Category: City Council

SPD Risk Analysis Recategorized 911 Calls More than Half the Time

Pie chart showing that SPD changed the analysis of the risk of 911 calls 54% of the timeBy Erica C. Barnett

The Seattle Police Department presented its initial “risk managed demand” analysis of 911 calls to the city council’s public safety committee earlier this week, a long-awaited presentation that was cut short because council members needed to get to Mayor Bruce Harrell’s budget speech. The eventual goal of the analysis, which looked at 356 call types and categorized them by the risk of harm they posed to callers, is to come up with a system for routing some calls to non-police responders or co-response teams, in which police serve as backup to service providers; this initial report is just a first step toward that eventual goal.

As we’ve reported, Mayor Bruce Harrell has adopted a go-slow approach to implementing alternatives to police, frustrating some council members who have been pushing for years to implement a pilot for responding to low-risk calls, along the lines of programs already in place in cities across the country, and see how it works. Earlier this month, Harrell’s office indicated they were open to a small pilot along the lines of Eugene’s CAHOOTS program or the Star program in Denver; his proposed budget for 2023 includes about $2 million for this purpose.

First, SPD gave each call type a risk number based on how the city currently responds to calls—an “all-hazards” response that always includes police. Then they applied a “mitigation” factor, essentially asking: What would this call look like if non-police responders were available?

SPD’s analysis looked at 356 different types of calls and categorized them by risk, taking two passes at the question. First, they gave each call type a risk number based on how the city currently responds to calls—an “all-hazards” response that always includes police. Then they applied a “mitigation” factor, essentially asking: What would this call look like if non-police responders were available to go out either alone or in tandem with police?

Between the two rounds, SPD data crunchers manually “recoded” more than half of all calls; 31 percent were “upgraded” to a higher risk level (meaning SPD believes police need to be present) and 23 percent were downgraded to a lower risk, based on the assumption that non-police responders would de-escalate a situation. SPD Chief Operating Officer Brian Maxey told the council that, for example, a welfare check might be categorized as Tier 1 (the highest-risk situation, requiring police), but further analysis would downgrade it to a Tier 3, which a social service provider could respond to with police backup.

In response to questions from committee chair Lisa Herbold and Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda, Maxey said SPD looked at the risk to people on the civilian end of 911 calls, rather than police, because the estimate of risk to police would have to be based on the current all-hazards response, which created the risk of “bootstrapping” the assumption that the risk to officers is generally higher than it is. “It seems like a completely different exercise to me,” Herbold said. “If you include use of force, then we are skewing the data in favor of a police response,” Maxey responded.

Herbold told PubliCola she was also concerned about the fact that SPD’s modeling required so much intervention by a human being who reversed the initial finding more than half the time. Since SPD’s model “only gets it right about half the time,” she said, “is this one performing the way SPD wants it to perform? Should we think about revising the formula?” It may be, ultimately, that there is no truly objective formula for pinpointing how much risk every 911 call poses to anyone, which means the best course of action could be moving forward with alternative responders based on the imperfect information we do have, rather than perfect information that will never be possible.

During the next phase of the analysis, SPD will begin setting up a “call triage system” in which bots that can process and categorize natural language to help 911 operators categorize calls based on their level of risk, using the “objective” measure of word frequency to augment call-takers’ human instincts. Accenture, a multinational management consulting and data analysis firm that has had a blanket contract with SPD since 2015, is developing that system now.

The public safety committee won’t meet again until December, after adopting the 2023 city budget.

Early Council Budget Concerns Include Plans to Raid JumpStart Tax, Cut Pay for Human Service Providers


Chart showing growing gap between city of Seattle revenues and planned expenditures through 2026By Erica C. Barnett

In a preview of the next several weeks of budget deliberations, the city council’s budget committee (which includes all nine council members) discussed their initial questions and concerns about Mayor Bruce Harrell’s proposed budget this week.

The budget would require the city council to overturn a 2019 law Harrell himself supported when he was on the council. That law requires the city to increase human service provider contracts by the rate of inflation, with the intent of providing raises to service providers that at least keep up with inflation; during the meeting when the council unanimously approved the law, Harrell said it was important to provide raises to human service providers “in both periods of economic growth and in periods of economic hardship,” and sponsored an amendment codifying this intent.

The contracts that would be impacted include all the homeless contracts the city funds but that are now administered by the King County Homelessness Authority. Harrell’s proposal would amend this law to cap mandatory pay increases at 4 percent a year, or about half the current rate of inflation, meaning that as long as inflation is higher than 4 percent, human services workers would see declines in real wages year after year. Harrell’s budget cites economic hardship as the reason he is proposing the cut.

Three years ago, Harrell took the exact opposite position. In 2019, as council chair, he proposed and passed an amendment emphasizing not only that the money needed to go directly to “underpaid” workers but that the city intended to provide full inflationary increases “in both periods of economic growth and in periods of economic hardship.”

Harrell’s proposed $10 million budget increase for the KCRHA would be earmarked mostly for shelters and tiny house villages, rather than the items the homelessness agency proposed funding in its request for $90 million in additional city and county funding; that unfilled request would have funded a 13 percent wage increase for homeless service providers.

“In the entire spectrum of building this budget, this decision was particularly difficult,” city budget director Julie Dingley told the committee. “We know that human service provider workers do some of the most difficult and meaningful work in the city and that employers do not necessarily enjoy the funding needed, but unfortunately, during forty-year high inflation, the ongoing liability that the current law would require, does not match our ongoing general fund resources.”

Three years ago, Harrell took the exact opposite position. In 2019, as council chair, he proposed and passed an amendment emphasizing not only that the money needed to go directly to “underpaid” workers but that the city intended to provide full inflationary increases “in both periods of economic growth and in periods of economic hardship.”

Introducing his amendment at a full council meeting that year, Harrell said, “Some of us have been around where we’ve had real tough times, [during] a recession. While we’ve had to make tough cuts, the work [human services providers] do is so critically important that we recognize we have to preserve if not even enhance the funding” during economic downturns.

On Wednesday, Councilmember Lisa Herbold, echoing comments by budget chair Teresa Mosqueda, said she was “disappointed” that the mayor’s budget would permanently cap increases for human service providers regardless of the actual inflation rate. ”

“We heard from folks this morning, nonprofit leaders, who have already passed budgets that provide a modest but essential wage increase for staff on the strength of their trust that the city was going to to follow the law and fully fund the required increase,” Herbold said. “Our intent is to advance nonprofit worker wages, not force them further behind, which I feel that this proposal does.” 

Listen to this week’s Seattle Nice podcast, where Sandeep and Erica find rare common ground in condemning pay cuts for human service providers 

As of earlier this year, the KCRHA reported that the five largest homeless service providers had more than 300 vacancies for jobs that average between $20 and $25 an hour, or between $41,000 and $52,000 a year. Increasing all human services contracts (which include more than just homeless providers) by 7.6 percent, as existing law requires, would cost about $6.5 million. As a point of contrast, Harrell’s budget includes more than $4 million for police recruitment and retention strategies, an effort to increase the number of Seattle Police Department officers that includes hiring bonuses of up to $30,000, on top of an $83,000 starting salary that rapidly increases to six figures, plus overtime, according to SPD’s recruitment page.

Bar graph contrasting low human service provider wages with the Seattle median
Image via King County Regional Homelessness Authority

Harrell’s budget proposes a second change to law that takes the opposite approach to high inflation as his proposal to cap human service contract increases below inflationary levels. This change would allow the city to use the JumpStart payroll tax fund, which is earmarked for housing, Green New Deal programs, equitable development, and small businesses, to provide about $86 million toward filling the $140 million budget gap.

Last year, the council passed a law setting a clear limit on the use of JumpStart funds to backfill general fund shortfalls: If the general fund falls below $1.5 billion, the city can use JumpStart money for other purposes. Harrell’s budget would change that law to pin the general fund baseline to inflation, setting the floor for JumpStart transfers at a variable rate based on the current rate of inflation and allowing the city to use more of the earmarked money for non-JumpStart purposes whenever high inflation leads to economic hardship.

That money includes a presumption of $44 million in unspent JumpStart funds from this year, most of which would go toward a new revenue stabilization (“rainy day”) fund equal to 10 percent of JumpStart revenues every year; another $9 million would pay for administering the JumpStart tax itself through the general fund.

Mosqueda, the architect of the JumpStart tax, said she had questions about how the mayor is proposing to spend the repurposed tax and whether his plan aligns with the four priorities in the original JumpStart legislation.

“We have to continue, as a council, to make sure any of the higher-than-anticipated revenue that is being suggested to be used for investments into the general fund does still align with our city’s core progressive values” as well as “with the priorities this council has articulated in the past,” Mosqueda said.

“Part of the demand we all heard was, you have to tell us where you’re going to spend this [JumpStart] money. I totally agree that we need more revenue in the general fund so we can do the basic things that we need to do as a city, [but] these are commitments we have made to the people of Seattle.”—City Councilmember Tammy Morales

For example, Mosqueda questioned the mayor’s proposal to use $3 million a year in JumpStart funds to pay for 14 new positions at the city to support Sound Transit’s construction of light rail from West Seattle to Ballard, which Dingley said fits into the “Green New Deal” spending category because it involves shifting people from single-occupancy vehicles to trains.

When the council first considered the JumpStart tax, Councilmember Tammy Morales notes, “Part of the demand we all heard was, you have to tell us where you’re going to spend this money. … I totally agree that we need more revenue in the general fund so we can do the basic things that we need to do as a city … [but] these are commitments we have made to the people of Seattle” in the JumpStart spending plan itself and subsequent legislation codifying the spending categories the tax can be used for.

Chart outlining Mayor Harrell's proposed changes to the uses of the JumpStart payroll tax

Harrell’s budget proposal would also broaden the use of the JumpStart tax to allow it to fund housing for people making up to 60 percent of the area median income; currently, the tax primarily funds housing for very low-income people making up to 30 percent of AMI, a group that is not served at all by the market-rate housing market. The JumpStart tax can already pay for mixed-income housing that includes people making up to 60 percent of median, but the change would likely change the balance in favor of people making more money.

Harrell’s budget uses $20 million in unspent funds from 2022 and assumes an ongoing $10 million annual “underspend” in both 2023 and 2024; City Budget Office director Julie Dingley told council members Wednesday that she “would prefer not to have to use this kind of strategy,” but that “we feel comfortable at this point that there will be about this amount left at the end of the year” to balance the next year’s budget.

The budget also proposes using general fund dollars to continue and expand the Clean City Initiative and the new Unified Care Team, which together clean up trash, displace and relocate encampments and RVs, provide information about services and shelter beds to people being displaced by sweeps, and take residents’ complaints about encampments. The proposed budget would allocate more than $13 million to these programs, not counting the many individual line items related to graffiti cleanup, a particular pet peeve for Harrell. The budget would spend more than $800,000 on graffiti abatement, plus another $250,000 on Harrell’s One Seattle Day of Service, which includes graffiti abatement by volunteers.

Harrell’s Budget Would Move Parking Enforcement Back to SPD, Add $10 Million to Homelessness Authority, and Use JumpStart to Backfill Budget

Mayor Bruce Harrell delivers his first budget speech.
Mayor Bruce Harrell delivers his first budget speech.

By Erica C. Barnett

Mayor Bruce Harrell’s first budget proposal would use JumpStart payroll tax revenues to shore up spending for non-JumpStart programs, move the city’s parking enforcement officers back into the Seattle Police Department from the Department of Transportation, and provide pay increases to homeless service providers well below the rate of inflation.

The proposal includes an add of just over $1 million to the current $6 million budgeted for projects designed to reduce traffic deaths and serious injuries in the Rainier Valley, plus “other transit-related projects that will be identified in the coming months,” according to the budget book.

In addition, the budget increases funding for the King County Regional Homelessness Authority by just over $10 million, or 13 percent—a fraction of the $90 million the KCRHA requested from the city and King County. The budget earmarks that funding for new shelter, such as tiny house villages. In its budget proposal, the KCRHA asked for funding for, among other things, a new high-acuity shelter for people with severe physical and behavioral health care needs, new spaces for unsheltered people to go during the day, and wage increases for homeless service providers.

King County Executive Dow Constantine’s budget proposal, also announced today, includes $89 million for the KCRHA over the next two years—a number that represents a reduction, on average, from the $49 million the county provided the authority as part of its startup budget this year. (Note: This number has been updated; because of a miscommunication with the county executive’s office, we originally reported that the additional money was for one year, not two.)

Harrell’s proposal to use $95 million in JumpStart tax revenues to balance his budget will likely come up against council opposition. The tax is earmarked for housing, Green New Deal programs, and equitable development, but was used during the pandemic to shore up the general-fund budget, with the understanding that the practice would be temporary.

It also adds $13.7 million across three departments—Human Services, the Seattle Department of Transportation, and Seattle Public Utilities—to maintain the Unified Care Team, which “addresses the impacts of unsheltered homelessness in the city,” and the Clean Cities Initiative, which provides trash pickup in parks and around encampments, along with graffiti cleanup and enforcement. That total includes $1 million to add six new “system navigators” to the Human Services Department’s HOPE Team, which does outreach at homeless encampments before they are swept.

The proposal includes a number of cuts a budget shortfall of around $140 million. The Human Services Department will lose about $50 million in funding from one-time federal COVID grants and general fund dollars from 2022 that funded shelters, violence prevention, and food assistance, among other programs, only some of which Harrell’s budget would continue to fully fund.

The Seattle Police Department budget eliminates 80 vacant positions, for a savings on paper of $11 million, and moves spending from another 120 vacant positions to other SPD programs, including hiring bonuses and other recruitment efforts, wellness programs, and equipment, including new Tasers and $1 million for an automated gunshot surveillance system in Rainier Beach.

The primary acoustic gunshot detection system in use in the US is Shotspotter, a system that involves installing discreet surveillance microphones all over neighborhoods with high levels of gun violence. The system has a checkered history. A study of its use in Chicago concluded that it rarely resulted in the detection of actual gun violence, and could lead to preemptive police stops and searches in communities of color; last year, that city was forced to withdraw evidence based on ShotSpotter data from a murder case because the information was deemed unreliable.

A representative from Shotspotter disputes this, calling the system “highly accurate” based on an independent analysis by the firm Edgeworth Analytics.” That report, however, only determined whether the system—aided and sometimes recategorized in real time by ShotSpotter employees—accurately identified a sound as a gunshot. The Shotspotter spokesman added that the system “provides unique, reliable, and valuable evidence and expert witness testimony that has been successfully admitted in 200 court cases, in 20 states, and has survived scrutiny in dozens of [expert witness] challenges.

According to the ACLU, acoustic gunfire detection systems often send police into communities of color based on false alarms, increasing the likelihood of conflicts between cops keyed up for a dangerous confrontation and innocent people in those communities.

The Shotspotter spokesman said there is no data “supporting the claim that ShotSpotter puts police on high alert or creates dangerous situations,” and added that it simply gives police more information and better “situational awareness.”

Tim Burgess, the mayor’s chief public safety advisor, pushed unsuccessfully to set up ShotSpotter technology in the Rainier Valley back in 2014, when he was on the city council.

Although Harrell’s office has said they plan to stand up a new “third” public safety department starting in 2024, the budget does not include any specific line items for work to develop this department next year.

Transferring the parking enforcement officers from SDOT back into SPD will save an estimated $5 million in administrative costs that the city was paying SDOT as part of the transfer. It also reverses a shift in funding that advocates against “defunding” the police department have used to claim that Seattle made cuts to SPD in response to the 2020 protests against police violence.

“This may not be the PEOs’ final home,” Harrell said during his budget speech on Tuesday, leaving open the possibility that the parking enforcement officers could move to the future new public safety department.

Parking enforcement officers have complained that the move to SDOT deprived them of access to a real-time criminal database that allowed them to look up the criminal history of a vehicle’s owner before stopping to issue a ticket. The move, according to Harrell’s budget, will “eliminate the basis for PEOs’ unfair labor practice (ULP) complaints” while also restoring the city’s Office of Police Accountability’s authority to investigate misconduct complaints against parking officers.

“This may not be the PEOs’ final home,” Harrell said during his budget speech on Tuesday, leaving open the possibility that the officers could move to the future new public safety department.

Harrell’s proposal to use $95 million in JumpStart tax revenues to balance his budget will likely come up against council opposition. The tax is earmarked for housing, Green New Deal programs, and equitable development, but was used during the pandemic to shore up the general-fund budget, with the understanding that the practice would be temporary.

In 2021, the city adopted an ordinance creating a special fund for JumpStart revenues and establishing formal restrictions on the use of the tax to backfill the city’s general fund. Currently, the city can’t raid the JumpStart fund for non-general fund purposes unless general fund revenues fall below about $1.5 billion; this year, general fund revenues are about $100 million over that threshold. Harrell’s budget includes legislation, which would have to be approved by the City Council, that would lift the floor by the rate of inflation, making it easier to use JumpStart revenues for any purpose.

In a statement, City Council budget chair Teresa Mosqueda alluded to the kind of changes the council might consider to Harrell’s budget proposal.

“Without investments in working families and core city services, the inequities we saw prior to COVID-19 will only continue to deepen,” Mosqueda said. “With a rocky economic forecast locally and nationally, inflation rates continuing to rise, and no new federal COVID-related funding, I will be focused on strong fiscal stewardship while maintaining investments in the people and services for our City.”

The budget proposes a sub-inflationary wage increase of 4 percent for homeless service providers. Lowering wage increases for human service providers below the currently mandated rate of inflation will require a change in city law.

Although the mayor’s office is requesting an inflationary increase in the floor to use JumpStart spending for non-JumpStart purposes, the budget proposes a sub-inflationary increase of just 4 percent for homeless service providers—a total of just over $600,000 next year. Currently, the city is required by law to increase wages for all human service providers by the rate of inflation, which, this year, is around 8.7 percent. Wage increases that are lower than the rate of inflation constitute an effective pay cut. Lowering wage increases for human service providers will require a change in the law; Harrell’s budget proposes a new law setting a 4 percent ceiling on wage increases for the nonprofit human services providers that receive funding from the city.

On Monday, Harrell, along with King County Executive Dow Constantine, touted a proposal that would increase behavioral health provider wages by 13 percent. Harrell’s budget also includes recruitment bonuses for child care workers, another field that, like human and behavioral health services, has a very high rate of turnover because of low wages, tough working conditions, and a lack of real pay increases relative to inflation.

The budget now goes to the city council, whose budget committee—made up of all nine council members—will take it up starting this week. The council adopts the city’s budget annually in late November, just before Thanksgiving.

This is a developing story.

New Tax Would Fund Behavioral Crisis Centers; Things to Look for in Harrell’s Budget Proposal

King County Councilmember Girmay Zahilay speaks at a press conference on a county proposal to raise property taxes to fund walk-in crisis centers
King County Councilmember Girmay Zahilay

1. King County Executive Dow Constantine proposed a new property-tax levy to fund five behavioral health crisis centers across King County, along with higher wages for health care workers and the restoration of residential treatment beds that have been lost in recent years. The levy, assessed at 14.5 cents per $1,000 of assessed home value—about $121 for a median $694,000 house—could be on a countywide ballot in April 2023, if the King County Council approves it this year.

Currently, there are no walk-in crisis centers anywhere in King County, and the wait for a residential treatment bed averaged 44 days as of July, according to the county. Since 2018, the county has lost more than 110 residential treatment beds and is down to 244 beds countywide. “A question that doesn’t get asked enough to the person who says ‘get people into treatment,'” King County Councilmember Girmay Zahilay said Monday, is “‘get people into treatment where?'”

In a county with 2.3 million residents, Zahilay said, we have one crisis care facility with 46 beds”—the Downtown Emergency Service Center’s Crisis Solutions Center in the Central District, which only accepts referrals from police and other first responders. “If you break a bone in King County, you can walk in and get urgent care. If you’re going through a mental health crisis or a substance use disorder crisis, you have zero urgent care options.”

The nine-year levy proposal would also create apprenticeship programs and other supports for people entering the behavioral health care field, and would “invest in equitable wages for the workforce at crisis care centers,” according to the announcement, plus mobile or co-located crisis services that would operate until the first crisis clinics were open.

“If you break a bone in King County, you can walk in and get urgent care. If you’re going through a mental health crisis or a substance use disorder crisis, you have zero urgent care options.”—King County Councilmember Girmay Zahilay

It’s unclear how many people would see higher wages under Constantine’s proposal, which his office released only in summary form. Pay for behavioral health care workers is so low that many employees qualify for the same services they sign clients up for, said Kristen Badin, a crisis counselor and representative of SEIU 1199NW.

The King County Regional Homelessness Authority has asked the city and county to provide an additional $15.4 million to permanently service providers’ baseline budgets by 13 percent in order to increase provider wages—part of an overall budget request that would add about $90 million to the regional agency’s budget, which is funded by the city of Seattle and King County through their annual budget process.

That process kicks off for both the city and county tomorrow, when Harrell and Constantine announce their 2023 budget proposals. On Monday, Constantine said he considered the KCRHA’s budget request “aspirational,” and confirmed that he does not plan to provide all the money the authority’s CEO, Marc Dones, requested.

That budget request, Constantine said, “was essentially a statement of need, and that neither the county nor the city’s budget could support that full request.” Harrell added that “we weren’t able to meet all of the requests, but you’ll see [during Tuesday’s budget announcement] the support we have moving forward with RHA and the support we have the people on the ground doing this important work.”

2. In 2019, the City Council passed legislation requiring the Human Services Department to build a cost of living increase into all new or renegotiated contracts with service providers, based on the Consumer Price Index for Urban Wage Earners and Clerical Workers (CPI-W). At the time, inflation, as represented by the increase in CPI, was modest—between two and three percent.

“I drew a line in the sand [on the use of the JumpStart tax to backfill the city budget], and I want to make sure that we’re sticking to that, not only because it’s what we passed in statute, but because the agreement to use the higher-than anticipated revenue was to prevent austerity.”—City Council budget chair Teresa Mosqueda.

Last year, the CPI-W increased 8.7 percent, meaning that compared to 2021, it cost 8.7 percent more to pay for the same goods and services. Any wage increase that’s lower than the CPI effectively constitutes a pay cut—something social service providers whose wages are funded by the city will likely be watching for tomorrow when Harrell rolls out his budget.

Council budget chair Teresa Mosqueda said she’ll also be watching for any effort by Harrell to transfer additional funds from the JumpStart payroll tax, which is earmarked for housing, small business support, Green New Deal programs, and equitable development. Earlier this year, Mosqueda proposed using excess payroll tax revenues to help close the budget gap; those extra revenues are projected at $71 million and $84 million in 2023 and 2024, respectively.

“I drew a line in the sand,” Mosqueda said Monday, “and I want to make sure that we’re sticking to that, not only because it’s what we passed in statute, but because the agreement to use the higher-than anticipated revenue was to prevent austerity. And part of preventing austerity is keeping our promises, [including] our promises to human service providers.”

Harrell Picks Diaz for Police Chief; Council Park District Alternative Would Keep Park Rangers, Raise Tax

Mayor Bruce Harrell, Interim Police Chief Adrian Diaz, and supporters
Mayor Bruce Harrell, Interim Police Chief Adrian Diaz, and supporters at Tuesday’s announcement

1. After a City Charter-mandated process that led to a list of three finalists, Mayor Bruce Harrell announced Tuesday that interim police chief Adrian Diaz will become Seattle’s permanent police chief, pending confirmation by the City Council.

Diaz expressed his desire to become permanent chief as early as 2020, when he replaced former chief Carmen Best, and was widely viewed as the most obvious choice for the position. Harrell’s office announced the finalists for the position less than two weeks ago, and the public had its first look at all three finalists in a live Seattle Channel interview five days before the mayor announced his selection.

The compressed recent timeline, combined with Harrell’s choice of the most widely predicted candidate, gave the chief selection the air of a fait accompli, prompting questions Tuesday about whether the city r revisit how it picks police chiefs in the future. Harrell defended the process, calling it “an extremely effective and efficient use of dollars” that involved “all communities in the city. “There was nothing broken in this process. The process was a good process. And so nothing out of this process suggested to me [that] we needed to fix or change anything,” Harrell said.

The police department currently has fewer than 1,000 officers on duty, a number Diaz and the mayor have said they want to increase to more than 1,400 over the next five years. Diaz said the public is demanding “action on crime, on gun violence, on perceived and real issues of safety,” and vowed to continue efforts to hire hundreds of new officers while committing to accountability, diversity, and new types of policing, including co-responder models, in which police partner with social service workers when responding to some crisis and non-emergency calls.

This approach, like the choice of Diaz itself, represents a commitment to the status quo: Reform, not a radical rethinking of the relationship between police and the communities they serve. Aggressive hiring, rather than redistributing some duties to non-police responders. More and better officer training, rather than example-setting discipline for cops who abuse their power. Even Diaz’s characterization of the 2020 protests outside the East Precinct, which he repeatedly referred to as “riots” both yesterday and during his Seattle Channel interview, represents a pre-2020 perspective in which police are the only bulwark against everything from violent crime to people protesting against police violence.

2. On Tuesday City Council member Andrew Lewis presented his budget proposal for the upcoming six-year Metropolitan Parks District plan, which PubliCola previewed earlier this week. Lewis’ proposal amends and expands on the plan Mayor Bruce Harrell proposed earlier this month, increasing the proposed property tax to 39 cents per $1,000 of home valuation (up from Harrell’s 38 cents/$1,000), adding two new off-leash areas, funding the electrification of additional community centers, planting more trees, and renovating four more restrooms than Harrell’s plan, among other changes.

Climate advocates have argued that the city needs to invest more heavily in decarbonizing the city’s 26 community centers. Lewis’ proposal would add $4 million in 2025 and 2026 to accelerate this process, along with $18 million in debt, which the city would begin paying off near the end of the park district cycle, in 2027, with a goal of decarbonizing 13 community centers by 2028.

The plan would also fund $5 million for additional maintenance at the planned downtown waterfront park, which would come out of the existing park stabilization fund and reserves.

Lewis noted Monday that his proposal also includes spending restriction meant to ensure that parks rangers can’t remove encampments or exclude people from parks for anything other than felony-level crimes. As we reported on Monday, although a 1997 law empowers parks rangers to exclude people from parks for violating park rules, a more lenient policy adopted in 2012 has effectively superseded that law. Lewis’ proposal would make funding for 26 new rangers contingent on following the 2012 rule, and would require the mayor to “immediately inform the Park District should these park rules be modified.”

Two public commenters were extremely upset about nudity they’d witnessed at Denny Blaine Park, an unofficial nude beach on Lake Washington, and said they hoped the new park rangers would put a stop to it and, as one speaker put it, make the park a “family friendly place again.” One outraged speaker, who seemed to be a frequent visitor, said she had witnessed people “walking down Lake Washington Boulevard naked, in the middle of Denny Blaine Park, naked, in trees, naked, displaying themselves, naked, on the low walls in the park, [and] naked people swimming, paddle boarding, laying on rafts, etc.”

The parks district board, which is made up of all nine members of the city council, will meet this Friday, and the council itself could vote on a final proposal as soon as Monday, September 27.

Cities Could Lose Out on Opioid Settlement Funds, Non-Police Response Pilot Moves Forward

1. Cities and counties around the state stand to lose more than $500 million in funds for treatment, overdose prevention, diversion, and education on opioid misuse in a settlement between the state attorney general’s office and the three largest opioid distributors earlier this year, if holdout cities fail to sign on to the settlement by this Friday.

The settlement, which resulted from a lawsuit filed by Attorney General Bob Ferguson in 2021, will only be distributed to cities and counties if at least 116 of the 125 eligible jurisdictions, including all 39 Washington counties, sign a form agreeing to participate in the settlement. As of last Friday, 100 jurisdictions had signed on, including all but five counties—Adams, Kitsap, Pierce, Skagit, and Snohomish.

Cities in the Puget Sound region that have not agreed to participate in the settlement yet include Auburn, Burien, Everett, Mercer Island, Renton, and Tacoma. According to a letter the head of the AG’s Complex Litigation Division sent to local officials last week, cities can choose to hand their settlement money over to a regional body for distribution, send it to their county, or spend it themselves according to a list of approved uses.  

A spokesperson for the attorney general’s office did not respond to a request for additional information late last week.

2. The city just moved one step closer to setting up an alternative for some calls that are currently dispatched through the 911 system, when Mayor Bruce Harrell’s office and the city council signed a “term sheet” laying out formal steps toward standing up a comprehensive response system for calls that do not require a police response. These calls could include “person down” calls, wellness checks, and low-priority “administrative calls” that currently go largely unanswered.

Among other longer-term commitments, the agreement—signed by Senior Deputy Mayor Monisha Harrell and Esther Handy, the council’s central staff director—says the city will establish a work group to develop a pilot program by next January that can be implemented in 2023, a year  before Harrell’s office has said they’ll be ready to propose and start implementing a more comprehensive plan to use alternative responders for some non-emergency calls. The term sheet requires the mayor and council to come up with “basic costing information” by October 14 so the council can consider the plan during its fall budget deliberations.

As PubliCola reported in July, the council already passed a supplemental amendment to this year’s budget identifying $1.2 million in funding for a civilian response pilot, using the money from former mayor Jenny Durkan’s since-abandoned “Triage One” proposal. Councilmember Andrew Lewis, a longtime proponent of Eugene, OR’s CAHOOTS alternative-responder model, estimated that it would cost a little under a million dollars to fund a three-person pilot program for one year.

Harrell’s Proposal to Expand Park Ranger Program Sparks Controversy

Victor Steinbrueck Park
Victor Steinbrueck Park in downtown Seattle; photo by Wknight94; CC-by-SA 3.0 license

By Erica C. Barnett

Mayor Bruce Harrell’s proposal to restart the mostly moribund Park Ranger program by hiring 26 additional rangers to patrol Seattle’s downtown parks has run into opposition from advocates who have argued that the rangers will be “park cops” deputized to kick homeless people out of public spaces.

But some city council members say the rangers are meant to be a civilian alternative to police, and point to measures the city has taken to ensure that rangers can’t facilitate arrests or exclude people from parks except in extreme situations—specifically, a 2012 policy that restricts park rangers’ authority.

Councilmember (and parks district board chair) Andrew Lewis said that during a recent “ridealong” with one of the city’s two park rangers, “it was made really, really clear to me that they are greatly dissuaded from using their authority to trespass or exclude—their job is to tell people what the rules in a park are, and usually that’s enough.”

On Monday, Lewis will release his own parks district plan, which will include Harrell’s park ranger proposal. “But,” he added, “we want to make sure we put some fetters on what they can do,” in the form of a resolution accompanying the parks district spending plan “acknowledging the current policy and making it clear rangers will not participate in removals of encampments.”

The debate over park rangers is only the latest salvo in a battle over behavior in parks that goes back decades.

Back in 1997, the city adopted a controversial law called the Parks Exclusion Ordinance, which allowed police to ban people from parks for violating local laws—anything from skating too fast to public inebriation to “camping”— could get a person excluded from all parks in one of 12 geographic “exclusion zones.” If a person was caught in any parks in that area during their exclusion period, they would face an escalating series of exclusions; on the third offense, they would be banned from every park in the city. Thousands of people were excluded from parks under the law, usually for minor offenses; during the first year the law was in effect, 53 percent of exclusions were for public inebriation and 22 percent were for sleeping in parks overnight.

Advocates like the ACLU and the Public Defender Association opposed the program, noting that it disproportionately impacted people who were homeless or poor; it also led to some absurd results.

The park ranger program started in 2007, when the city hired six rangers to “rove downtown parks and alert police to any illegal activity,” according to a Seattle Times report. The rangers also had the ability to enforce the exclusion ordinance.

The parks exclusion ordinance remains on the books. However, in 2012, it was superseded by a new “trespass warning” policy. Under that policy, park rangers or police can issue a warning when they see someone violating park rules or a state or local law; if they’re caught violating a law or park rule again, they can be arrested and prosecuted for criminal trespassing, a misdemeanor. People can also be excluded from a park zone—they still exist!—for up to a year for committing a felony or weapons-related violation. In 2015, the PDA wrote a letter to interim parks director Christopher Williams applauded the department for using the law judiciously and asking him to take a similar approach to the ban on smoking cigarettes in parks.

Councilmember Lisa Herbold, whose onetime boss, former councilmember Nick Licata, opposed the original parks exclusion law, said current efforts to paint parks rangers as anti-homeless cops diminishes the hard work of activists who pushed for the 2012 policy change. “Advocates fighting for their clients did something important, with principled persistence, that we couldn’t accomplish legislatively…and it’s lasted for ten years,” Herbold said. “This opposition campaign is devaluing that victory.”

So far, according to the Public Defender Association, the city has abided by its commitment not to indiscriminately trespass people from parks over minor issues. In the last year, according to the parks department, the two parks rangers issued 388 informal verbal warnings, one written warning, one citation for trespass, and two exclusions, both related to people shooting guns at Discovery Park.

The city’s interpretation and use of the law can change. Codifying some version of the 2012 policy in ordinance would be the most effective way to ensure that park rangers and police use their powers judiciously.

“The City Parks Ranger program was created during a time when we’d achieved an agreement to dramatically reduce the use of criminal penalties for minor parks use issues and for camping,” PDA director Lisa Daugaard said. “Their role is rarely to exclude—and then only for immediate legitimate safety threats—and mainly to be problem-solvers and caretakers. It’s obviously important to watch how an investment like this actually plays out on the ground, but to date, rangers have not catalyzed parks bans or arrests.”

A policy is less binding than a law, and open to interpretation by the mayor and his advisors; Harrell’s top public safety advisor, former Councilmember Tim Burgess, proposed criminalizing “aggressive panhandling” as a councilmember and, more recently, backed an aborted effort to have police use an obscure law governing behavior on buses to crack down on “disorderly conduct,” such as drinking, gambling, and amplified music around a former bus stop at Third and Pine. In other words: The city’s interpretation and use of the law can change. Codifying some version of the 2012 policy in ordinance would be the most effective way to ensure that park rangers and police use their powers judiciously.

Initially at least, the 28 park rangers would only work in parks downtown, under a 2008 agreement between the city and the Seattle Police Officers Guild that prohibits them from operating elsewhere. According to Harrell spokesman Jamie Housen, “The initial focus on the park ranger program would be on downtown parks as rangers are hired, additional capacity is built, and the program is scaled up. While expanding beyond downtown is something we would like to consider after the program is reestablished— dependent on bargaining—there are plenty of parks downtown where rangers could provide needed services.”

Mayor Reshuffles Office Chairs, Council Considers Fixes for Pedestrian-Hostile Third Avenue

Third Avenue downtown (image via Downtown Seattle Association)

1. Learn to trust the Fizz: As PubliCola reported last week, Mayor Bruce Harrell has just reorganized his office, including the reassignment of former Director of Public Safety Andrew Myerberg to the newly created position of special projects director, answering to Harrell’s favored public safety advisor Tim Burgess (whose own title is, confusingly, Director of Strategic Initiatives). The public safety shuffle reportedly reflects a division in the mayor’s office between Burgess (a former city council member who favored law-and-order strategies like a ban on “aggressive panhandling”), Myerberg (the former Office of Police Accountability Director) and Harrell’s niece and senior deputy mayor, Monisha Harrell, who was previously Myerberg’s boss.

The divide between all these players isn’t just about policy, but perception—Myerberg, whose experience is more in the realm of policy than politics, is reportedly getting stuck with the blame for the negative public response to an ill-conceived plan to crack down on people gathering at Third and Pine downtown by using rarely deployed laws governing behavior on buses and bus stops.

The reorganization of the mayor’s office doesn’t stop there. Jeremy Racca, Harrell’s former council aide-turned-general counsel, has taken on additional duties under the new secondary title of “chief administrative officer,” while policy director Dan Eder, a former council central staffer, now reports not to the mayor but to Racca.

Jamie Housen, the mayor’s campaign consultant-turned-communications director, has been bumped up to report directly to Harrell, while deputy mayor Tiffany Washington, the former homelessness director for the Human Services Department, gained two new direct reports, including Lisa Gustaveson, a former homelessness staffer at HSD who worked briefly for the King County Regional Homelessness Authority before returning to the city earlier this year.

So what does it all mean? As Harrell told PubliCola during a press conference last week, “moving people around” early in a mayoral term isn’t uncommon—but it does speak to who’s in and out on the seventh floor (and the mayor’s good graces). Out: Myerberg (who is, interestingly, the only person Burgess oversees), Eder… and possibly another top staffer whose responsibilities are officially the same, but who we’ve heard been relieved of some duties. In: Washington, Burgess, and Housen—whose former boss, Harrell’s political consultant Christian Sinderman, reportedly has his own office space at the city. In addition, top-level staffer Adiam Emery, the mayor’s former chief equity officer, has a heightened public presence and new title, executive general manager.

Closed-for-business vibes: Pre-pandemic snapshots of Third Avenue from the DSA report.

2. The city council’s homelessness and public assets committee considered a resolution yesterday to endorse a plan created by the Downtown Seattle Association to revitalize the Third Avenue transit corridor—currently a wide, bus-clogged expanse of pavement flanked by narrow sidewalks and many boarded-up businesses.

The DSA’s “Third Avenue Vision” has actually been around for several years, but got sidelined by the pandemic, which exacerbated some of the issues the DSA raises in its report while reducing the number of people riding buses on the street—which, as of 2019, was the busiest bus-only corridor in the nation.

DSA director Jon Scholes said the business group’s pre-pandemic surveys found “a strong consensus that Third Avenue is the street that most people don’t want to be on. … It really hasn’t recovered as a street since the … original transit tunnel was dug through and along Third Avenue in the early ’90s.” That tunnel has served light rail exclusively since buses were kicked onto surface streets, including Third Ave., in 2019. Since then, many businesses shut their doors because of the pandemic, and Third Avenue continues to be the focus of periodic crackdowns on drug sales, retail theft, and people hanging out without an obvious destination (what’s often lumped the general category of “disorder.”)

The proposal aims to reduce bus traffic volumes, provide more exposure for street-level businesses, and give pedestrians more space through four potential strategies: A “compact transitway” that would create new sidewalk space by reducing Third Avenue from four lanes to two; a “median transitway” option that would move bus stops to a new median and convert the street into a two-way transit street, using shuttles to move riders through downtown; a “transit shuttle and hub” model that would also rely on shuttles through downtown, but eliminate the median in favor of a two-lane roadway; and a “transit couplet” framework that would turn a three-lane Third Avenue into a lower-volume one-way “couplet,” with buses traveling north on Third and southbound on a parallel street such as Second Ave.

Although the DSA’s report does not explicitly mention crime or homelessness, focusing instead on ways to improve the pedestrian environment broadly, council president Debora Juarez brought it up on Wednesday, saying, “We should be honest about it how Third and other streets have changed and have become not safe. We want it to be safe for everybody, and also for addressing homelessness and getting the right people down there to handle it, but also alleviating some of what pressure from a major corridor like Third. So I think we have to be honest about that.”

Scholes did not respond to Juarez’s comments directly; however, the vision the DSA has proposed for Third Avenue appears to offer little room for poor or homeless people. Notably, two sites of frequent crackdowns on homelessness and crime—the area around the McDonald’s at Third and Pine and City Hall Park in Pioneer Square—have been reimagined in the DSA’s renderings: The park, which was closed and fenced after the removal of a large encampment, appears as the front door to a fanciful “osteria” on the south side of the King County Courthouse, and the McDonald’s has been replaced by a sidewalk cafe.

More Details On Proposal to Double Parks District Funding: Encampments, Park Security, and Pickleball

Interim parks director Christopher Williams speaks at a parks district press conference last week.

By Erica C. Barnett

Seattle voters approved the Seattle Metropolitan Parks District, a special taxing district that enables the city to raise property taxes by as much to .075 percent without a public vote, in 2014 over the objections of the Seattle Times editorial board and other anti-tax advocates who argued that it would create a “permanent tax” with no accountability.

The parks district, which imposed an initial property tax of 0.02 percent (or 20 cents per $1,000 of a home’s assessed valuation) replaced a system that required Seattle residents to vote on a parks levy every six years. If they didn’t, the city would forfeit much of its ongoing funding for things like community center and pool maintenance, landscaping, and new park acquisition. The Times didn’t like the old system much, either, but they really hated the idea of a tax that couldn’t be defeated at the polls.

So it’s interesting, this time around, that usual suspects aren’t lobbying the council at top volume to reject Mayor Bruce Harrell’s proposal for the second cycle of parks district funding, which would almost double the size of the levy from 20 cents per $1,000 to 38 and increase Seattle parks’ reliance on funding from the tax from 20 percent of the total parks budget to about one-third.

Harrell’s proposal would add 29 permanent positions in the parks department to expand the Clean City Initiative, which cleans up debris around encampments, as part of the new Unified Care Team, which responds to and removes encampments.

Maybe that’s because the Times supports Harrell and his vision. In addition to more funding for things like renovating and decarbonizing community centers, keeping parks restrooms open year-round, and pickleball, Harrell’s proposal would add 29 permanent positions in the parks department to expand the Clean City Initiative, which cleans up debris around encampments, as part of the new Unified Care Team, which responds to and removes encampments. (The funding mechanism is a money swap that puts the program in the base budget for parks while swapping money that pays for parks utilities from the city budget into the parks district).

The Clean City Initiative was originally funded with federal COVID response dollars as a “surge” program to clean up trash and litter, but it has always been strongly associated with encampment removals. By bringing this work under the UCT and making it part of the department’s base budget, the mayor is proposing to make a temporary response to encampments in parks permanent.

Similarly, Harrell’s proposal would revive the moribund Parks Ranger program by deploying 26 new rangers in city parks. The rangers, who are uniformed but unarmed, have historically patrolled parks in downtown Seattle and on Capitol Hill, providing security and occasionally helping the Seattle Police Department remove encampments, issue trespass warnings, or kick protesters out of public spaces, as they did at Westlake Park during the Occupy Seattle protests in 2011.

City Councilmember Andrew Lewis, who chairs the parks district board, said he hasn’t heard any opposition to the size of the tax increase during the town halls the board held this summer around the city. “I think it’s just a reflection of how much need there is for investment in our parks and how our old system was not sufficient to meet it,” Lewis said. Having the certainty of an ongoing tax, he added, enables the city to bond against parks district revenues for longer periods, because the city doesn’t have to worry about funds running out if voters decide not to renew the tax.

“We can do more community centers and climate resiliency [projects], because we can bond more of this,” Lewis said. The proposal includes funding for a number of capital projects that wouldn’t be affordable without longer-term bonds, including renovations and upgrades at four community centers.

Harrell’s office, in contrast to his historically secretive predecessor Jenny Durkan, provided a detailed preview of his parks district proposal that included information about some parks-related adds in his upcoming city budget proposal. This appendix provides a good high-level summary of the plan, which, flower enthusiasts will be bummed to learn, will “not include the [Board of Parks and Recreation Commission] recommended investment of approximately $270,000 to fund hanging baskets and other park beautification efforts.”

Council Considers Using Excess JumpStart Revenues to Patch $141 Million Budget Hole

Before and after: The growing budget shortfall at the city.

By Erica C. Barnett

City Council budget chair Teresa Mosqueda said yesterday that she would propose using JumpStart payroll tax revenues to supplement the city’s general-fund budget for the fourth and fifth years in a row, after the City Budget Office released new projections of a growing budget shortfall through the next five years. Between 2023 and 2026, the city now projects an average budget gap—the difference between revenues coming in and expenditures going out—of $142 million, on average, including a $141 million budget gap next year.

JumpStart—a payroll tax paid by the city’s largest employers on the salaries of their highest-paid workers—has consistently produced more revenue than originally anticipated. Since it went into effect in 2021, the tax has paid for COVID relief, housing, small business support, and to top off the general fund. Mosqueda’s proposal, which hasn’t been formally drafted, would use JumpStart revenues in excess of the city’s original 2020 projections to backfill the general fund in 2023 and 2024; currently, the city projects those excess revenues at $71 million and $84 million, respectively.

“This is just a 2023-2024 option. This is not a stopgap measure; this is a temporary use because that additional source of progressive revenue has not been passed and we need to prevent austerity while maintaining the city’s commitment to the JumpStart spending plan.”—Council budget chair Teresa Mosqueda

“The broad coalition that proposed JumpStart always intended to avoid austerity, and we can do both the spend plan as codified in 2020 and potentially find some short-term solutions for addressing the shortfall,” Mosqueda told PubliCola on Wednesday. In the meantime, she said, Mayor Bruce Harrell’s office is convening a new progressive revenue task force to consider other locahoul revenue sources. The original progressive revenue task force, which recommended a payroll tax in 2018, also said the city should consider a local estate tax, a tax on excess compensation, and a tax on real-estate speculation, among other options.

“This is just a 2023-2024 option,” Mosqueda said. “This is not a stopgap measure; this is a temporary use because that additional source of progressive revenue has not been passed and we need to prevent austerity while maintaining the city’s commitment to the JumpStart spending plan.”

In addition to new revenues, the city could be looking at cuts to departments, including the elimination of some positions that have been vacant but funded in the budget for long periods. Advocates for reducing the Seattle Police Department’s budget aren’t likely to see much trimming in that area, though; the last time a council member (then-council president Lorena González) proposed reducing SPD’s budget by eliminating unfillable positions, the council voted it down.

At the same time, the King County Regional Homelessness Authority, which is primarily funded by the city, sent a budget proposal to the city and county earlier this year requesting $90 million for new programs, on top of the $119 million that it currently receives from the city and county. If the city funded this extra spending proportionally to its current contribution ($70 million in 2022), that would amount to an additional $60 million in city spending.

Harrell has expressed frustration publicly about the KCRHA’s budget, and has reportedly wondered aloud privately what the agency is doing with its money. Efforts to stand up a program to “navigate” people off the streets of downtown Seattle by placing them in shelters or housing, launched with a one-time infusion of private money earlier this year, are going slowly, with one of the program’s high-profile leaders leaving the agency after just three months in June. In February, KCRHA director Marc Dones said one of the goals of the initiative was to reduce the number of people living unsheltered downtown to around 30, or “functional zero,” in as little as 12 months.

When PublICola asked Harrell about KCRHA’s big budget ask back in June, he said the agency seemed to “approach the budgeting process as, ‘in a perfect world, this is what [we] could do.’… But at some point, I need you to do the hard work, which is tell us exactly what you need. This is not a negotiate, ‘you go high, I go low,’ process.”

Harrell will send his proposed budget to the council on September 24.