Category: human services

King County Council Approves Body-Worn Cameras, Puts Popular LEAD Program on Notice

King County Councilmember Girmay Zahilay
King County Councilmember Girmay Zahilay

This post has been updated to include comments from King County Council budget committee chair Joe McDermott.

By Erica C. Barnett

The King County Council’s budget committee adopted the county’s two-year budget Thursday, including a controversial amendment that would require King County Sheriff’s deputies to wear body cameras on the job—while providing ample leeway for officers to turn their cameras off and review camera footage before giving a statement in most cases.

The King County Police Officers’ Guild agreed to the $4 million body-worn camera program as part of its latest collective bargaining with the county, adopted this week. While the proposal would finally bring King County in line with the Seattle Police Department, whose officers began wearing body cameras five years ago, it also provides broad leeway for officers to turn off their cameras whenever they perceive an “exigent circumstance” that could justify their decision, or when they’re going into a location where a person might have a “reasonable expectation of privacy,” such as someone’s home.

The policy also gives officers unusual latitude to review bodycam footage before providing their version of events in all cases except allegations of “serious force”—opening up the possibility that an officer could use video footage to craft a more consistent or convincing story.

The list and breadth of the exceptions in the policy are dangerously close to swallowing the [body-worn camera] rule.”—King County Office of Law Enforcement Oversight director Tamer Abouzeid

On Wednesday, Tamer Abouzeid, director of the county’s Office of Law Enforcement Oversight, sent a letter to county county members urging them not to adopt the proposed policy. “The list and breadth of the exceptions in the policy are dangerously close to swallowing the rule,” Abouzeid wrote, citing both the “exigent circumstance” exemption and the proposal to let officers turn off cameras in any location where there’s a “reasonable expectation of privacy.” The privacy exemption, Abouzeid argued, could empower officers to “stop recording inside someone’s home, which is often essential to establishing an accurate account of what happened.” 

Councilmember Girmay Zahilay said he would prefer to renegotiate the body camera policy with the sheriff’s union than adopt a policy that didn’t make stakeholders, including community groups, “feel like there’s going to be accountability.”

Councilmember Claudia Balducci said she agreed the policy was far from perfect, but argued that a flawed policy was better than having no body cameras at all. “I don’t think all of this is baked by us moving forward. I think that we can change some of these things together working with the executive and the sheriff’s office,” Balducci said.

“I think the [new] policy is a good policy that we should implement, and by all means evaluate as we move forward,” council budget chair Joe McDermott told PubliCola. “Legislative bodies have an obligation, also, to evaluate and make sure we have the policy implications we intended and we don’t have unintended consequences.”

Zahilay ended up casting the lone vote against the body camera proposal.

The council also agreed to fund five new investigators for OLEO, which had requested funding for 12 new staffers, not all of them investigators.

In an unrelated budget amendment that caught its target by surprise, King County Councilmember Claudia Balducci proposed requiring the Public Defender Association to go through a competitive procurement process next year if it wants to retain county funding for the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) diversion program, which is active in Seattle, Burien, and White Center. LEAD provides case management and services to people who are involved in the criminal legal system due to poverty or behavioral health conditions, including people experiencing homelessness. King County provides LEAD with about $5 million a year through its Mental Illness and Drug Dependency program.

Explaining her decision to single out LEAD for special scrutiny, Balducci said, “I think regular re-procurement is a best practice and it is regularly used for county programs exclusively. I think that fundamentally what you get out of this is that there’s a formal process, supported by the council in the budget, that will efficiently communicate between [the Department of Community and Human Services] and the providers about the cost of the programs, ensuring an open and fair process, and will springboard an updated contract that creates a clear basis for continued work in this area.”

Balducci did not immediately return a call seeking more information about her amendment.

But DCHS, which falls under the jurisdiction of King County Executive Dow Constantine, has reportedly clashed with the PDA in the past over how the group runs LEAD, which started in the Belltown neighborhood in 2011. Alluding to this “tension,” Councilmember Rod Dembowski asked why the council would want to start down a path that could lead to the complete defunding of LEAD in 2024—for a body of work that was developed by the PDA and is unique to that organization.

“Are we unhappy with the contract today? What’s going on?” Debowski asked. “This is a very important project. These folks have been instrumental in getting folks help and turning them out of the traditional arrest-prosecute-jail model.”

PDA co-director Lisa Daugaard told PubliCola the organization was unaware of Balducci’s proposal until midway through today’s council meeting, when PubliCola contacted her for comment. “There may be a misunderstanding,” Daugaard said. “LEAD funds go through the project manager [historically and currently, the PDA] to multiple service providers—who were all already selected through a competitive process that the county participated in.” Those service providers, which do the on-the-ground work that makes up the bulk of the LEAD program, are REACH and Community Passageways.

Daugaard also noted that the PDA manages LEAD under the direction of a multi-jurisdictional coordinating group, of which King County is just one member. “The Policy Coordinating Group could decide to conduct a competitive process for the project management function” currently filled by the PDA, Daugaard said. “But King County is not the sole stakeholder in that process, and cannot unilaterally make decisions for this multi-partner initiative. We are reaching out to Councilmembers, and will attempt to sort this out in advance of the 2024 budget process.”

The amendment putting LEAD on notice passed, with only Dembowski and Councilmember Jeanne Kohl-Welles voting “no.” The full council will take up the overall county budget next Tuesday, November 15.

Winter Shelters Must Be Accessible, Not Just Open

By Erica C. Barnett

The first major cold snap of the winter offered a preview of how the King County Regional Homelessness Authority will respond when the temperature dips to dangerous levels, and an illustration of how a fractured homelessness response system still leaves unsheltered people out in the cold.

First, some very good news: KCRHA is using a completely new set of standards for deciding when to open emergency shelters in cold weather, abandoning the city of Seattle’s old standard for one that more accurately reflects the kind of weather conditions that put homeless people’s lives at risk. (This is the first full winter in which KCRHA will be in charge of emergency shelter; last year’s winter response was a chaotic combination of city and KCRHA oversight).

Under the previous standard, the city was only required to open at least one emergency shelter (a “Tier 2” response) when forecasted temperatures were 25 degrees or lower for multiple days, or when more than an inch of snow accumulated on the ground. Under the new standards, KCRHA will open at least one shelter, and provide emergency funding to homeless service providers for survival gear, any time the forecasted high temperature is 40 degrees or less for three consecutive days, the daily low temperature is 35 or less for three consecutive days, or there is more than two inches of snow or rain on the ground.

Fixing the region’s cold-weather shelter response will require an acknowledgement from KCRHA and the city that one of the primary reasons people don’t go to shelter is that shelter is unavailable and inaccessible to people living unsheltered in most areas of the city.

KCRHA has similarly adjusted the next activation level, Tier 3, to reflect the less-harsh but still dangerous weather conditions typical to longer periods of cold and snow in Seattle. In a Tier 3 activation, the county and city coordinate to open more shelters and daytime warming centers, and work to coordinate storage of belongings and transportation to shelter for people who can’t get there by bus. The city’s old standard required a snow accumulation of 6 inches or more, in addition to multiple days of 25-degree temperatures, to trigger a Tier 3 response; the new rules lower that standard to 30 degrees or less for a single day, or snow or rain accumulation of more than four inches.

According to KCRHA spokeswoman Anne Martens, between 20 and 40 people have used the city’s cold-weather shelter, at Compass Center in Pioneer Square, every night since Compass opened up extra capacity. That’s more people than typically show up in a Tier 2 (lower-level) winter emergency —an indication that “outreach is working,” Martens said—but it still represents a tiny fraction of the thousands of people sleeping outside in King County.

And therein lies some less-great news: Because the region’s official emergency winter response consists primarily of opening shelters in the downtown Seattle area, a majority of the city’s homeless population will inevitably be unable to access those shelters. This is still true with a more extensive Tier 3 response, which last year included more shelters downtown, two shelters in Lake City, and a tiny West Seattle shelter whose operator did not agree to be included on the city’s map and was overwhelmed by the influx of people seeking shelter.

A spokesman for the Human Services Department said that the city’s HOPE Team, which does outreach at encampments, is providing information about the Compass shelter along with cold-weather supplies such as gloves and hand warmers, but said HSD has not gotten any requests for help with transportation. Last year, the city handed out bus tickets that were largely useless because many routes had shut down due to icy conditions, and offered vouchers for Lyft rides, which were similarly underutilized. The city also provided a handful of vans to pick people up and take them to shelters, but that effort was stymied by a lack of commercially licensed drivers and icy conditions.

Fixing the region’s cold-weather shelter response will require better coordination between agencies (looking at you, Seattle Public Library) but it will also require an acknowledgement from KCRHA and the city that one of the primary reasons people don’t go to shelter is that shelter is unavailable and inaccessible to people living unsheltered in most areas of the city. Telling homeless people to get on the bus and go downtown has never been an effective way to provide access to emergency shelter, and the worse conditions are, the less viable this approach becomes. An effective emergency shelter response requires shelters people can access, not just shelters that are open.

Council Digs In on Harrell’s “IOU” Budget

Source: City Council central staff budget presentation

By Erica C. Barnett

The city council started breaking down Mayor Bruce Harrell’s budget in earnest on Tuesday, zeroing in on the mayor’s high-level plans to balance the budget by using revenues the city previously allocated to other purposes, including the JumpStart payroll tax, to help resolve a $141 million budget gap that is expected to grow every year through at least 2026.

Overall, the mayor’s budget would add about $32 million in net ongoing new expenditures (total expenditures minus cuts) next year, and about $52 million in 2024. Over two years, those proposed new expenditures include $8.8 million to make the Seattle Community Safety Initiative, a youth gun violence prevention program run by the nonprofit Community Passageways, permanent;  $3 million for the Regional Peacekeepers Collective, another program run by Community Passageways; $1.2 million a year to keep the Public Defender Association’s Co-LEAD shelter program going; $11 million over two years for police hiring bonuses at SPD; and at least $13 million to expand the city’s Unified Care Team, which does outreach and encampment removals, and the Clean Cities Initiative, which clears trash and removes graffiti from buildings.

Every year, the mayor proposes a budget and the council amends and approves it. The process can be highly contentious, especially in lean years. Starting in 2021, the city has used the new JumpStart payroll tax—a payroll tax on the city’s largest employers—to fill revenue shortfalls caused by the COVID pandemic and the resulting economic downturn. Harrell’s budget would continue to use the JumpStart tax to fill the ongoing budget gap, using $86 million in JumpStart revenues to backfill the general fund in 2021, and $84 million in 2024.

Last year, anticipating that future mayors would continue trying to use JumpStart revenues for non-JumpStart purposes, the council passed a law codifying the existing, but never fully realized, JumpStart spending plan. The ordinance restricts JumpStart spending to four specific categories: Housing (primarily affordable rental housing for people making less than 30 percent of median income); local businesses and economic recovery; equitable development projects that increase opportunity and prevent displacement; and investments that support the city’s adopted Green New Deal priorities.

On Tuesday, Harrell and Mosqueda announced the beginning of a process that could lead to new progressive taxes or fees to pay for some of the programs his current budget relies on JumpStart to fund. The new Revenue Stabilization Work Group includes representatives from business, labor, and nonprofits, including the progressive Washington Budget and Policy Center and the Transit Riders Union.

The new law does allow the city to use the tax for other purposes in one circumstance: If general fund revenues fall below about $1.5 billion, the city can siphon off JumpStart funds equal to the gap between actual revenues and $1.5 billion. If general fund revenues were $1.4 billion, for example, the mayor and council could take up to $100 million from the JumpStart fund to address the shortfall.

Harrell’s budget would require the council to amend this newly adopted law so that the general fund “floor” would rise every year according to the rate of inflation (currently 7.6 percent), which would also increase the differential between revenue projections and the new floor. The change would set up JumpStart to permanently solve a structural budget gap that exists because general-fund revenues aren’t rising nearly as fast as inflation, including property taxes, which by law can only increase 1 percent a year.

As a memo from the council’s budget staff puts it, “the proposed policy change … could result in permanently backfilling revenue losses that are due to noninflationary factors in other funds. Put another way, the JumpStart Fund transfer would be permanently solving stability issues inherent with the existing [general fund] financing structure.”

The change would enable the city to rely on the JumpStart tax to provide a huge, permanent cushion for the overall budget by diverting more and more of the tax from its original purpose. Next year, for example, the general fund actually is close to $1.5 billion, the current floor, meaning that under current law, the city can’t use JumpStart revenues to pay for anything above that amount. If the council adopts Harrell’s proposal, the change would allow the mayor to remove $105 million from the JumpStart fund in 2023, $176 million in 2024, and $189 million in 2025.

Council budget Teresa Mosqueda said she was disappointed that Harrell proposed permanently changing the law governing how the payroll tax can be used, since the council agreed in principle back in August that the city could use JumpStart revenues in excess of previous projections, as long as those funds went to prevent budget cuts and “austerity.” At the time, those excess revenues amounted to $84 million in 2023 and $71 million in 2024—not much less than the amounts Harrell has proposed allocating.

“I think making these changes in perpetuity is very problematic to the sustainability of JumpStart and… concerning for this for the budget overall,” Mosqueda said. “To rely more and more on JumpStart creates greater instability for our overall budget going forward.”

Harrell’s proposal would also repurpose revenues from two other sources: The short-term rental tax on Airbnbs, which is earmarked for the Equitable Development Initiative (EDI); and state taxes on car services like Uber and Lyft, a fairly small revenue source that’s supposed to go to affordable housing.

District 2 (southeast Seattle) Councilmember Tammy Morales, who heads the committee that oversees EDI, said the program “is not just about affordable housing. It’s not just about senior housing. It really is about intentionally building space or the essential services that any healthy neighborhood needs and [providing] the opportunity to do it in a culturally appropriate way.” Although the Office of Housing funds housing projects, Morales continued, they often don’t pay for ground-floor services, like health clinics and day care centers, which is one reaseon the city started the Equitable Development Initiative in the first place.

“In asking departments to really tighten their belts, to look at where we can save money, we came up with the increase [for human service workers] of 4 percent, which would create anywhere between, I believe, $7 million to 12 million or so in savings, which allows us to do other things to help the same communities that they serve. And so we think that what we propose is consistent with the values that we set forth.”—Mayor Bruce Harrell

Harrell’s budget also includes an assumption that the city will spend $10 million less than what’s in the budget for the next two years, without identifying where those future savings will come from—a policy a council staffer referred to as an “IOU to come in under budget.” In 2022, the mayor achieved about $20 million in savings by placing “holds” on dozens of items the council added to its 2022 budget last year, including a new pre-filing diversion program for people over 25; money for a new health clinic for Asian Pacific Islander seniors; funding for the Mobile Crisis Team; and the expansion of an Office of Housing program that provides case management and housing stabilization to people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness.

Mosqueda also flagged her disapproval of Harrell’s proposal to limit mandatory increases in human service providers’ wages at 4 percent a year—about half what they would receive under legislation the council, then led by Harrell, passed unanimously in 2019. As we reported, Harrell even added an amendment to the 2019 bill clarifying that it was important to provide inflationary wage increases during times of economic hardship, not just prosperity.

When PubliCola asked Harrell about this apparent about-face, the mayor said he saw no contradiction between his position three years ago and his proposal to effectively overturn that legislation now.

“What I said in 2019 [was], we have to recognize that social workers and mental health counselors and those providing some of these essential services are underpaid… through good times and bad times,” Harrell said. “In asking departments to really tighten their belts, to look at where we can save money, we came up with the increase of 4 percent, which would create anywhere between, I believe, $7 million to 12 million or so in savings, which allows us to do other things to help the same communities that they serve. And so we think that what we propose is consistent with the values that we set forth.”

On Tuesday, Harrell and Mosqueda announced the beginning of a process that could lead to new progressive taxes or fees to pay for some of the programs his current budget relies on JumpStart to fund. The new Revenue Stabilization Work Group includes representatives from business, labor, and nonprofits, including the progressive Washington Budget and Policy Center and the Transit Riders Union.

Fewer Staff, More Incarcerated Kids, and Frequent Solitary Confinement as Youth Jail Closure Deadline Approaches

By Erica C. Barnett

In July 2020, King County Executive Dow Constantine committed publicly to closing down the Patricia H. Clark Children and Family Justice Center (CFJC), saying it was time to shift “public dollars away from systems that are rooted in oppression and into those that maintain public health and safety.”

“Today I commit King County to converting the remaining youth detention units at the CFJC to other uses as quickly as possible, and no later than 2025,” Constantine announced in a Twitter thread that noted the connection between police murders of Black people and mass incarceration. About half the kids King County incarcerates are Black, a group that makes up about 6 percent of the county population, and about 18 percent are white, compared to 69 percent of the county.

Constantine’s announcement came at a time of heightened public scrutiny of the criminal legal system in the immediate aftermath of George Floyd’s murder by police in Minneapolis. The youth detention center had opened just five months earlier, replacing a decrepit, 212-bed facility next door, and stood largely empty because of COVID and a general reduction in youth arrests. The population would hover at about 20 young people throughout the next year, peaking at 26 and dipping to just 17 in August 2021.

One year later, however, the trend has reversed. In August, the average daily population at the youth jail was 41; on October 3, it was 42, including four kids charged as adults. While the population at the jail has grown, the number of guards at the jail has declined; as of September, 22 of 91 juvenile detention officer positions were unfilled, down from about six vacancies in the fall of 2020—a shortfall of 24 percent.

The timeline for closing down the youth detention center could also get a reality check. Closing the jail requires alternatives to incarceration that don’t exist yet, and the process to come up with those alternatives, which will likely include restrictive housing for youth who present a danger to the community, is proceeding slowly.

The increase in the number of young people incarcerated at the CFJC is exacerbated by a similarly steep decline in the number of people working at the jail. A representative of the Juvenile Detention Guild told PubliCola that juvenile corrections officers are leaving their jobs more than twice as fast as the county can hire replacements. Understaffing has also impacted other positions at the facility, which has at times been short on nurses and other medical staff. The high attrition rate has created a shortage not just of workers but experience—a gap that shows no sign of closing even as the county ramps up financial incentives to get new hires in the door.

Understaffing has contributed to the frequent use of solitary confinement, a practice that persists even though it was officially banned in 2017. Jail officials acknowledge that they use “room confinement” when there aren’t enough staff to let kids into common areas safely, but there is no legal distinction between “room confinement” and other euphemisms for isolating kids in their cells for up to 20 hours a day.

Solitary confinement leads to stress, boredom, and fights, and has contributed to a reported uptick in assaults on guards and other staff. According to the juvenile guards’ union representative, “We hire staff who want to work with youth, but they are leaving [because] it is an unsafe work environment, we have to lock youth in their dorms for extended periods of time, [and we] do not have sufficient staffing to provide services to the youth.”

King County officials are aware that keeping kids in their cells is a problem, but the use of the practice has been escalating. In July, there were 13 days when kids were locked in their cells between 18 and 20 hours a day because of short staffing at the jail. Additionally, an independent monitor’s report released in May found a “significant increase” in the number of times youth were put in “restrictive housing” (solitary confinement) because of a risk of “imminent and significant physical harm to the youth or others,” along with a spike in the length of this form of confinement; in the first quarter of this year, 41 kids were put in restrictive housing for an average of 6 hours per session. 

Nick Straley, an attorney with Columbia Legal Services, says the Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention (DAJD) is skirting laws that were passed specifically to prevent the department from doing exactly what it’s doing now. “The King County Council should get involved and pass strict requirements that force DAJD to do the right thing because we know they aren’t” on their own, Straley said.

King County Councilmember Girmay Zahilay—who, like most of the nine county council members, visited the CFJC recently to get a better sense of conditions at the jail—said he was “shocked” to learn recently that the county still effectively allows solitary confinement for youth.

“If we literally don’t have the staffing to monitor people, I understand why that creates a different kind of situation, but it still is alarming, because from an experiential perspective rather than a technical perspective, the youth experience that the same way,” Zahilay said. “All the reasons we don’t want solitary confinement for youth are still true in that scenario, and we have to do everything we can to change those circumstances.”

Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention Director Allen Nance (background: King County Sheriff Patti Cole-Tindall)
Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention Director Allen Nance (background: King County Sheriff Patti Cole-Tindall)

For adolescents, confinement is a particularly harsh punishment, depriving them of not only of chances to interact with other kids and adults but making it harder to schedule visits with attorneys and family members. During visits, kids are separated from their family members by Plexiglas, depriving them of the chance to hug their parents or hold their own children.

“There have been issues with parents not being able to have contact with their kids and only being able to see each other through Plexiglas,”  a COVID-era innovation that prevents direct contact between family members and incarcerated youth, CLS’ Straley says. “The reality is that you’ve got the bare minimum level of humane treatment, and simply not having enough staff isn’t the only reason. They need to have more staff, and/or they need to have fewer kids in jail.”

There’s little consensus about why the county is locking up more kids at a time when youth detention is supposedly on a path to extinction. Jimmy Hung, who leads the juvenile division of the King County Prosecutor’s Office, attributes the reversal to an uptick in violent crime among both young people and adults. “And it’s not isolated to King County; it’s throughout the country,” Hung said. “We are dealing with aftermath of a once-in-a-century global pandemic, and that has also collided with the continuing escalation and increase in just the sheer number of firearms we have in our community.”

Straley believes the “perception out there that crime is running out of hand” is also contributing to harsher sentences from judges. “I think that perception is not accurate, but that’s the perception, and judges are aware of that and they adjust the sentence accordingly,” he said.

A DADJ spokesman, Noah Haglund, said another reason more kids are being detained is that incarcerated youth are being incarcerated longer, particularly the small percentage of kids charged as adults, whose average stay at the CFJC is 284 days; for kids detained on juvenile charges, it’s 17. Both averages have increased over the last five years.

Whatever the reasons, the number of kids at the youth jail is growing, and the number of staff at the jail is not keeping up.

DAJD director Allen Nance, appointed to the position last month after three years as head of the juvenile division, told PubliCola recently that the department “recognize[s]that not only do we need to do a better job recruiting quality folks to work with our young people in custody, but we also have to work diligently to implement strategies to keep the employees that we have today.”

Currently, the department offers hiring bonuses of $7,500 for new hires and $15,000 for lateral hires, as well as $5,000 to any county staffer who recruits a new detention officer for the adult or youth detention center. (Jobs at the adult jail pay slightly better).

However, the county lacks any significant programs to retain jail staffers once they’re hired—a major problem, given how many leave after they experience the challenges of the job; according to the union representative, “many staff will forfeit the money versus staying due to conditions” at the jail, including low morale, lack of support from DAJD leadership, poor schedules, and a lack of transparency about what will happen to CFJC staff if and when the facility closes.

Rod Dembowski, a King County council member who has been skeptical of the 2025 closure date, said during a recent council meeting that one reason the CFJC may be having trouble hiring guards is that the jobs offer no long-term security. “Why would someone come on to this job or stay in this job if it’s going to be gone in two or three years?” Dembowski said. “It’s not a real great career incentive and that may be hampering us.”

Hiring bonuses remain the primary tool the county uses to recruit new guards at both the juvenile and adult jail, which is also facing a crippling staff shortage.  But county rules require newly hired jail staff to pay part of their bonuses back if they stay less than three years, which means that a guard hired today would have to stay at the CFJC until 2025, when the facility is supposed to close, with no guarantee of a new position.

“Our office’s position has always been that zero youth detention is a goal that we should strive for, and it’s aspirational. I don’t believe that we can truly reach zero youth detention before I’m gone, but maybe for my daughter and my grandkids we can see that [happen].”—King County Prosecutor’s Office Juvenile Division Director Jimmy Hung

At the same time, the juvenile detention department currently relies heavily on mandatory overtime, which falls primarily on new hires. Nance, the DAJD director, said “we definitely intend to reduce over-reliance on mandatory overtime, and in fact, incentivize individuals to voluntarily work overtime,” but did not offer specifics when we asked him about the issue in September.

Nance also said the department is “in the process of finalizing” retention incentives for existing staff, “recognizing that those individuals who have already made the commitment to stay at the detention facility through 2025 deserve an opportunity to work in an environment where they are valued, where they where they are well compensated, and where we go above and beyond wherever we possibly can to support their continued employment in the department.”

Nance did not offer more details about the department’s strategy to keep the staff it has.

Nor is it clear whether the youth detention center will actually close in 2025—or ever. Earlier this year, planning for the closure shifted from the DAJD to the Department of Community and Human Services (DCHS) in recognition of the fact that closing the youth detention center will require standing up community-based alternatives to incarceration, including housing that is more humane than a jail. Continue reading “Fewer Staff, More Incarcerated Kids, and Frequent Solitary Confinement as Youth Jail Closure Deadline Approaches”

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.”

A Homeless Activist Worked to Help Others Living in Vehicles. This Month, the City Towed Away Her Home.

The city towed Chanel Horner’s bus on September 15. Photo Chanel Horner, reproduced with permission

By Erica C. Barnett

Anyone who has watched concrete blocks sprout like crocuses in the wake of RV removals knows that under Mayor Bruce Harrell, the city has taken a newly aggressive approach toward people living in their vehicles.

Although Harrell says the city does not “sweep—we treat and we house”—the fact is that since June of this year, when the city resumed enforcing a law requiring people to move their vehicles every 72 hours, there have been about two scheduled RV sweeps every week, on top of removals sparked by complaints, criminal activity, and vehicle fires. Few of those people have received treatment (which the city does not provide) or housing. Most have either moved to another location or watched their RVs disappear on taxpayer-funded tow trucks—the last time most RV residents will see the only shelter they had.

Chanel Horner lost her home—an old bus she spray-painted with slogans like “RVLoution”—on Thursday, September 15, when a crew from the city arrived to remove it from a street in Georgetown, along with about four other RVs and three vehicles, according to the city’s September encampment removal schedule. Horner had tried unsuccessfully to order compressed natural gas from a nearby provider so she could move the bus, and the towing company she called to pull the bus across the First Avenue South bridge into South Park cited a price of $1,500.

“You don’t have to have a running vehicle to live in it. They may not be vehicles anymore, but they are still our homes.”

Still, Horner had strong ties with local service providers—an active member of the King County Regional Homelessness Authority’s Vehicular Residency Workgroup, she advocates for RV residents and often helps people move—and the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness said they would pay to tow her bus.

“The solution was to either get [Horner] the fuel or get [her] to a place to get the fuel, and no process that doesn’t allow those things to happen should be funded with city money,” the coalition’s director, Alison Eisinger said. “It is clearly an outrageously flawed process that allows this kind of preventable sequence of events to occur,” Eisinger added, “and everyone should be outraged about it.”

“I really thought we were going to be able to tow it out of there, right until the last minute,” Horner said. Instead, after a brief standoff, Horner left the bus behind, bringing a few personal items with her, including the ashes of her dog, who died in December.

We were sitting outside a Starbucks in Georgetown, shouting over traffic and the occasional roar of airplanes a few blocks from where Horner used to live. The site is now barricaded against future RV encampments with concrete eco-blocks, an illegal but ubiquitous tool used by business owners to prevent RV residents from coming back after sweeps. Horner said the city offered her a spot in a tiny house village—a type of shelter where sleep in small cabins and are expected to accept services and work toward housing—but she considers such offers “pretty tenuous.”

Besides, she said, “I didn’t really want a tiny home because I do believe I’m supposed to be in my bus.” According to a 2021 state supreme court ruling, people living in their vehicles enjoy certain rights under the state Homestead Act, including protection against excessive fines and the sale of a person’s vehicle to pay their debts. To Horner, though, the homestead designation has a special, additional meaning. “You don’t have to have a running vehicle to live in it. They may not be vehicles anymore, but they are still our homes. … We’re not homeless,” she added,  “until Bruce Harrell gives the order to tow our homes.”

PubliCola sent a detailed list of questions to several city departments that were involved in the Georgetown RV removal, including the mayor’s office. A spokeswoman for the mayor provided a boilerplate explanation of RV removals, which the city calls “remediations,” including several different reasons the city might decide to remove an RV.

“She is independent and worked hard to get her bus up and running, and advocates were working to assist Chanel in various ways to help her keep her home.”

The spokeswoman did not respond to any of our questions about the decision to impound Horner’s bus, including why her bus was a priority in the first place; whether the city considers extenuating circumstances like the fact that Horner planned to tow the bus herself; and whether the city considered it a positive outcome for Horner to lose her vehicle in exchange for a shelter offer she didn’t take. We also asked whether the city always considered it “a better outcome to move people out of vehicles and into other forms of shelter, including people who are high-functioning and don’t want or require intensive services”—again, with no response.

A spokeswoman for the KCRHA, which does not directly participate in sweeps, said that “outreach providers were active in trying to find an alternative resolution” to Horner’s situation. “She is independent and worked hard to get her bus up and running, and advocates were working to assist Chanel in various ways to help her keep her home.”

In June, KCRHA announced a contract with the Low-Income Housing Institute to to set up an RV “safe lot” for up to 50 vehicles at a time, with the goal of moving people quickly out of their RVs and into “stable, permanent housing.” Horner says she has no interest in that kind of arrangement; she wants to live in her RV, in a “trailer park” with other RV residents, with restrooms, regular trash service, and a community kitchen—kind of like a tiny house village, but without curfews, check-ins, and a commitment to moving out after a certain period.

“I’m really passionate about setting up the RV park,” Horner said. “I want to start the non-movement—because we’re not moving.”

 

Harrell’s Homelessness “Data Dashboard” Shows Plenty of Sweeps But Little Progress on Shelter, Housing

By Erica C. Barnett

Mayor Bruce Harrell, whose macho comments to a group of cops about encampment sweeps, the regional homelessness authority, and the city council were not as private as he thought, has said he will provide unprecedented transparency into encampment removals and progress toward addressing homelessness in the city. Earlier this year, he unveiled a “data dashboard” on homelessness that turned out to be a mostly static website displaying information about where the city’s budget for homelessness goes along with general information about new housing units that will become available this year. 

The mayor’s office promised to update this “dashboard” four times a year. Earlier this month, new information appeared under a section of the site called “Bringing People Indoors”; according to the update, the city counted 814 tents and 426 RVs citywide, and made a total of 191 offers of shelter, in June, out of 616 in the second quarter of 2022.

The city’s Human Services Department, which keeps tabs on shelter referrals leading up to and during encampment sweeps, breaks down its shelter referral numbers by both total number of referrals and the number of individual people who received referrals—a smaller number, since some people get more than one referral from the city’s HOPE team and contracted outreach providers.

Assuming the numbers on the dashboard were calculated the same way, and applying HSD’s estimate that 38 percent of shelter offers during the same period resulted in a person enrolling at a shelter for at least one night, that means—very roughly—that around 72 people from those 814 tents and 426 RVs spent any time at all time in a shelter bed.

Of course, there are caveats to those numbers. The first is that the number of shelter referrals listed on the dashboard is higher, by about 150, than HSD’s citywide estimate. (We’ve contacted HSD for an explanation of this seeming discrepancy). The second is that the number of people who get shelter referrals is slippery, because it may exclude some people who aren’t registered in the regional Homeless Management Information System, which tracks unhoused people as they access various services.

The third caveat speaks to a primary issue with Harrell’s “dashboard” itself: The information is very obviously incomplete, as it was when the website first debuted. Although it purports to show both the number of “verified” tents and RVs by neighborhood, along with the number of people removed from “closed” encampments designated by dots on a map, it’s obvious that the map isn’t comprehensive (with thousands of unsheltered people living in the city, there are clearly more than 426 tents in Seattle, for example) and a closer look at many “closed” encampments provides no information about what happened to the people living there, or even the number of people who were displaced.

The site also continues to misstate the amount of money the city contributes to the King County Regional Homelessness Authority, padding the city’s direct contribution, around $70 million, with nearly $50 million in federal relief dollars for a total of $118 million. Harrell used the same inflated number when talking to police, telling them (according to KTTH’s Jason Rantz, who appears to have gotten a recording from an officer), “I’m funding an organization that seems to be working against what I’m trying to do” (removing encampments) and suggesting he might consider cutting their budget this year.

KCRHA director Marc Dones— clearly a thorn in Harrell’s side, based on the mayor’s many public comments about his frustration with the agency—has asked the city to not only renew its existing budget but give the agency tens of millions more to fund new high-acuity shelter beds; purchase buildings, such as hotels and single-family houses, to serve as “bridge” housing; and open several new safe parking lots for people who live in their vehicles.

In response to our request for comment about Harrell’s biting comments, the KCRHA provided a terse statement that says a lot by saying very little. “The Regional Homelessness Authority was designed as a community-wide effort, working together with all 39 cities, King County, businesses, philanthropy, housed and unhoused neighbors, in order to implement real solutions. With our partners, we are working to create vibrant, inclusive communities where everyone has a safe and stable place to live, and we can accomplish that goal when we work together,” the statement said.

Seattle’s “High Utilizers Initiative” Targets Frequent Offenders for Prosecution. Could It Be Put to Better Use?

By Erica C. Barnett

Six months ago, City Attorney Ann Davison announced a new initiative that would target so-called high utilizers of the criminal justice system—people with more than 12 misdemeanor referrals in the last five years—by subjecting their actions to greater scrutiny, excluding them from community court, and keeping them in jail for months, much longer than current misdemeanor booking restrictions allow.

Since launching the High Utilizers Initiative in February, the city attorney’s office has filed charges against people on the list 82 percent of the time, compared to a 63 percent charging rate for all misdemeanor cases so far this year. In 2021, under former city attorney Pete Holmes, the office charged people meeting the new “high utilizer” standard just 58 percent of the time. The initiative was also supposed prioritize this group for mental health services and treatment.

So far, the initiative has resulted mostly in more charges for people on the list, although the city attorney’s office says additional policy proposals are coming.

“We are declining fewer cases for this population than for the overall population,” deputy city attorney Scott Lindsay said. “I think it tells us that this effort is doing exactly what Ann said it would do: For individuals who are repeatedly having a significant disruptive impact on their neighborhood, we are trying to make sure that they are not slipping through the cracks.”

The initiative also allows the city to keep people on the list in jail for longer, bypassing rules that have prohibiting most misdemeanor bookings. “When somebody has a record of 35, 40 criminal cases and then they have a new property destruction case in Ballard and they’re saying you can’t do anything about that, that doesn’t make sense,” Lindsay said.

Critics of the high utilizers initiative argue, citing considerable research, that repeatedly jailing people who are homeless and suffer from significant behavioral health conditions does not reduce crime and makes the people being incarcerated sicker and less likely to be able to thrive in their communities. Anita Khandelwal, director of the King County Department of Public Defense, said the people on the high utilizers list “should not be subject to jail booking or prosecution for misdemeanor offenses; instead, they should be introduced to service providers who can develop community support and housing options without the hindrance and destabilization caused by repeated jailing and prosecution.”

“It’s hard to overstate the cruelty—and futility—of incarcerating a person who is not able to understand what is happening or to assist their attorney. What’s more, incarceration is destabilizing and leads to an increased risk of a person dying by suicide—as we have repeatedly seen happen at the King County Jail over the past year.”—Anita Khandelwal, director, King County Department of Public Defense

Lisa Daugaard, co-director of the Public Defender Association, whose programs serve people involved in the criminal legal system, said creating a list of people who are frequently arrested for misdemeanors isn’t a “good thing nor a bad thing by itself. It could be helpful if it caused local authorities to come up with a plan for these people’s situation, which is highly likely in need of a plan or support or intervention.”

So far, Daugaard acknowledges, the focus has been on the enforcement side.

“If they are choosing to file against people on the list more often, to me, that means we’re not getting busy making plans proactively for people who we already know are in difficult situations,” she said. “There should be a lot of energy pushing for programming and placement options that just don’t exist for this population right now—and they would have a lot of allies.”

PubliCola obtained a copy of the most recent high utilizers roster, from July, and reviewed the recent criminal and legal histories of each of the 111 people on the list. Two things stand out right away. First, the vast majority of people on the list are either homeless or show signs of housing instability; fewer than 10 had consistent residential addresses in the Seattle area. Second, most “high utilizers” show signs of major behavioral conditions, including addiction and mental illness.

In many cases, people’s behavioral health issues were so severe that a Seattle Municipal Court judge has recently questioned their ability to understand the charges against them and participate in their own defense, a process used to determine, among other things, if a case can proceed. Nearly half, or about 54, have been ordered to undergo a competency evaluation within the last year, and 30 have been found incompetent multiple times—a high bar that requires not just a transient lack of understanding (which might be caused by drug use) but a profound underlying mental health condition.

Prosecuting such people, Khadelwal says, is pointless and counterproductive. “It’s hard to overstate the cruelty—and futility—of incarcerating a person who is not able to understand what is happening or to assist their attorney,” Khandelwal said. “What’s more, incarceration is destabilizing and leads to an increased risk of a person dying by suicide—as we have repeatedly seen happen at the King County Jail over the past year.”

Katie landed on the high utilizers list after racking up more than two dozen separate charges in the last five years—everything from tampering with a fire alarm to vehicle prowling to pedestrian interference, for walking in the middle of busy Rainier Avenue South. She spends most of her time in Ballard, despite restraining orders and arrests and people warning her, over and over, to stay out of the area. She has a connection to the neighborhood—it’s where her family once lived, she has told officers and court officials and anyone who will listen, and where her “street family” lives now.

Mostly, Katie’s charges involve stealing from, screaming at, and harassing employees and patrons of businesses and institutions in Ballard’s commercial core, including retail stores, a car dealership, and the Seattle Public Library. Typically, she will enter a business, yell and knock things down, and run off with random items, such as pile of Starbucks paper cups a barista set outside one day. For just one person, people familiar with Katie say, her impact is tremendous; she might enter a single business multiple times a day, causing havoc and running out only to return a few hours later.

Katie has also assaulted people directly—pulling an earring off a waitress who told her to go away, attacking an employee at St. Luke’s Presbyterian Church, which offers daily meals from its building across from the Ballard Commons. St. Luke’s is among at least half a dozen Ballard businesses that have a no-contact order barring Katie from coming within 1,000 feet of their property—an almost unprecedented move for a church whose institutional mission includes serving Ballard’s homeless population. Earlier this year, because of her status as a “high utilizer,” she was detained for nearly five months at the King County Jail; when she got out, she went straight back to Ballard, where she was promptly arrested—not for harming anyone, but for simply being there.

This time, the city attorney’s office didn’t seek to keep Katie in jail , and she was released two days after her arrest. But her months-long stay in jail had consequences she was still living through. During that period, her name had come up on a waiting list for housing, but no one noticed; as a result, she missed a crucial deadline and fell off the list. Now, after case conferencing that included representatives from the city attorney’s office, she’s staying in a tiny house in a neighborhood across town. But she’s still barred from most of Ballard, which will make it hard for her to avoid arrest in the future.

Despite her erratic behavior, Katie has been found competent at least once, after two previous incompetency findings. Her most recent evaluation, in February, concluded that she was competent to stand trial as long as she stayed away from drugs—a conclusion that shows one of the limits of “competency” as a measure of behavioral health.

Peter, another “high utilizer” who has been found incompetent to stand trial repeatedly, most recently in July, frequents the University District, where his name is on a private list of high-impact individuals maintained by the University District Partnership (UDP), which represents businesses in the area.

“There may be a reason to incarcerate a person to keep them away from everybody else and stop them from doing that [behavior] for some period of time. But does state punishment itself cause a positive change in people? I think the answer is clearly, no, it does not.”—Daniel Malone, Director, Downtown Emergency Service Center

Peter—also a pseudonym—has been arrested repeatedly for walking into businesses, stealing small items—a can of Campbell’s chicken and dumpling soup, an Ace bandage, a bottle of A&W root beer—and threatening employees who catch him or tell him to leave. He says things like, “If you stop me, I have a gun and I will kill you,” and “fuck you, I’ll kick your ass,” and “if you call the police, I will murder you,” according to police reports. On occasion, he’s taken a swing or tried to “head butt” a clerk. Once, he grabbed a “small pink pen knife” from a homeless woman’s cart and pointing it toward a Safeway clerk, Other than the pen knife, which he returned to the woman who owned it, police reports do not indicate that has ever been caught carrying a weapon.

Peter is also, as his many incompetency findings make clear, profoundly disabled, to the point that he’s frequently incapable of carrying on a coherent conversation. He may be “terrorizing” a neighborhood, but he’s also lost in his own delusions of money, grandeur, and persecution; it’s hard to imagine him understanding the nature of the charges against him, much less sitting still in front of a judge and testifying in his own defense.

“We have a lot of clients who are just so gravely disabled that you’re not going to get the same result if you tell them to do something” the way you would with most people, said Ailene Richard, the North Seattle LEAD supervisor for the homeless outreach organization REACH. “They’re not internalizing information in the same way. You have to ask people, what is your motivator? Why do you keep stealing things? Even to do that takes relationship building and trust building.”

The UDP participates in case conferencing—a process that involves sitting down with representatives from Mayor Bruce Harrell’s office, neighborhood organizations, LEAD, REACH, and the city attorney’s office and figuring out how to address and assist people who are having a negative impact on local residents and businesses. But for cases like Peter’s, UDP president Don Blakeney says, they’re at a loss.

“What is the solution for someone who is having a negative impact on the neighborhood but is not really a great candidate for behavioral change?” Blakeney said. “Those kind of people on the list are going to be hard [to deal with]—they can’t keep impacting the neighborhood the way they do because it’s terrifying of folks who are stuck in one place,” such as behind the counter at a retail store. “If you get to a point in the neighborhood where people are doing that every day, it has a cumulative impact.”

The Downtown Seattle Association, which supported previous efforts to crack down on drug dealing and sales of stolen goods such as the short-lived Operation New Day, also supports the high utilizers initiative. But the group’s CEO, Jon Scholes, says simply arresting people and releasing them back into the community without health care and housing won’t address the impact high utilizers have on the neighborhood or help them access the services and housing they need. “There’s very few people in our constituency who want to lock up mentally ill people forever—they they want to reduce the impact [and] they want a better outcome.”

Unlike the University District and SoDo neighborhoods, which have access to case conferencing, Scholes said the city and service providers “haven’t set that kind of table with us and other [business] groups. We’ve never set aside the housing and other services that are really needed for this population. …A list is just a list if there’s no meaningful intervention that’s being offered.”

Both Katie and Peter, along with many others on the high utilizers list, are connected with case managers from groups like REACH and LEAD, which work with unhoused people facing charges and those who have co-occurring behavioral health conditions, including mental illness and addiction. But identifying appropriate housing and services for people with huge, sometimes lifelong, challenges takes time, even years, and in the meantime, the prescription from the city attorney’s office often prioritizes immediate neighborhood demands. 

And even some homeless service providers say there are times when jail is justified. Staffers for the Downtown Emergency Service Center, which has provided (or currently provides) shelter or housing for many of the people on the high utilizers list, call police when a client assaults another client or threatens guests or staff—as happened earlier this month, when a man on the list exposed himself to residents and staff at DESC’s Hobson Place apartments.

“When I first heard about the so-called high-utilizers program,” Municipal Court Judge Damon Shadid said, he hoped Davison’s office would “gather certain information on people who are having a high impact on the community” and “figure out how to address them in a useful way. That is not what happened. Instead, we were handed a list of people who we were told were not eligible for the primary diversion program at the court, and we were not offered a solution other than the primary solution of putting people in jail.”

“We’re supposed to [call police] not just when we’re upset at a lack of compliance or cooperation, but when it’s reached a point where we’re unable to manage the situation safely and effectively,” Malone said. “There may be a reason to incarcerate a person to keep them away from everybody else and stop them from doing that [behavior] for some period of time. But does state punishment itself cause a positive change in people? I think the answer is clearly, no, it does not.”

Richard said going in and out of jail all the time can cause “tremendous” harm—”jail is not a therapeutic place.” At the same time, jail can provide “a sort of break from everything they’re usually doing,” she added. “Sometimes if we’ve had trouble finding that client, that’s a way we can contact them. It is sometimes the only opportunity that we have to be able to meet with certain folks who we have not been able to find on outreach.”

Seattle Municipal Court Judge Damon Shadid oversees community court, an alternative to mainstream criminal court that offers access to services such as mental health and addiction treatment, occupational therapy, and life skills classes. He says the city attorney’s office needs to demonstrate, with clear evidence, that jail is helping not just businesses and neighborhood residents but the people who are being jailed over and over again with few visible results. “If they’re going to charge these people more, they need to prove that they’re having a positive impact.” So far, he said, they haven’t done so.

Instead, Davison took action early in her term to specifically deny access to community court to anyone on the list, arguing that people who commit the same offenses repeatedly need strict accountability, not treatment and classes. Davison, and Lindsay, especially objected to the fact that community court is a “release first” model, which gives people who enter the program the benefit of the doubt instead of, as Khandelwal put it recently, keeping people in jail “simply because they are too poor to post bail.” Continue reading “Seattle’s “High Utilizers Initiative” Targets Frequent Offenders for Prosecution. Could It Be Put to Better Use?”