Category: Equity

Community Safety Research Effort Splinters, Leaving Future of $3 Million Project Unclear

Black Brilliance Research Project co-lead Shaun Glaze

By Paul Kiefer

Editor’s note: This post has been updated. See below for update.

On Monday afternoon, the Black Brilliance Research Project announced a split with King County Equity Now, the organization that the city selected last year to coordinate research that will lay the groundwork for a public safety-focused participatory budgeting process later this year. The Black Brilliance Research Project (BBRP) is the name of that research effort.

In a post published on Medium, Black Brilliance Research Project (BBRP) co-lead Shaun Glaze wrote that Freedom Project Washington, the nonprofit that serves as a “fiscal agent” for the $3 million contract, will now be responsible for coordinating the project, with the BBRP conducting research as a direct contractor to the Freedom Project. At the same time, King County Equity Now (KCEN), the group that’s contractually in charge of the research effort, announced its own new “community research panel” that it says will complete the research.

Under the terms of the Freedom Project’s contract with the city council, KCEN—as the lone sub-contractor to Freedom Project—is responsible for a list of deliverables, including three reports and presentations to the council. KCEN fielded its own team of researchers, including Glaze, but also contracted much of the research out to other nonprofits and community organizations.

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Glaze told PubliCola on Monday night that research teams that previously contracted directly with KCEN will now contract directly with Freedom Project. However, Freedom Project’s role as a fiscal sponsor is strictly constrained by the terms of the contract. For example, the contract does not allow Freedom Project to add or remove subcontractors at will; any substantive changes to the contract must to be approved by the city council, which is likely to have some major questions about the project now that the BBRP and KCEN have said they are going their separate ways.

The BBRP is, in large part, Glaze’s brainchild; Glaze joined KCEN in June 2020 and, alongside co-lead LéTania Severe, assembled KCEN’s research team last fall. Glaze and Severe have also been the primary authors of the work plan and research progress reports submitted to the city council.

In the letter, Glaze wrote that the BBRP’s core staff lost confidence in KCEN’s leadership team after KCEN incorporated as a nonprofit at the end of 2020. “When KCEN represented a collective of Black community organizations, having KCEN facilitate the research made sense,” Glaze wrote. “However, once KCEN chose to incorporate, the community partnership dynamic changed, and this created obstacles and barriers to the research.”

Glaze’s letter claims that KCEN leadership locked researchers out of their email accounts and research databases, “[cut] off communication when requests for transparency and accountability were made,” delayed paying research staff and “dismiss[ed] the lived experiences of some Black community members, including Black people who live in but were not born in Seattle and trans and queer people.”

Of the eight research teams that previously sub-contracted with KCEN, two were notably absent from the signatories of Glaze’s letter: artist collective Wa Na Wari and South Seattle-based nonprofit East African Community Services. PubliCola has contacted East African Community Services and Wa Na Wari about the future of their involvement in the BBRP.

Meanwhile, in a community meeting Monday afternoon, KCEN’s leadership team announced the creation of a new “community research panel” that will “help steward research efforts moving forward,” producing its own report at some point in the coming year.

The council expects a final report on the findings of the BBRP by February 26. According to Glaze, the BBRP team expects to meet that deadline despite the shake-up. It remains unclear what will happen if the council ends up with two separate reports with conflicting recommendations.

Update on 2/11/2021:

The details of the split between KCEN and the core leadership of the BBRP are still difficult to track, but a representative from Freedom Project Washington says that their group will now directly oversee the research teams. (Previously, KCEN was responsible for supervising the work and budgets of the research teams.) In an email to PubliCola on Tuesday, Freedom Project spokeswoman Sauda Abdul-Mumin said the group will also take responsibility for the final research report to the council, which is due on February 26.

The contract for the work, which is held by the Freedom Project, makes King County Equity Now the only subcontractor on the project, and explicitly states that the Freedom Project, as the city contractor, “shall not assign or subcontract its obligations under this Agreement without the City’s written consent, which may be granted or withheld in the City’s sole discretion.” The city attorney’s office is advising the city council (which holds the contract) on what it needs to do to change the contract now, less than two weeks before the final report is due to the city.

Both Glaze, who spoke to PubliCola by text Monday night, and Abdul-Mumin said the re-shuffling of responsibilities won’t hinder the research project. “This change does not impact the contract schedule,” Abdul-Mumin said, “and we are still anticipating a final report and hearing to take place this month. Very little has changed in terms of the research facilitation. This transition occurred to safeguard the stewardship of public funds and remain aligned in our commitment toward making our communities safe for everyone, especially those who have for so long been targeted by systemic racism and oppression.”

Abdul-Mumin didn’t confirm whether KCEN’s own research team on KCEN’s subcontract) will remain involved in the project. However, in an email on Tuesday, KCEN’s press team wrote that the “nearly finalized” research project outlined in the city contract will remain “under KCEN’s Black research umbrella”; they did not clarify whether they intend to submit their own final research report to the council. Instead, the KCEN press team highlighted other advocacy efforts in which their organization is involved; some of those efforts, including calls for the city to set aside $1 billion for an anti-gentrification fund, appeared in past research reports KCEN submitted to the council.

KCEN’s press team also responded to the allegations that their leadership delayed payments to research staff, saying that the city didn’t provide “significant funding” until January. The press team also said that KCEN has paid a total of $1.8 million to the project’s research teams, including more than $1 million that KCEN raised from donors.

The payment schedule included in the city’s contract with Freedom Project Washington specified that the council would release the $3 million allotted to the project in four payments: a $250,000 payment after the council finalized its contract with Freedom Project; a $1 million payment after KCEN submitted a work plan and schedule; a $1.5 million payment after KCEN submitted its preliminary research findings; and a final $250,000 payment after the council received a final research report.

Financial records obtained by PubliCola show that Freedom Project Washington – which, until Monday, was solely responsible for distributing city dollars to its subcontractors and reporting their budgets to the council – show that the nonprofit submitted invoices for the first three payments in November, December and January. PubliCola has reached out to the Seattle City Auditor’s office, which is overseeing the contract’s payment schedule, to determine when Freedom Project received those three payments.

According to their contract with the council, Freedom Project cannot “transfer or reassign” any “essential” research staff without the “express written consent of the city”; Glaze and Severe, the project’s co-leads, qualify as essential staff, so their transfer from KCEN to Freedom Project will likely require city council approval.

Additional reporting by Erica C. Barnett

Financial Crisis Forces Sound Transit to Consider Tough, Complicated Choices

By Erica C. Barnett

Over the past few months, Sound Transit, the regional agency tasked with building light rail to Ballard and West Seattle lines as well as extending the main light-rail “spine” to Everett and Tacoma, has been dealt a double blow of bad news. Last June, agency staff estimated that total revenues could fall short by $8 billion to $12 billion by 2041, the original end date of the Sound Transit 3 program voters approved in 2016. (More recent projections have adjusted that projection down slightly, to a range of $6.1 billion to $11.5 billion, but the numbers remain grim).

Then, earlier this month, Sound Transit announced that the cost to build the ST3 package, which includes elevated lines to West Seattle and Ballard, had increased by about $8 billion. The combination of the shortfall and cost inflation has created an “affordability gap” of about $11.5 billion.

Referring to the chart above, which shows a green line marked “ending balance” plummeting below zero beginning in 2029, Sound Transit board chair Kent Keel said last week, “I’ve never seen a chart where the budget dropped off the chart … so that’s pretty sobering for me.”

Keel made his comments during a board workshop on Sound Transit 3 “realignment” last Thursday, where the general outlines of two broad options emerged.

The first, which staff have dubbed the “expanded capacity” approach, would involve finding additional resources, such as grants, federal dollars, or new taxes, to boost Sound Transit’s revenues and make the newly inflated project possible. The second, called the “plan-required” approach, would involve some combination of delaying elements of the project, permanently reducing the scope of projects, and eliminating some projects altogether. According to a lengthy report on the options, this alternative would only come into play “in the event that new financial resources are not secured.”

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We know there are a lot of publications competing for your dollars and attention, but PubliCola truly is different. We cover Seattle and King County on a budget that is funded entirely by reader contributions—no ads, no paywalls, ever.

Being fully independent means that we cover the stories we consider most interesting and newsworthy, based on our own news judgment and feedback from readers about what matters to them, not what advertisers or corporate funders want us to write about. It also means that we need your support. So if you get something out of this site, consider giving something back by kicking in a few dollars a month, or making a one-time contribution, to help us keep doing this work. If you prefer to Venmo or write a check, our Support page includes information about those options. Thank you for your ongoing readership and support.

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Presented with these conflicting options, several board members insisted that the solution was doing “both.” Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, for example, said, “We have to be working hard at what the resources we have, but [we also] have to look at what are other potential sources of revenues,” she said, adding, “Every time we pull the covers over ourselves, we fail ourselves. We have to be thinking of the future.”

To that end, the options Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff presented last week included: New federal funding; direct grants from the state; increasing the agency’s debt capacity; raising the rental car tax rate; purchasing lower-cost debt through federal loan programs; and increasing fares.

Most of these options come with significant caveats and downsides. For example, Sound Transit is already the nation’s largest Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act borrower, making it less likely the agency will be approved for additional debt. Rental-car tax revenues are currently negligible because of the COVID-related decline in travel. And any increase to the agency’s debt capacity would require either 60 percent voter approval or a change to the Washington State Constitution (and would lower the agency’s credit rating, resulting in higher interest payments.)

Finally, Rogoff said, the likelihood of more federal grant funding is dampened somewhat by the fact that Sound Transit already receives one-tenth of the Federal Transit Agency’s grant funding nationwide; “We would certainly love to get a higher percentage of that program, and we certainly would love to get an additional program funded, but there is certainly a limit to what one transit agency can call on from that program, or at least there has been to date,” Rogoff said on Thursday.

Complicating matters are some of the six factors the board will use to decide how to prioritize voter-approved projects in light of the budget gap. For Seattle residents, two factors could end up working against the city’s projects, including light rail to Ballard and West Seattle.

The first is whether a project serves to “complete the spine” of regional light rail, meaning the central line that will eventually extend from Tacoma to Everett.  This portion of the plan requires the construction of a second downtown transit tunnel, but Sound Transit does not consider that tunnel part of the “spine.” Instead, the tunnel—which will also connect downtown to West Seattle and Ballard—is considered a Seattle-only project for planning purposes. (Sound Transit spokesman Geoff Patrick said the tunnel is funded regionally, the costs split between the three “subareas” within the Sound Transit taxing district). The upshot could be that when Sound Transit gets around to picking projects to delay or cut, West Seattle and Ballard could be first in line because Seattle already got a “Seattle” project in the form of a second downtown tunnel.

The second issue is equity—defined, for Sound Transit’s purposes, as how well a project serves low-income people, people of color, and people with disabilities within a one-mile radius of a project, such as a station. Although many ST3 projects scored low on equity, some of the worst were in Seattle. They included the West Seattle line (which scored medium-low), the downtown tunnel (medium-low) and the Ballard extension (low). This could bump these projects lower down the priority list.

Some board members argued that the definition of “equity” Sound Transit uses is narrow and self-defeating, since stations tend to raise property values (and prompt gentrification) in their immediate vicinity, driving down their equity scores even if they serve people from less-affluent, more diverse parts of town. For example, an infill station at NE 130th Street, in board member Debora Juarez’s Seattle City Council district, ranked low on the list, despite the fact that the station will serve people commuting into the area from elsewhere.

“I have a real problem with the equity” metric, because of the way it narrowly defines a station’s service area, Juarez said. “The whole point of having these stations is to get people to work, to the hospital,” Juarez said, referring to the UW Medical Center hospital near the station. “Taking three buses to get to the north end is ridiculous.”

The board isn’t expected to adopt a realignment plan until next summer, at the soonest. Although board chair Keel began a blue-sky discussion last week about how Sound Transit could cut costs or raise money—beginning with the rental-car tax, which would raise a negligible amount—board member Claudia Balducci, a King County Council member from Bellevue, cautioned against coming up with lists of cuts or new taxes before a thorough discussion.

“When we did this ten-plus years ago”—in the wake of the 2008-2010 recession—”we had a very deeply researched piece of documentation that was given to us with a lot of backup behind it,” Balducci, who first joined the Sound Transit board as Bellevue mayor in 2020, said. “I feel like we’re at that early stage of maybe trying to provide high-level feedback about the parameters around additional study that we want to see. … It feels like we’re rushing toward a solution when we haven’t identified the problems.”

 

PubliCola’s Most Popular Posts of 2020

By Erica C. Barnett

As we say a not-so-fond farewell to 2020, we’re taking a look back at some of the work we did over the year, starting with the most popular stories of the year, measured on a month-by-month basis. Tomorrow and Thursday, we’ll have some updates on stories we covered earlier in the year, including a police shooting, access to public restrooms during the pandemic, and a group of people forced into homelessness when the city declared the hotel where they lived uninhabitable.

January

Durkan Withholds Funding for Nationally Recognized LEAD Diversion Program

The year began with a story that would have reverberations for the next 12 months, when Mayor Jenny Durkan decided to withhold funding from the nationally recognized LEAD arrest-diversion program, which provides case management and other services to people engaged in crimes of poverty. (LEAD, which at the time stood for Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, is now short for Let Everyone Advance with Dignity.)

After the city council passed a budget that would have allowed the program to expand and reduce caseloads, Durkan balked, holding back the council’s adds until a consultant could write a report on whether LEAD was producing results. Ultimately, LEAD’s plans for 2020 were upended by the pandemic, but the story touched on themes that would recur all year: Social-service programs as an alternative to policing and incarceration; the battle between the council and Durkan over the city’s budget priorities; and Durkan’s reluctance to fund LEAD, which did not abate during the pandemic.

February

Police Lieutenant Had Navigation Team Haul Her Personal Trash

The Navigation Team, a group of police and social workers that removed encampments and offered shelter beds to their displaced residents continued to be a flashpoint for most of the year. (The team was formally disbanded after an ugly budget battle; its non-police members now make up a still ill-defined group called called the HOPE Team.)

In this story, we broke the news that the SPD lead for the encampment-removal team directed a city contractor hired to remove trash from encampments to pick up some bulky garbage at her home, because it was “on the way” to their next stop. The fact that the Navigation Team included a large number of SPD officers made it especially controversial among advocates for people experiencing homelessness. In the year before the pandemic, the team removed more encampments without notice than ever before, on the grounds that homeless people’s tents were “obstructions” that prevented others from enjoying the city’s greenbelts, planting strips, and parks.

March

Emergency Orders, School Cancellations, and Planning for Those Who Can’t “Quarantine At Home”

In March, as the gravity and severity of the pandemic was just starting to set in, PubliCola shifted our coverage to the impact COVID-19 was having on the city, including people experiencing homelessness. Our most popular post that month featured a report from a crowded in-person press conference (!!) at which Gov. Jay Inslee banned gatherings of more than 250 people (we!!!). At the time, March 11, regional governments did not yet have access to federal relief funds or a solid plan for isolating and quarantining people without homes who were unable to “shelter in place.” A story we ran four days later, about an Inslee directive banning gatherings of 50 people or more, was headlined “Advice for Keeping Grandma Alive Depends on Whether Grandma is Homeless.”

April 

Downtown Seattle Hotel Rented by City for $3 Million Has Had Just 17 Guests

The city of Seattle’s reluctance to simply put homeless people in hotels became one of PubliCola’s major recurring stories of 2020. (Although several homeless service organizations have rented rooms for their clients, the city won’t rent its first hotel units for people living unsheltered until early next year).

This story (and its many followups) was about a downtown hotel that the city rented out, at a cost of around $3 million, to serve as temporary housing for “first responders” such as police officers and firefighters to isolate or quarantine. Almost no first responders took the city up on its offer, so Seattle eventually opened the rooms up to nurses and other medical personnel, who also failed to show up in significant numbers. The city never offered the rooms to people experiencing homelessness, preferring to pay for empty rooms than make them available to people living on sidewalks and in growing tent encampments that eventually took over several downtown parks.

May

Tickets or Passes, Please! Sound Transit, Citing Damage Caused by Homeless Riders, Will Resume Fares and Enforcement

Both of the region’s major transit agencies, Sound Transit and King County Metro, removed fares and instituted social distancing on trains and buses this year, but the two providers took vastly different approaches to both fare enforcement and fares themselves. While Metro revised its policies, taking tickets out of the criminal justice system and adopting what a spokesman called a “harm-reduction” attitude to fare enforcement, Sound Transit doubled down, reinstating fares a little more than two months after the pandemic began. Even now, the agency has not committed to decriminalizing fare nonpayment, committing only to a yearlong experiment to see if it’s possible to ease up on enforcement without cutting into fare revenue. Continue reading “PubliCola’s Most Popular Posts of 2020”

Afternoon Fizz, Part 2: Durkan Explains Odd Votes, City Funds Alternatives to Policing

The details of Sound Transit’s plan to lower fares on its Sounder commuter trains, which Mayor Jenny Durkan cast the lone vote against. 

1. Sound Transit’s full board voted unanimously on Thursday to approve a resolution updating the agency’s fare enforcement policies while keeping fare enforcement squarely within the courts and criminal justice system, after a dramatic discussion one week earlier, which PubliCola covered most recently here

Durkan, along with the rest of the board, voted for the fare enforcement motion, after noting that it was only a first step toward decriminalizing fare nonpayment entirely. 

Oddly, Durkan made exactly the opposite argument after casting the lone “no” vote on a proposal to lower fares for low-income, disabled, and elderly Sounder riders. Initially, Durkan cast the vote without comment, but revisited it several minutes later, saying that she wanted to clear up any confusion about why she voted against the fare reduction. (Her staff pays close attention to Twitter). “The reason I voted against that,” she said, “is, I believe that people should have free transit and not pay anything, and we should follow [the lead of] Seattle and give students and low-income people” access to free transit passes.

Support PubliCola

If you’re reading this, we know you’re someone who appreciates deeply sourced breaking news, features, and analysis—along with guest columns from local opinion leaders, ongoing coverage of the kind of stories that get short shrift in mainstream media, and informed, incisive opinion writing about issues that matter. Earlier this month, we took a look back at just some of the work we’ve been able to do thanks to generous contributions from our readers, but those pieces represent just a handful of the hundreds of stories we’ve published this year.

We know there are a lot of publications competing for your dollars and attention, but PubliCola truly is different. We cover Seattle and King County on a budget that is funded entirely and exclusively by reader contributions—no ads, no paywalls, ever.

Being fully independent means that we cover the stories we consider most interesting and newsworthy, based on our own news judgment and feedback from readers about what matters to them, not what advertisers or corporate funders want us to write about. It also means that we need your support. So if you get something out of this site, consider giving something back by kicking in a few dollars a month, or making a one-time contribution, to help us keep doing this work. If you prefer to Venmo or write a check, our Support page includes information about those options. Thank you for your ongoing readership and support.

Durkan has not proposed such a measure in her three years on the Sound Transit board. The reasoning Durkan gave for her vote also contradicts her own previous vote in favor of lowering fares on more widely used Sound Transit Express buses, as well as her vote in favor of the fare enforcement resolution just moments earlier, which she justified by saying, essentially, that the perfect should not be the enemy of the good.

Contacted after the vote, mayoral spokeswoman Kelsey Nyland said, “The Mayor believes that Sound Transit has the infrastructure and ability to make transit free for youth, low-income, older, and disabled riders, and she will continue to vote according to that belief and principle.”

2. During the same meeting, Durkan voted against an amendment to Sound Transit’s 2021 legislative agenda calling on legislators to “adopt legislation to base vehicle taxes on a more accurate and current value of a vehicle” for purposes of determining the Motor Vehicle Excise tax on which Sound Transit relies. Sound Transit’s valuation schedule was the subject of a lawsuit by vehicle owners who believe it unfairly overvalues more expensive, late-model used cars.

Durkan did not give the depreciation schedule as her reason for voting against the amendment—which county executive Dow Constantine voted for. Instead, she said she believes the MVET itself is inherently “regressive,” because many low-income people have no choice but to drive long distances to get to work, including those who commute to Sound Transit’s park and ride lots.

This claim that taxes on driving are inherently regressive has been made for decades, usually by people who have not owned a cheap used car for many years, if ever. Sound Transit’s valuation schedule may overvalue late-model used cars—the kind people buy for $30,000 at a dealer, for example—but it also appears to undervalue the older used cars that low-income people tend to actually drive. In this sense, it is actually a progressive tax—people who can afford to buy almost-new cars pay more, and those who buy 20-year-old cars for cash pay less. 

3. On Friday morning, the Seattle Office for Civil Rights (OCR) announced $1 million in grants for community organizations to “develop alternatives to and address the harms created by incarceration, policing, and other parts of the criminal legal system.”
Continue reading “Afternoon Fizz, Part 2: Durkan Explains Odd Votes, City Funds Alternatives to Policing”

King County Equity Now Presents Preliminary Research Findings to City Council

By Paul Kiefer

Monday morning’s Seattle City Council briefing began with an hour-long presentation by researchers affiliated with King County Equity Now’s Black Brilliance Research Project (BBRP) about the preliminary findings from their research on the public safety and community health priorities of Seattle residents. The presentation was KCEN’s first council appearance since the execution of a $3 million research contract between the council and Freedom Project Washington, the nonprofit serving as the project’s fiscal sponsor, in late November.

The contract itself provides only a broad description of its purpose: to fund “research processes that will promote public safety informed by community needs.” Nevertheless, the research project looms large in the council’s discussions about developing public safety alternatives because it will lay the groundwork for a public safety-focused participatory budgeting process in 2021 that will allocate $30 million to public safety investments chosen by Seattle residents; that process will play a significant role in shaping Seattle’s path away from police-centered public safety.

But the BBRP is largely separate from the project-development element of participatory budgeting. The research itself—which includes online surveys and focus groups—is delegated to “research teams” hired and managed by nonprofits that subcontract with Freedom Project Washington, including a team fielded by Freedom Project Washington itself. Each of these research teams has a distinct focus; PubliCola reviewed one survey, created by East African Community Services, that specifically targeted East African youth between 11-24.

Support PubliCola

If you’re reading this, we know you’re someone who appreciates deeply sourced breaking news, features, and analysis—along with guest columns from local opinion leaders, ongoing coverage of the kind of stories that get short shrift in mainstream media, and informed, incisive opinion writing about issues that matter. Earlier this month, we took a look back at just some of the work we’ve been able to do thanks to generous contributions from our readers, but those pieces represent just a handful of the hundreds of stories we’ve published this year.

We know there are a lot of publications competing for your dollars and attention, but PubliCola truly is different. We cover Seattle and King County on a budget that is funded entirely and exclusively by reader contributions—no ads, no paywalls, ever.

Being fully independent means that we cover the stories we consider most interesting and newsworthy, based on our own news judgment and feedback from readers about what matters to them, not what advertisers or corporate funders want us to write about. It also means that we need your support. So if you get something out of this site, consider giving something back by kicking in a few dollars a month, or making a one-time contribution, to help us keep doing this work. If you prefer to Venmo or write a check, our Support page includes information about those options. Thank you for your ongoing readership and support.

The core of the BBRP’s preliminary findings are five high-level priorities that KCEN hopes will inform the project proposals put to a vote during the participatory budgeting process: Expanding housing and small-business options (specifically “more Black-led residential and Black-led commercial spaces”); “culturally responsive and caring” mental health services; “childcare and out-of-school time supports… particularly for children facing systemic violence and trauma”; economic relief; and an alternative crisis response system.

These five priorities have remained consistent since KCEN first announced the launch of the BBRP in September. However, according to KCEN, the qualitative data gathered by researchers during this phase of the project will help sharpen more concrete budget and programming proposals at some point in the future.

Research teams have also been conducting “community needs surveys” as part of a parallel effort to address accessibility problems (like language barriers, cost of childcare or lack of internet) that could exclude marginalized residents from taking part in the participatory budgeting process. During Monday’s briefing, Glaze said that KCEN and their partners are distributing the community needs surveys through social media and the social and professional networks of researchers themselves, most of whom are Black and between 20-35 years old.

This could help explain why more than half of the participants in the survey have been Black, and why nearly 55% are younger than 35. KCEN’s efforts to reach older residents through community meetings and in-person interviews have been hindered by COVID-related restrictions on gatherings.

Because the contract between Freedom Project Washington and the council did not outline a budget for the project, the only guide to how contract dollars are spent is the Blueprint for Police Divestment/Community Re-investment released by KCEN and the Decriminalize Seattle Coalition last summer. Though that initial budget is not set in stone, it included nearly $300,000 in spending on “internet connectivity supports” and computers to ensure widespread access to online surveys, focus groups and educational materials. KCEN was not immediately able to say how many internet hotspots and computers it has distributed or how much it has spent on that infrastructure.

Though the work plan KCEN submitted in November included a timeline for the current research project, it’s unclear exactly how this project will lead to a citywide participatory budgeting process in 2021. During Monday’s presentation, Glaze said KCEN doesn’t intend to control the participatory budgeting process. Instead, Glaze spoke about a still-to-be-formed “steering committee” that will work with multiple city departments to set the ground rules for the process, review community-generated proposals and shape them into a list of viable projects. KCEN has not said who will select the committee’s members or when the committee will begin its work.

When asked by Council President Lorena González about city departments that could partner with the steering committee to launch the participatory budgeting process, Glaze pointed to the Equitable Development Initiative, housed in the Office of Planning and Community Development, as a prime candidate, as well as the Office of Civil Rights and the Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs. Glaze said those offices could offer technical support to the process and award grants to the winning projects, though the steering committee would remain responsible for gathering project proposals from community members.

KCEN is scheduled to submit a full report, including preliminary recommendations for the structure of the participatory budgeting process, on December 21.

Morning Fizz: Participatory Budgeting Project Moves Forward, Deputy Mayor Moves Out

1. On Tuesday morning, the Seattle City Council’s legislative department provided a copy of their newly finalized $3 million contract with Freedom Project Washington to PubliCola. The Freedom Project will oversee King County Equity Now’s Black Brilliance research project, which is working on a plan to allocate about $30 million in city funding through a participatory budgeting process next year. Freedom Project Washington is expected to subcontract with other nonprofits to run parallel research projects, but the city has yet to publish the names of the other subcontractors.

The contract has been months in the making. KCEN began laying the groundwork for a Black-led research project to determine the city’s public safety priorities before the council funded the work through its midyear 2020 budget balancing package passed in August. The group launched the Black Brilliance Research Project in September, spending their own reserves while waiting for the arrival of city dollars; since then, KCEN has fielded nine research teams to conduct interviews, surveys, and community meetings. KCEN has not responded to questions for more details about the community meetings and interviews.

Freedom Project Washington has close ties to KCEN—its executive director, David Heppard, has been a regular speaker at the group’s online press conferences—but it was not the city’s first choice of contractor. The council and KCEN originally planned to contract with the Marguerite Casey Foundation but decided to go with the Freedom Project because the Freedom Project, which has been a fiscal sponsor of other nonprofits in the past and has previously received city contracts, could get up and running more quickly. Freedom Project Washington will process payments and expenses on KCEN’s behalf; in return, KCEN will manage the “day-to-day operations” of the Black Brilliance Research Project.

The budget also designated roughly $300,000 to “COVID-related support,” including face masks and “internet connectivity support” for research participants, as well as nearly $400,000 for accessibility resources (childcare at community meetings, transportation, translation) and $500,000 for “cash assistance and direct support for community members.”

The only window into how KCEN plans to spend $3 million on community research is their “Blueprint for Divestment/Community Reinvestment,” a document released last summer that includes KCEN’s own recommendations for city policy and budget priorities and a tentative budget for the Black Brilliance Research Project. As PubliCola reported in August, that budget allocated only around $1 million to pay research staff, though senior KCEN researcher LéTania Severe later said that the group intends to hire as many as 133 staffers over the coming year.

The budget also designated roughly $300,000 to “COVID-related support,” including face masks and “internet connectivity support” for research participants, as well as nearly $400,000 for accessibility resources (childcare at community meetings, transportation, translation) and $500,000 for “cash assistance and direct support for community members.”

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KCEN has not clarified how those resources would be allocated, nor whether and how their budget has changed to reflect tightening restrictions on in-person gatherings like community meetings. The contract with Freedom Project Washington does not include any directives about how to spend the contract dollars, so the project’s budget items will be decided by Freedom Project Washington and KCEN.

According to the contract, KCEN is expected to present their work plan and a preliminary report on their community research projects, including digital documentation of “community research that was presented as visual/performing arts, spoken word, etc.,” to the council in November, though the group’s opportunities to present at a council briefing before the end of the month are dwindling.

A final report on their “findings and recommendations for [a] participatory budgeting framework and mechanisms” informed by “community dialogues” is due in the first quarter of next year.

2. Deputy Mayor Shefali Ranganathan will leave the city at the end of the year, to be replaced by former deputy Human Services Department director for homelessness Tiffany Washington. PubliCola broke the story on Twitter Monday morning. Continue reading “Morning Fizz: Participatory Budgeting Project Moves Forward, Deputy Mayor Moves Out”

City’s Recession-Era Budget Includes Modest Cuts to Police, Promises of Future Investments in Community Safety

This story originally appeared at the South Seattle Emerald.

by Erica C. Barnett

The Seattle City Council adopted a 2021 budget today that reduces the Seattle Police Department’s budget while funding investments in alternatives to policing; repurposes most of Mayor Jenny Durkan’s proposed $100 million “equitable investment fund” to council priorities; and replaces the encampment-removing Navigation Team with a new program intended to help outreach workers move unsheltered people into shelter and permanent housing. 

And although council member Kshama Sawant, who votes against the budget every year, decried the document as a “brutal austerity budget,” it contained fewer cuts than council members and the mayor feared they would have to make when the economy took a nosedive earlier this year. 

The council received two major boosts from the executive branch this budget cycle. First, the council’s budget benefited from a better-than-expected revenue forecast from the City Budget Office that gave them an additional $32.5 million to work with. And second, Durkan expressed support for the council’s budget, portraying it as a compromise that preserved all of the $100 million she had proposed spending “on BIPOC communities,” albeit not in the form she initially imagined. This show of goodwill (or political savvy) from the mayor signaled a sharp turnaround from this past summer, when she vetoed a midyear spending package that also included cuts to police.

Here’s a look at some of the biggest changes the council made to the mayor’s original proposal. 

Seattle Police Department

The council’s budget for police will be a disappointment to anyone who expected the council to cut SPD’s funding by 50%, as several council members pledged last summer at the height of the protests against police brutality sparked by George Floyd’s murder in May. Council members acknowledged that the cuts were smaller and slower than what protesters have demanded but said that the City is just at the beginning of the process of disinvesting in police and investing in community-based public safety. 

“Our goal is not about what the golden number of police officers is in this moment,” council public safety committee chair Lisa Herbold (West Seattle) said. “It’s about shifting our vision of what public safety is into the hands of community-based responses in those instances where those kinds of responses not only reduce harm but can deliver community safety in a way that police officers sometimes cannot.” 

Council member Tammy Morales (South Seattle), who acknowledged earlier this month that “we will not reach our shared goal of a 50% reduction in one budget cycle,” said that in her estimation, “increasing police staffing wrongly presumes that they can fill the roles” of the “nurses and support staffers and housing specialists” that the City plans to hire in the future.

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Although the 2021 budget does cut police spending by around 20%, the bulk of that reduction comes from shifting some police responsibilities, including parking enforcement and the 911 dispatch center, out of the department. The rest of the cuts are largely achieved through attrition — taking the money allocated to vacant positions and spending it on other purposes. 

For example, the council’s budget funds a total of 1,343 SPD positions next year, down from 1,400 in Durkan’s budget, for a total savings (including a last-minute amendment adopted Monday) of just over $8 million. That money will be removed from the police department and spent on future community-led public safety projects, which will be identified by a participatory budgeting process led by King County Equity Now.

At Monday’s council briefing meeting, some council members expressed hesitation about a last-minute amendment from Mosqueda cutting an additional $2 million from SPD’s budget, noting that the department now predicts it will be able to hire more than the 114 new officers it previously projected for next year. And at least one council member found it odd that the number of SPD employees the amendment predicts will leave next year — 114 — is exactly the same as the number of new hires predicted in the mayor’s budget, for a net gain of exactly zero officers.

“The fact that we are anticipating 114 attritions seems a little cute to me, to be honest, given that the number [of hires] in the [mayor’s] staffing plan … is 114,” Herbold said during the council’s morning briefing. “It just feels like it is an attempt to respond to the call for no new net officers and it confuses the situation, I think.” In the end, only Alex Pedersen, who represents Northeast Seattle, voted against the cuts.

Community Safety

The council’s budget puts $32 million toward future investments in community-led public safety efforts that would begin to replace some current functions of the police department, such as responding to mental health crises and domestic violence calls.  Continue reading “City’s Recession-Era Budget Includes Modest Cuts to Police, Promises of Future Investments in Community Safety”

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” to provide internet service to underserved communities across the county in partnership with the the Detroit Community Technology Project (DCTP) and Allied Media, the creators of the Detroit Equitable Internet Initiative; 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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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”

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””

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”