board last week, representatives from the Hawkins Company, a recruiting firm hired to help identify a director for the new agency, said they they expect to start “preliminary candidate screening” by early December, with a goal of narrowing the list down to between 5 and 8 candidates by the end of the year. The official application period ends in less than two weeks, on December 4.

Given the high qualifications for the position, and the challenges of running a joint city-county homelessness agency with dozens of constituent cities with competing views about homelessness, it seems likely that the Hawkins Group could face some challenges in recruiting 5 to 8 fully qualified candidates for the position. Since the city of Seattle and King County itself are the most prominent partners in the new authority, I reached out to the offices of Mayor Durkan and County Executive Dow Constantine for comment.

“We are confident The Hawkins Company will present an initial pool of five to eight qualified candidates.”—Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office

Constantine’s office did not respond. Hightower, speaking for Durkan’s office, said the mayor is “confident The Hawkins Company will present an initial pool of five to eight qualified candidates” and that Hawkins is “well on their way to the goal.” Hightower noted that Hawkins recruited the executive director for the LA Homeless Services Authority, and reminded me the “the Mayor is part of a group of decision-makers” at the county authority. However, Durkan and Constantine, as the executives of the county’s largest city (and the biggest financial contributor to the authority) and the county itself, are indisputably the most prominent of those decision makers.

3. Throughout the budget process that wraps up this afternoon, freshman city council member Alex Pedersen has promoted an anti-development agenda that will be familiar to anyone who paid attention to his 2019 campaign. And although most of the slow-growth amendments, provisos, and statements of legislative intent Pedersen proposed this year didn’t pass, it’s worth taking a look at them together to imagine what their impact would have been if they had. Collectively, Pedersen’s proposals would have placed significant new process barriers in the way of housing in Seattle, including new reporting requirements, new fees, and new regulations making it harder for land owners to remove trees on private property. 

Here are just a few of the land-use amendments Pedersen proposed as part of this year’s budget process. Except where noted, these measures did not make it into the final budget. Continue reading “Morning Fizz: Downtown Hotel May House Homeless; Mayor Bullish on Homeless Agency Hiring; a Look Back at Pedersen’s Provisos”

Mysterious Lobbying Group Pushes Out Misleading Messages on Police Defunding

Change Washington’s website includes this image of former police chief Carmen Best and current fire chief Harold Scoggins surrounded by members of their respective forces. PubliCola has asked whether Scoggins, who has stayed out of the police defunding debate, gave Change Washington permission to use his image for lobbying purposes.

By Erica C. Barnett

This week, Change Washington—a lobbying group established by former Bellevue-area state senator Rodney Tom, along with several Republican donors and a former Zillow executive—sent out an email blast urging recipients to “help us spread the word” about the Seattle City Council’s “dangerous” plan “to weaken our police force without having a backup plan in place.” The call to action is featured on a new Change Washington website called “You Call, They Respond” that specifically targets the Seattle City Council.

Yesterday, the council voted 7-2 against a proposal by council member Kshama Sawant that would halt all police hiring and recruitment in the city. Opponents, including former civil rights attorney (and now council president) Lorena González, argued that a total hiring freeze would lead interim police chief Adrian Diaz to move more detectives in specialty units onto patrol, decimating the department’s ability to investigate domestic violence, elder abuse, and other crimes against vulnerable people. (Earlier this year, as PubliCola reported, Diaz moved 100 detectives onto active patrol duty, boosting the number of officers responding to 911 calls). The police department will shrink this year by about 20 percent, mostly due to officer attrition.

Nonetheless, the “You Call, They Respond” website claims repeatedly that the council is still considering cuts that would “decimate the department’s ability to respond timely and effectively when you need police.” In addition to soliciting donations for Change Washington, the 501(c)4 nonprofit’s call to action includes an email form pre-filled with one of about a half-dozen potential messages. Options include:

I am terrified. Even though the number of incidents and calls for service requiring a police response has more than doubled in the past decade, the total number of police officers will decline under Council’s planned budget. Please throw us a lifeline. Don’t make Seattle less safe. My neighborhood won’t survive.

I feel like you have lost sight of the fact the calls for service in Seattle already include your friends and neighbors who are experiencing either a very bad day or a horrific one. Shame on you. Please work to make Seattle safer. Abandon your plan to cut police by 50%.

Why are you flying blind on issues of policing? Look at the data.  94% of dispatched police responses in 2019 were either Priority 1 (lights and sirens, threat to life), Priority 2 (threat of escalation/harm if help does not arrive soon) or Priority 3 (requiring prompt assistance for a waiting victim). And you want to cut the police force by 50? You have lost touch with reality!

Several claims on the site are misleading or inaccurate. For example, the number of police responding to 911 calls has remained steady or increased over the past two years, even before the police chief moved 100 detectives onto patrol. Since the move, the number of 911 responders has been significantly higher than at any time in the previous year.

According to information compiled by city council central staff, SPD had 536 911 responders in January of 2019. That number was 544 in April, 538 in August, 537 in December, and 563 in April and August. In September, after the transfer, that number increased to 668. During that same period, between January 2019 and September 2020, the number of officers on patrol has increased from 674 to 694 (not “roughly 600,” as one of the calls to action claims).

The fact that most calls are Priority 1, 2, or 3 is not particularly revealing. Although the priority list goes all the way up to 9, the top three priorities account for 97 percent of the time officers spend responding to calls, according to SPD data. Priority 4, which accounts for 1 percent of officer response time, includes things like noise complaints and found property; Priority 5 calls, which make up the remaining 2 percent, include issues such as stolen license plates and injured animals.

It’s unclear who, if anyone, is on Change Washington’s payroll, how much money they’ve raised, or what kind of lobbying-related expenses they’ve accrued. Currently, the city does not require “grassroots lobbyists”—groups that spend money to influence legislation or policy by influencing and mobilizing members of the public—to register as lobbyists or report their funding sources and expenditures.

However, legislation the council will take up later this year could provide more transparency into who’s funding and working for the group. The legislation, which the council will take up December 8, would require grassroots lobbyists to reveal who is funding them, who they are attempting to influence, and what legislation they are seeking to pass, kill, or change. The bill would require detailed monthly reporting, similar to what is already required of people who lobby the city council or mayor directly. It would also expand the definition of “lobbying” to include direct attempts to influence non-elected city staffers.

Change Washington did not immediately respond to an email sent early Friday afternoon requesting information about their funding sources and the information included on the “You Call, They Respond” website. According to Change Washington’s website, “we think there’s room in the political center to find common ground for common sense, data driven governance that moves Seattle and the state forward.” That mission statement fits with the center-right goals of the mostly Republican “Majority Coalition Caucus” Tom formed in the state senate the early 2010s, but it’s pretty far out of step with the current Seattle City Council, which includes just one member, Alex Pedersen, who has consistently raised alarms about cutting SPD’s budget.

Domestic Violence Intervention Project Experiments with Restorative Justice for A Stigmatized Group

Image via seattle.gov.

By Paul Kiefer

In early November, in a hallway on the tenth floor of the Seattle Justice Center, a middle-aged man in an untucked polo shirt waited for his name to be called. In the courtroom next to him, Seattle Municipal Court Judge Adam Eisenberg was wrapping up a string of DUI probation hearings; in the hallway, defense attorneys mingled with anxious probationers, none of whom looked pleased to be there on a Monday afternoon.

Judge Eisenberg spoke to the DUI defendants in a firm, measured tone. “We’re very excited that you’ll be going to law school,” he told a young man who turned up in a tidy suit, “but it’s also a little alarming that you’re here.”

But the judge’s demeanor softened when the man in the polo shirt walked through the courtroom’s double doors and took his place at the defendant’s table. “How are you feeling? How is everything going?” he asked. Immediately, the interaction felt far more personal than the hearings that preceded it.

The man is one of roughly 60 participants in the court’s Domestic Violence Intervention Program (DVIP), a treatment program for defendants with misdemeanor domestic violence convictions that provides court monitoring, group and individual counseling, and referrals to substance abuse or mental health treatment providers as necessary. The program, which is still in its pilot stage, has been operating with little publicity or fanfare since June 2018. However, with alternatives to policing and incarceration front-and-center in Seattle’s political discourse, DVIP has taken on new significance as one of several promising experimental public safety programs in the city.

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If you enjoy the work we do here at PubliCola, please help us KEEP IT GOING by donating a few bucks a month or making a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by check at P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104. We’re truly grateful for your support.

Unlike people facing charges for misdemeanors like shoplifting or drug possession, domestic violence defendants haven’t received much attention—or sympathy—in recent discussions of alternatives to policing and incarceration. The belief that domestic abusers are best held accountable through probation or incarceration has not disappeared, but the shift towards a rehabilitative approach is relatively widespread. And while domestic violence offender treatment programs have existed for decades in the United States, until the past decade, most of those programs treated domestic abusers as fundamentally different from other criminal defendants.

“For a long time, domestic violence was siloed,” said Tara Richards, a professor of criminology at the University of Nebraska at Omaha who is leading an independent review of Seattle’s DVIP. Domestic abusers, she said, were typically treated as unique among violent offenders; as a consequence, they rarely received attention in conversations about rehabilitation. Continue reading “Domestic Violence Intervention Project Experiments with Restorative Justice for A Stigmatized Group”

Morning Fizz: City Will Repair West Seattle Bridge, Won’t Earmark License Fee for Bridge Maintenance

Image via City of Seattle

1. This morning, Mayor Jenny Durkan announced that the city will repair, rather than replace, the West Seattle Bridge.

According to the Seattle Department of Transportation, repairing the bridge will cost around $47 million, plus an additional $50 million for “traffic mitigation” and ongoing maintenance of several hundred thousand dollars a year. Rebuilding the bridge would have cost between $310 million and $522 million, according to the city’s estimate.

The decision to repair the bridge doesn’t mean the city won’t have to replace it eventually. Instead, the repairs could extend the useful life of the bridge by up to 40 years—essentially, the length of time the bridge was expected to last until city crews discovered significant cracks in the structure and took the bridge out of commission earlier this year.

There is a possibility that the bridge could fail sooner than that—about 5 percent, according to a cost-benefit analysis by the engineering firm WSP that the city released last month. (For a detailed look at that analysis, which also includes higher long-term estimates that “monetize” certain risk factors and include inflation-adjusted maintenance costs over the remaining life of the bridge, I recommend Mike Lindblom’s October 20 piece in the Seattle Times.) SDOT director Sam Zimbabwe said Tuesday that SDOT’s own experts “anticipate that we can get 15 years out of the bridge,” but added, “We can’t give a date certain on the point when the repairs will stop working.”

Durkan said Wednesday that she had been leaning toward replacing the bridge, but that a realistic timeline for what SDOT calls the “rapid replacement” option—”perhaps five years,” once time for environmental review and permitting is factored in—was just too long. “It became clear that the amount of money and the time it would take were not feasible options,” Durkan said. The city believes they can repair the bridge by mid-2022. Maintaining a repaired bridge will cost significantly more than maintaining a brand-new one, because engineers will have to inspect the bridge frequently to make sure that it isn’t showing signs of failure.

“It makes no sense to build a bridge that does only one thing… so I’m hoping to have a conversation with our colleagues at Sound Transit to see if the city can work with them to build a joint crossing for the bridge that they are going to build.”—Mayor Jenny Durkan

Meanwhile, Sound Transit still plans to build its own light rail bridge connecting West Seattle to downtown parallel to the existing bridge. Durkan, who sits on the Sound Transit board, suggested that the new bridge should include bike lanes and sidewalks for pedestrians. “It makes no sense to build a bridge that does only one thing,” Durkan said. “I think we need more transit capacity, more pedestrian capacity, and more bike capacity, so I’m hoping to have a conversation with our colleagues at Sound Transit to see if the city can work with them to build a joint crossing for the bridge that they are going to build.”

Image via WSP

2. While Durkan and SDOT staffers were discussing the West Seattle bridge with press yesterday, West Seattle’s representative on the city council, Lisa Herbold, was making the case for a proposal she co-sponsored, along with Alex Pedersen and Andrew Lewis, to use the proceeds from a $20 increase in the city’s vehicle license fee to pay for bridge maintenance, including on the West Seattle Bridge.

The vehicle license fee moved forward to a final vote on Wednesday, but it won’t be dedicated to bridges; instead, under a substitute offered by council president Lorena González, the city will adopt a spending plan for the proceeds from the fee— around $3.6 million next year, and $7.2 million a year after that—after a process to identify stakeholder priorities.

“I support a $20 increase to the vehicle license fee because I believe it is necessary to support ongoing operations of our city’s transit services and the maintenance of our transportation infrastructure and networks,” González said. “I do feel, however, that more work and stakeholder engagement must be done before we can decide how to appropriate this additional revenue.”

Herbold countered that the bridge maintenance proposal was an attempt to address problems identified last year by the city auditor, who found that “the City is not spending enough to keep its bridges in good condition and avoid costly future repairs,” particularly given the high number of bridges that are near the end of their useful lifespan. The city spends about $6.6 million each year on bridge maintenance, the audit found—”far below SDOT’s most conservative estimate of what is needed—$34 million.”

Under the plan adopted Tuesday and headed to final approval next week, the city will hold a three-month process to get input from stakeholders on how to spend the $20 fee, and adopt a plan by the middle of next year.

3. Next year’s King County budget will be almost 7 percent smaller than in 2020, thanks to cuts that fell heavily on the Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention (DAJD) and the King County Sheriff’s Office. The council opted for slightly smaller cuts to both departments’ budgets than County Executive Dow Constantine proposed in September: instead of an $8 million cut to the sheriff’s office, the council only cut around $6 million, amounting to less than 2 percent of the department’s 2019-2020 budget; the cut to the DAJD’s budget likewise totaled less than two percent of its budget.

The council also added some funding for the sheriff’s office, including $175,000 for emphasis patrols outside the county courthouse on 3rd Avenue, where the Seattle Police Department has also targeted special patrols in the past.

The largest portion of the cut to the sheriff’s budget is $4.6 million in marijuana tax revenue that the council voted to redirect toward anti-marijuana programming for youth and programs that help clear marijuana convictions from clients’ records. When Constantine proposed shifting marijuana tax revenue away from the sheriff’s office in September, Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht publicly claimed that the move would cost the county as many as 30 officers, largely affecting residents of unincorporated King County. KCSO did not respond to PubliCola’s request for comment.

However, the council also added some funding for the sheriff’s office, including $175,000 for emphasis patrols outside the county courthouse on 3rd Avenue, where the Seattle Police Department has also targeted special patrols in the past. Several of the council members who voted to provide funding for the patrols expressed hesitation about their votes; when casting her vote in support, Council Chair Claudia Balducci commented that the county will eventually need to “back off and let Seattle patrol Seattle’s streets.”

The council’s budget package also included an array of provisos (spending restrictions) put forward by council members Girmay Zahilay and Dembowski intended to lay out a roadmap for downsizing the county’s law enforcement and detention operations. The provisos included directives for Constantine to assemble reports on the county’s juvenile detention center, fare enforcement officers, and school resource officers, and to provide the council with a plan to meet the goal of zero youth detention set by Constantine himself in July.

Black Brilliance Project Outlines Ambitious Public Safety Agenda That Includes $1 Billion Land Acquisition Fund

By Paul Kiefer

As the Seattle City Council wrapped up their 2021 budget deliberations, representatives from King County Equity Now’s (KCEN) Black Brilliance research Project held a press conference on Monday afternoon to announce an ambitious slate of potential city investments and social programming aimed at replacing police and improving community safety in Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) communities.

The Black Brilliance Project, which KCEN announced in September, encompasses the preliminary research for next year’s proposed public safety-oriented participatory budgeting process. The project will be funded through a $3 million grant to the Freedom Project, which will subcontract with KCEN; the city has not yet finalized and published the contract.

The council is poised to adopt a 2021 city budget that allocates $30 million to participatory budgeting, and programs identified through that process, next year, including $18 million reallocated from Mayor Jenny Durkan’s proposed $100 million Equitable Communities Initiative.

Despite the lack of a finalized contract, KCEN research director Shaun Glaze said the organization has already fielded nine research teams to conduct interviews, surveys and community meetings to assemble a list of priorities for public safety spending. Based on the presentations on Monday, the research teams are using a broad definition of public safety—one that encompasses secure housing and land ownership, physical and psychiatric health care, and employment, in addition to emergency response services and crisis management.

Some of the concepts announced Monday include a proposal $2 million in “paid employment and mentorship opportunities” for Black youth, which could include positions for youth on advisory committees for city departments; a “Seattle Equitable Internet Initiative,” which Glaze described as a project to improve and expand internet access “city- and countywide”; and a $1 billion “anti-gentrification land acquisition fund to support the redevelopment of a Black cultural core in the Central District, including both housing and social services.

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If you enjoy the work we do here at PubliCola, please help us KEEP IT GOING by donating a few bucks a month or making a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by check at P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104. We’re truly grateful for your support.

Glaze said KCEN hasn’t identified a specific revenue stream for the $1 billion—an amount equivalent to two-thirds of the city’s general fund budget, and nearly one-third larger than the city’s budget for public safety.

The members of the Black Brilliance Project team also presented several more immediate public safety-related proposals, largely centered on emergency response teams and neighborhood-based community safety “hubs” in places like South Seattle and Aurora Avenue North. These hubs, Glaze explained, would require the cooperation of volunteers and nonprofits to provide food, COVID-19 testing, internet access and other essential services on a neighborhood scale. “While this doesn’t mean that every neighborhood would get its own hub,” they said, “it does mean that we are looking to build and fortify existing support networks.”

Continue reading “Black Brilliance Project Outlines Ambitious Public Safety Agenda That Includes $1 Billion Land Acquisition Fund”

Lisa Herbold: Paying for Bridge Maintenance Benefits Everyone Who Uses Seattle’s Streets

By Lisa Herbold

Seattle is a city of hills and water; thus we are also a city of bridges. Our bridges are critical for mobility and both the local and regional economy.  Bridges are also critical transit infrastructure. That’s why I, along with Councilmembers Alex Pedersen and Andrew Lewis, have introduced legislation, along with a companion budget action for 2021, that would create a new $20 vehicle license fee (VLF) to pay for critical bridge maintenance throughout the city. The fee, if it’s approved by the Council this week, will be added to the existing $20 fee that funds additional Metro bus hours through the Seattle Transportation Benefit District.

The closure of the West Seattle Bridge on March 23 placed Seattle’s dependence on its bridges in stark relief. Every person and business in West Seattle, or anyone going to West Seattle, has felt the impact of this closure. Before it was closed, the West Seattle Bridge carried 17,000 daily transit riders on 13 routes making 900 daily trips. Two of these routes—the RapidRide C Line and Route 120—were among the top 10 routes for ridership in all of King County.

But the West Seattle Bridge is hardly the only vulnerable bridge in Seattle; for decades, funding for critical maintenance has fallen short, allowing the city’s bridges to fall into further and further disrepair. In September, the City Auditor released an audit, requested by Councilmember Pedersen, that focused on 77 bridges owned and operated by the Seattle Department of Transportation. That audit reported that bridge funding is well below the minimum annual $34 million level needed for the long-term health of this critical infrastructure.

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The audit notes the overall condition of SDOT’s bridges has declined during the last decade and that Seattle is “not spending enough on the upkeep and preservation of its bridges, and risks becoming out of compliance with federal regulations.” This is, unfortunately, consistent with previous findings on the state of Seattle’s bridges, including an SDOT report from 2013 that found that 43 of the city’s bridges were “functionally obsolete,” and suggested that the city had a bridge maintenance backlog of nearly $2 billion.

We must address this underinvestment and protect our Frequent Transit Network, which includes all routes that operate with frequencies of 15 minutes or less for most of the day. Continue reading “Lisa Herbold: Paying for Bridge Maintenance Benefits Everyone Who Uses Seattle’s Streets”

The C Is for Crank: Buried in the Budget, Signs of Ongoing Council-Mayor Mistrust

Although Mayor Jenny Durkan’s conciliatory statements toward the city council about their amended 2021 budget—which, you’ll recall, reduces her plan to set aside $100 million for future spending “for BIPOC communities” by 70 percent —mark an improvement from last summer’s low-water mark in mayor-council relations, two under-the-radar budget details may reveal a more lasting lack of trust between the branches.

Every year, the city council issues a number of budget provisos—restrictions on spending that require executive departments to meet certain conditions before the legislative branch will release funding for a program. For example, since 2019, the council has required the Human Services Department to release a report on various aspects of the Navigation Team’s work as a condition of releasing the team’s funds each quarter.

The number of provisos the council imposes, and the amount of funding restricted by those provisos, tends to vary from year to year, and the departments that are subject to provisos change over time depending on the areas of conflict between a particular mayor and a particular council. In 2015, under then-mayor Ed Murray, the council adopted 15 provisos, which restricted a little more than $16 million in spending in the 2016 budget.

This year, the council’s proposed budget includes 42 provisos that restrict an extraordinary, and almost certainly unprecedented, $117 million.

The bulk of those restrictions had to do with Seattle Department of Transportation; at the time, Murray was under fire for failing to dedicate enough money to bike lanes and other non-car-related infrastructure.Three years later, when Durkan was finishing her first year as mayor, the council imposed 17 provisos on about $10 million worth of spending. A review of a half-dozen city budgets going back to the Mike McGinn administration (2013: 19 provisos covering about $6 million) reveals that most years, the council’s limits on spending fall somewhere around this general range.

This year, in contrast, the council’s proposed budget includes 42 provisos that restrict an extraordinary, and almost certainly unprecedented, $117 million. The provisos place conditions on everything from the $30 million that remains in Durkan’s Equitable Communities Fund to more than $30 million that the council plans to spend on participatory budgeting. One proviso, citing typical hiring rates by the Seattle Police Department, holds back $5 million from the police budget unless the chief can prove it’s necessary. on salaries without council approval; another four dictate the geographical distribution of a few hundred thousand dollars for homeless outreach.

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In theory, placing a proviso on a spending item doesn’t necessarily mean that the council believes the mayor will ignore their adopted budget; provisos can simply indicate the council’s desire to stay involved in policy decisions made by departments, or to keep tabs on the city’s investments before sending more money out the door. They can also express a general frustration with the mayor for not providing information the council has requested. For example, in 2018, then-council member Mike O’Brien proposed, and the council adopted, a proviso restricting funds for the South Lake Union and First Hill streetcars until the mayor coughed up an overdue report on the streetcars’ performance.

This year’s outsize funding restrictions could also be a product of the city’s still-nascent efforts to divert funding from the Seattle Police Department and into community-based organizations that promote public safety; since the city still doesn’t know what the participatory budgeting process will recommend, for example, it may make sense to restrict that funding until the process is complete.

However, some council members have made no secret of the fact that they don’t trust Durkan to spend the money they allocate in the budget as directed. When the council was first trying to dismantle the Navigation Team last summer, for example, they used a budget proviso to remove police officers from the team—citing, among other things, the fact that Durkan had recently used $1.4 million intended for non-congregate shelter on rental assistance; failed to spend money the council allocated for mobile showers; and refused to approve an expansion of the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program. Continue reading “The C Is for Crank: Buried in the Budget, Signs of Ongoing Council-Mayor Mistrust”

King County Council Debates Bus Service Priorities and the Meaning of “Equity”

King County Council member Rod Dembowski, in pre-COVID times (flanked, L-R, by King County Executive Dow Constantine and council members Jeanne Kohl-Welles and Joe McDermott)

by Erica C. Barnett

The King County Council shelved a budget proposal by North Seattle council member Rod Dembowski yesterday that would have kept 47,000 hours of bus service inside Dembowski’s district after the Northgate light rail station opens next year. The proposal came in the form of a budget proviso, or restriction on spending, that would have withheld $5.4 million in funding for King County Metro unless the bus service went to North King County.

The hours will become available because King County Metro is shutting down its Route 41 bus line, which duplicates the light rail route. Instead of being redistributed throughout North Seattle to feed commuters to the new light rail line, as Dembowski proposed, those hours are likely to go to South King County, where King County Metro’s equity analysis shows the need is greatest.

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Dembowski argued that Metro’s usual practice is to reallocate service freed up by light rail into nearby neighborhoods, to make light rail more accessible. “We’re doing this all around the county,” he said. While this has been the practice in the past, it is not required—and Metro’s new Mobility Framework, created in collaboration with community groups over the past year, calls for new or reallocated service hours to go into communities where the need is greatest, regardless of where they originated.

“Every time there’s service changes, if we start to put our thumb on the scale or try and use the budget as a tool to try to slip through something that carves out hours, it undercuts established policies and it also undercuts our commitment to equity,” council member Dave Upthegrove, who represents South King County, says. “It goes around our established processes and guidelines, and that’s a dangerous road to go down.”

The debate, which centered on the question of what constitutes equitable transit service during a time of sweeping budget cuts, concerned a small slice of Metro’s overall budget. But it was also a preview for the battles that will play out over the next year, as Metro adopts new service guidelines that will benefit the county’s most underserved communities while diverting funds from areas that are, on average, wealthier and whiter.

“Every time there’s service changes, if we start to put our thumb on the scale or try and use the budget as a tool to try to slip through something that carves out hours, it undercuts established policies and it also undercuts our commitment to equity.”—King County council member Dave Upthegrove

Last year, before a global pandemic forced massive cuts to bus service and decimated transit agency revenues, King County Metro adopted a new “mobility framework” to guide future transit service decisions with an eye toward equity and economic and racial justice. The framework, developed by Metro in collaboration with an Equity Cabinet made up of 23 community leaders from across the county, was a precursor for revised Metro service guidelines, which will replace existing guidelines that emphasize ridership and geographic distribution, including in “areas where low-income and minority populations are concentrated.” Among other changes, the new framework recommends concentrating new (and reallocated) service in areas with high density, a high proportion of low-income people, people of color, people with disabilities, and those with limited English skills. 

Community members who turned out to speak against Dembowski’s proposal talked about the challenges they face as bus riders in South King County. Najhan Bell, a student and retail worker, described a grueling daily routine: Up at 9 to catch a 10:15 bus that will take her, via two transfers, to her noon-to-9 shift at IKEA in Renton; leave work at 9 to do the same grueling commute in reverse; and land home at midnight to study for a few hours before getting up to do it all again. Bell said that if Metro was going to uphold its commitment to equity, it “must continue to put efforts into increasing service in areas in South King County so that people like me don’t have to spend most of their day waiting on a bus.”

The members of the Equity Cabinet, along with Transportation Choices Coalition, Disability Rights Washington, and other advocacy groups, wrote a joint letter to the council on Tuesday opposing Dembowski’s amendment.

Continue reading “King County Council Debates Bus Service Priorities and the Meaning of “Equity””

Maybe Metropolis: Night Vision

by Josh Feit

Mayor Jenny Durkan’s proposed 2021 budget eliminated a position that the city’s cultural community believes is essential, particularly as the COVID-19 crisis is strangling city nightlife: The Nightlife Business Advocate, also known as the Night Mayor. Fortunately, city council member Andrew Lewis took quick action to restore the position last month, getting four more council members—a majority—to sign on as cosponsors to his budget amendment.

The $155,000 save is on track to be part of  next week’s budget deal. I point out Lewis’ pivotal role because he’s the youngest council member (he just turned 31 this week), and still values nightlife as an attribute of city life. “It’s always bothered me that nightlife is seen as something that needs to be managed,” Lewis told me. “I think it’s something that needs to be cultivated.”

That’s essentially what the position, a formal liaison between nightlife businesses and city regulators, was created to do: Nightlife Advocate Scott Plusquellec helps music venues navigate the city’s complex licensing and permitting bureaucracy as well as helping with state regulators such as the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board. (Plusquellec was a legislative staffer in Olympia before coming to work at the city.)

The position was created in 2015 and housed in the Office of Economic Development’s Office of Film + Music under the office’s then-director Kate Becker. A veteran of Seattle’s music scene (and its storied battles against things like the Teen Dance Ordinance), Becker was both a founding member of all-ages venue the Vera Project and the Seattle Music Commission. When Becker left in early 2019 to take a job with King County Executive Dow Constantine as the County’s first Creative Economy Strategist, Plusquellec lost his high-level ally.

Becker was never replaced. After Becker left, Plusquellec reportedly had to write up a memo explaining his position to Mayor Durkan’s new OED director Bobby Lee, who started heading up the department in the summer of 2019. Judging from the mayor’s proposed cut, the new regime was not convinced.

Continue reading “Maybe Metropolis: Night Vision”

Compromise City Budget Avoids Major Cuts, Including to Police Department

By Erica C. Barnett

The cessation of open warfare between Mayor Jenny Durkan and the city council over the 2021 budget doesn’t make for the most dramatic headlines (see above), but the detente between the two feuding branches could mean a budget compromise that won’t end in another spate of open warfare.

The council’s budget proposal makes dramatic cuts to Durkan’s proposal to designate $100 million in funding “for BIPOC communities,” fulfills the city’s 2019 promise to invest proceeds from the the sale of publicly owned land in South Lake Union into housing and anti-displacement programs, and cuts the size of the police department by about 20 percent, with a commitment to spend the savings from those reductions on community safety projects through a participatory budgeting process, which the budget also funds.

On Monday, Durkan issued a statement praising the council’s budget for “continuing that historic $100 million for communities through slightly different community-led processes.” This was a departure from Durkan’s previous position on the council’s spending priorities. Last month, a mayoral spokeswoman responded to questions about the racial equity implications of Durkan’s $100 million plan by suggesting that the council’s own spending proposals, including plans for COVID relief, participatory budgeting, and police department cuts, had not gone through a proper vetting to see if they truly benefited Black, Indigenous, and People of Color communities.

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During a press conference on Tuesday, I asked about this seeming contradiction. Durkan responded that while she hasn’t read all of the council’s budget amendments, “my read on it is that they are also committing $100 million to community investments, and I am really heartened that they have followed my lead to do so.” Durkan said she was “disappointed” that the council wasn’t spending even more on BIPOC added, given a new revenue forecast that adds more than $32 million to the 2021 budget.

“I’m very hopeful that when we come out of this, and when there’s a final budget, that we actually have a path forward that makes real on the commitment that we will invest generational investments in the city of Seattle” over the next 10 years, she said.

The council’s proposal is still a recessionary budget. Instead of massive spending increases, it reprioritizes limited dollars, in ways that advocates for sweeping, immediate change may find frustrating. But it also puts significant leverage in the hands of the community groups leading the process of participatory budgeting, and promises significant funding for that process.

“They are also committing $100 million to community investments, and I am really heartened that they have followed my lead to do so.” — Mayor Jenny Durkan, referring to the city council

In reporting on the council’s previous budget discussions, I’ve talked about many individual, one-off budget changes council members are proposing—from an analysis of “transportation impact fees” levied on new housing to funding for energy efficiency audits to the restoration of the city’s nightlife advisor position. This post will look at a few high-takes, big-ticket spending areas, including investment in community-led alternatives to police,

Major cuts to the mayor’s Equitable Communities Initiative

As I mentioned, the council’s budget chops $70 million from the mayor’s $100 million fund to pay for future investments in BIPOC communities. That money would be redistributed as follows:

• Durkan’s budget “abandoned”—and yes, that’s the technical term—$30 million that she promised last year for affordable housing and efforts to prevent displacement in gentrifying areas. The money came from the sale of the Mercer Megablock project, and was key to getting anti-displacement groups like Puget Sound Sage not to protest the sale. The council’s budget restores this money to its original purpose.

• The Human Services Department would get $10 million to distribute to community organizations “to increase public safety through technical support, capacity building, and expansion of capacity.” The council allocated this money in 2020, but the city didn’t spend it, and Durkan zeroed it out in her proposed budget.

• Another $18 million would go toward the participatory budgeting project that the council began funding in 2020, which I’ll discuss separately in a minute.

• The remaining $12 million or so would replenish the city’s emergency reserve fund, which Durkan’s budget almost zeroed out (see graph above); restore funding for a restorative pilot program in schools; and restore funding for community-based alternatives to policing, among other smaller-ticket items.

As for the $30 million that remains out of the mayor’s initial $100 million: That money would still get allocated, through a process that would still include the mayor-appointed Equitable Communities task force, but only after the city council approves the spending plan.

Participatory budgeting

A total of $30 million, including the aforementioned $18 million, would fund community safety projects chosen through a participatory budgeting process; these projects would replace some functions (such as responding to crisis calls) that are currently performed by SPD. Continue reading “Compromise City Budget Avoids Major Cuts, Including to Police Department”