Category: Mayor Harrell

Nelson, Pedersen Vote to Reject City Budget Because It Doesn’t Fund Everything They Want

Councilmember Alex Pedersen and Sara Nelson
Seattle City Councilmembers Alex Pedersen and Sara Nelson

By Erica C. Barnett

Seattle City Councilmembers Sara Nelson and Alex Pedersen voted against the city council’s amended 2023-2024 budget proposal at a council budget committee meeting Monday, joining socialist Kshama Sawant—who votes against the budget every year—in an ideologically split three-vote minority. The budget, which goes to the full council for a final vote tomorrow, requires a six-vote majority to pass; if even one more council member sided with Nelson, Pedersen, and Sawant, the entire budget would fail.

Nelson and Pedersen, who frequently formed a two-vote mini-bloc during the council’s budget deliberations, explained their decision in similar terms: They couldn’t vote for a budget that doesn’t fully fund Harrell’s public safety priorities. “I cannot in good conscience endorse a final budget that, I believe, fails to learn from recent public policy mistakes on public safety and fall short on public safety for a third year in a row,” Pedersen said.

That argument would hold more water if the council had proposed actually cutting SPD’s budget. Instead, the council fully funded SPD’s (and Mayor Bruce Harrell’s) entire hiring plan, and used savings from vacant SPD positions to provide the department with an additional $17 million a year to pay for, among other things, the recruitment and retention proposals Nelson and Pedersen have supported. No other department received this kind of kid-gloves treatment; in fact, many departments face dramatic cuts next year.

The council’s budget also returns the city’s parking enforcement division to SPD, another one of Harrell’s top budget priorities.

“Minor reductions [to proposed new SPD programs] are being emphasized and exaggerated. This is the harmful rhetoric that is likely to continue to negatively impact hiring and retention.”—City Councilmember Lisa Herbold

In contrast to previous years, such as 2020, it’s virtually impossible to make the argument that the council didn’t work with the mayor to craft a budget that retains most of what he wanted—a point Councilmember Lisa Herbold made when she accused her two colleagues of contributing to a “false narrative” about public safety.

“It’s normal to debate budget issues,” Herbold said. “But these false narratives don’t make us safer.”

“Ninety-nine percent of the mayor’s proposed budget is included in this balancing package,” Herbold continued. “SPD hiring is fully funded, and they’ve begun to show some promising trends. Minor reductions to the remaining 1 percent of the budget”—the elimination of new programs, such as a gunfire surveillance system and a marketing consultant—”are being emphasized and exaggerated. This is the harmful rhetoric that is likely to continue to negatively impact hiring and retention.”

Eliminating these new programs from next year’s budget helped the council close a late-breaking general-fund budget shortfall of $4.5 million, on top of the $141 million shortfall announced earlier this year.

Nelson and Pedersen also objected to the council’s decision to eliminate, or abrogate, 80 of the 240 SPD positions that are currently sitting vacant; these vacant positions, which the city will use to augment the budget and fund new SPD spending next year, receive funding every budget cycle. The council’s budget will retain funding for at least 160 of these “ghost” positions going forward, and can add more positions in the future if SPD hiring suddenly skyrockets past the department’s own rather optimistic projections. Nonetheless, both Pedersen and Nelson have characterized this as an example of “defunding” the police. 

Nelson also criticized the council for failing to fund an expansion of the city’s graffiti abatement program and for moving homeless outreach workers out of Harrell’s new Unified Care Team (which the council fully funded) and into the King County Regional Homelessness Authority.

The two council members’ votes against the budget seem even less justified when you consider the concessions the rest of the council made to fund their priorities. 

Nelson, for example, got unanimous approval for a last-minute amendment that commits the city to spend some of the proceeds from a recent settlement with opioid distributors on abstinence-based rehab, marking the city’s first foray into the kind of public health decisions that are usually made by King County’s public health department.

Nelson was elected last year, and is staking out a position on the budget every bit as absolutist as Sawant’s: If the rest of the council doesn’t support her specific priorities, she’ll vote to reject the city’s budget wholesale.

In an op/ed earlier this year, Nelson expressed her view that medication-assisted treatment, such as the use of suboxone (an opioid) to treat opiate addiction, is “not aimed at long-term recovery.” This is the opposite of scientific consensus (the federal government’s substance abuse agency, for example, has a far more expansive definition of recovery that embraces long-term medication), but in line with Nelson’s general opposition to harm reduction programs— like the Public Defender Association’s LEAD and Co-LEAD programs, which provide case management and housing to people with addiction and other behavioral health issues.

Pedersen, meanwhile, managed to wrangle $3.5 million a year for bridge maintenance out of the Seattle Transportation Benefit District tax, which is supposed to fund transit, by arguing that because buses and bikes also use bridges, funding for bridges is a transit investment. That amendment passed 5-4—a major win for Pedersen at the expense of future transit projects.

Nelson was elected last year, and is staking out a position on the budget every bit as absolutist as Sawant’s: If the rest of the council doesn’t support her specific priorities, she’ll vote to reject the city’s budget wholesale. Time will tell if she continues down this all-or-nothing path.

Pedersen, in contrast, has apparently had a dramatic change of heart. Just two years ago, Pedersen wrote in a Seattle Times op/ed that it would be irresponsible for him to vote against the 2020 budget—which included far more dramatic changes than this year’s plan—just because he didn’t like everything that was in it.

“People are yearning for functional government. If the budget does not pass, nothing gets done,” Pedersen wrote. “No budget is perfect. Our constituents have diverse and conflicting views. A budget with positives and negatives is a natural result.”

“And to my constituents who ask, ‘Why did you vote the same way as Kshama Sawant?,” Pedersen concluded,
“I didn’t. She voted No.” This year, so did Pedersen.

Council Budget Eliminates 80 Vacant Police Positions, Preserves Human Service Pay, Moves Parking Officers Back to SPD

City Council budget chair Teresa Mosqueda

By Erica C. Barnett

The Seattle City Council’s budget committee, which includes all nine council members, moved forward on a 2023-2024 budget yesterday that will move the city’s parking enforcement division back to the police department, preserve inflationary wage increases for human service workers, and increase the city’s funding for the King County Regional Homelessness Authority—all while closing a late-breaking budget hole of almost $80 million over the next two years.

Every fall, the mayor proposes a budget and the council “rebalances” it, adding spending for their own priorities and removing items to keep the budget balanced. In November, after many council members had already proposed substantial changes to Mayor Bruces Harrell’s initial budget proposal, the city received news that tax revenues would be even lower than previously anticipated. The biggest unanticipated shortfall came from a decline in real-estate taxes, which pay for long-term capital projects, but other revenues, including parking taxes and money from the sweetened beverage tax, also declined.

Last week, council budget chair Teresa Mosqueda proposed a balancing package that saved money by declining to fund most of the new programs and program expansions Harrell proposed in his budget, while making several substantive policy changes. Among the most controversial: A proposal to eliminate 80 vacant positions in the police department, and a related plan to to keep the city’s parking enforcement officers at the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT), rather than moving them back to SPD, while the city decides on a permanent home for the unit.

“Our mayor’s budget did not delete these 80 [vacant police] positions, and if we trust in what the mayor asks for regarding public safety and the budgeting knowledge and skills and best practices of the city budget office, I don’t think we should do anything different here.”—Councilmember Alex Pedersen

The budget the committee adopted Monday night, nearly 12 hours into a meeting that began at 9:30 that morning, will eliminate the 80 vacant positions, while preserving another 160 vacant positions in future years. Vacant positions continue to be funded year after year unless the mayor or council takes action to defund them temporarily and use the money for other purposes, as Harrell’s budget does this year. Both the proposed budget and the one adopted by the committee on Monday use money  that would have gone to the 80 vacant positions to augment the city’s general fund, while using the savings from another 120 positions to pay for new spending within the police department. This week, the council got word that SPD had identified another 40 vacant positions, for a total of 240.

Council member Alex Pedersen opposed eliminating the 80 unfilled police positions, arguing that it would be wrong for the council to go against the “wisdom” of the City Budget Office, the mayor, and police chief Adrian Diaz, who want to keep as many positions vacant but funded as possible.

“Our mayor’s budget … did not delete these 80 positions, and if we trust in what the mayor asks for regarding public safety and the budgeting knowledge and skills and best practices of the city budget office, I don’t think we should do anything different here by abrogating or deleting these 80 positions,” Pedersen said.

Council member Sara Nelson added that eliminating vacant positions as a recurring budget line item could discourage people from applying for jobs at SPD and send a message to existing officers that the city did not support police hiring.

In response, council public safety chair Lisa Herbold pointed out that the budget fully funds the mayor and SPD’s hiring plan, which would increase the department by a net total of 30 officers in the next two years. (This hiring plan assumes a complete reversal, and then some, of current SPD hiring trends). It also keeps the remaining 160 vacant positions on the books, where they will be funded again automatically in 2025. For the city to need the 80 positions the council eliminated Monday, it would have to hire at least 190 net new officers, not counting new recruits who replace officers who leave the department. If that very unlikely scenario came to pass, the council could add funding for more officers—as it has many times in the past.

“It’s really disappointing that … some people seem unwilling to say that the hiring budget is fully funded for the next biennium for the council to act on,” Herbold said. “That would send a positive factual message, rather than … distort what an abrogation of positions would do for the budget.”

Nelson and Pedersen also cast the only votes against a Herbold-sponsored proviso, or spending restriction, requiring the police department to get council approval if they want to use their staffing budget for anything other than salaries and benefits, arguing it was important to give SPD special flexibility to spend their budget how they want to.

“I believe we should stop micromanaging the use of salary savings and exercise some humility going forward because we simply don’t know what needs will need to be met,” Nelson said. “[Extra] overtime, for example, if there’s an earthquake or a mass shooting or something.”

In a last-minute compromise with Harrell’s office, the council agreed to move parking enforcement from SDOT to SPD, as PubliCola reported Monday. The compromise amendment uses administrative savings from the move (almost $9 million a year) to pay for several council spending priorities, including $1 million in one-time funds to support the Public Defender Association’s LEAD and Co-LEAD programs, which Harrell’s budget partially defunded; $1 million to “activate” City Hall Park in Pioneer Square, which has been fenced off since the summer of 2021; and $1 million for RV parking and storage “associated with non-congregate shelter,” among other new spending.

In a separate amendment, the council provided an additional $2 million a year for LEAD and Co-LEAD, which the PDA says still leaves them $5.3 million a year short of what it needs to fully fund both programs. The two programs provide case management and (in the case of Co-LEAD) hotel-based shelter for people involved in the criminal legal system, including many with behavioral health conditions that make it harder to find housing.

Morales had more success with another amendment that would place a budget proviso, or restriction, on $1 million in 2023 spending from the city’s transportation levy, requiring SDOT to spend it replacing plastic bollards that do not actually “protect” bike lanes with concrete barriers that do.

Here are some more highlights from Monday’s meeting, which was the last chance for council members to make substantive changes to the budget; for budget changes the council agreed on prior to Monday’s meeting, check out our coverage of those changes from last week.

• The council turned down proposals to place extra scrutiny on two programs that the council’s more conservative faction, led by Pedersen and Nelson, generally oppose. For example, they voted to remove $1.2 million in funding (all numbers are two-year figures) that Nelson wanted to spend on two full-time city staffers who would evaluate the JumpStart tax, which was just implemented last year.

The council also rejected two proposals by Nelson to apply extra scrutiny to LEAD and Co-LEAD, which take a harm reduction approach to addiction and low-level criminal activity rather than the abstinence-only approach Nelson favors (more on that in a moment). Specifically, Nelson wanted detailed information about the PDA’s subcontracts with REACH, the homeless outreach provider, and the basic details of both programs.

“What services are provided to the clients of LEAD?” Nelson asked Monday. “Which contractors do what for which program?”  because they do receive so much funding?” Additionally, Nelson proposed an amendment that would require quarterly reports on LEAD and Co-LEAD clients’ shelter and housing “acceptance” rates. Continue reading “Council Budget Eliminates 80 Vacant Police Positions, Preserves Human Service Pay, Moves Parking Officers Back to SPD”

Magnolia Considers Suing Over New District Boundaries, Mayor Donates Auction Item to Exclusive Private School

1. Update on November 22, 2022: According to an email distributed by the Magnolia Community Council, the group “has made the difficult decision to no longer pursue an appeal” because the cost of doing so would be “prohibitive.” The group “will start planning for how we will come together to work effectively and efficiently for one community made up of two Council Districts,” the email said.

Rumors were flying this week that the Magnolia Community Council planned to file a legal challenge to a new Seattle City Council district map that divides the peninsula into two council districts. Representatives of businesses and homeowners in Magnolia argued that the map the Seattle Redistricting Commission ultimately adopted was inequitable because it “split” the neighborhood, moving the wealthier, whiter western half of Magnolia into District 6, currently represented by Dan Strauss.

An email that went out on the community council’s mailing list this week sought donations for a “legal defense fund” to request a review of the new map from a King County Superior Court judge, on the grounds that the redistricting commission did not follow rules laid out in the city charter for the 10-year redistricting process. “Our goal is to request a judge to order the Commission to follow the Charter and vote for a map that keeps Magnolia whole,” the email says.

The community council’s website praises comments made by former mayor Greg Nickels, the only redistricting commission member to vote against the map. In his statement, as PubliCola reported, Nickels called the map “retribution  [against] Magnolia because it is an older, wealthier and whiter community.”

Demographically, the neighborhood consists of two distinct, and very different areas. The west side, with its expansive views of Puget Sound, fits the stereotype of Magnolia as a suburban enclave: almost exclusively single-family and owner-occupied, with median home values as high as $1.7 million.

The eastern half of the peninsula, which includes thousands of renters in dense apartment blocks, will remain part of District 7, which includes other renter-heavy neighborhoods like Lower Queen Anne, Belltown, and downtown. According to Census data, the eastern part of Magnolia encompasses some of the city’s densest Census tracts, including several where more than 80 percent of residents are renters; overall, the part of Magnolia that will stay in District 7 includes almost 5,000 rental units.

The Magnolia Community Council did not respond to a request for comment on its plans to mount a legal challenge, nor on its fundraising efforts.

2. Mayor Bruce Harrell offered “lunch with the Mayor” for five students, complete with a photo opp and a tour of City Hall by mayoral staff, as an auction item to benefit the exclusive Lakeside School’s parents’ association earlier this month. Proceeds from the annual ROAR (Raising Our Allocation Resources) auction pay for “classroom enrichment, faculty and staff development, and financial aid,” according to Lakeside’s website.

Annual tuition at Lakeside School is more than $40,000 a year, although families that receive financial assistance pay, on average, just over $9,800 a year, according to the school’s website. The average income for families that receive financial aid is $163,730 a year.

In response to questions about the auction, mayoral spokesman Jamie Housen said Harrell has “regularly volunteered his time for these kinds of charity auctions, including to support students at Garfield and Cleveland High Schools, the Wing Luke Museum, and the Rainier Chamber. … In this case, he was asked to support a charity auction to raise money in support of students, including financial aid for underrepresented students. One of Mayor Harrell’s children is a Lakeside alumnus and his daughter-in-law currently works at the school.”

Other items available at the auction, which has now closed, included a Lake Washington Boat Adventure with “El Capitan Jefe,” an inside look at the filming of KING TV’s long-running Evening show, and weekends at several vacation houses. Lunch with the mayor sold for $225.

Council Budget “Balancing Package” Cuts Vacant SPD Positions, Restores Human Service Worker Raises

The city council’s budget “balancing package” still leaves a large gap the city will have to address in the future, possibly through new progressive taxes that have not yet been identified.

By Erica C. Barnett

Twelve days after a late-breaking revenue forecast punched new holes in the city of Seattle’s biennial budget, city council budget committee chair Teresa Mosqueda released a two-year “balancing package” that amends Mayor Bruce Harrell’s October budget proposal by eliminating proposed new programs and initiatives, allowing revenues from the JumpStart payroll tax to fund programs that would not ordinarily qualify for  JumpStart spending, and reducing the number of vacant police positions the city will continue to hold open next year from 200 to 120.

Mosqueda’s plan would eliminate proposed new funding for Shotspotter (or another gunshot detection system); reduce the proposed increase in police recruiting efforts; reduce the amount of new funding SPD will receive for new guns and ammunition; and reduce the amount of new spending on SPD’s Develop Our People leadership academy, a management training program for sergeants.

Harrell’s budget assumes that the 120 vacant positions Mosqueda’s proposal leaves untouched won’t be filled, and “reinvests” those on-paper savings back into other police programs. Mosqueda’s budget proposal doesn’t touch this “reinvestment” and still funds the vast majority of Harrell’s police hiring and recruitment plan, which still includes large bonuses for new recruits and enough money to hire a net 30 new officers over the next two years—an ambitious plan that would represent a rapid reversal of police hiring trends over the last several years.

At Monday’s initial council meeting to discuss the proposal, Councilmember Alex Pedersen said any proposal to cut vacant positions from SPD’s budget amounted to “revisiting the debate in 2020 and 2021” about “defunding” the police department. “I see in the [budget] proviso that it takes away the police department’s flexibility to use savings to address overtime needs, despite the fact that they have a severe staffing shortage,” Pedersen said.

Mosqueda anticipated the objection that eliminating funding for positions that will never be filled amounts to a “cut” in the police department. “We are not touching the 120 [police positions] and we are not touching the hiring plan,” Mosqueda told PubliCola Sunday. But “we know we are never going to fill [the remaining 80], so we are going to put those dollars back into the general fund.”

Councilmember Alex Pedersen said any proposal to cut vacant positions from SPD’s budget amounted to “revisiting the debate in 2020 and 2021” about “defunding” the police department.

Then, Mosqueda said, she looked at the items Harrell proposed funding with the money from the remaining 120 positions, and asked “what is above and beyond on that list. It was things like [the gunshot detection system] Shotspotter— gone. They wanted a PR firm that was in charge of the [police] recruiting plan. That’s gone. They wanted a website redesign investment. That’s gone. Anything that was not essential for the policy that was passed—gone.” 

Eliminating Shotspotter, SPD’s marketing plan, and a new $1.2 million-a-year anti-graffiti program would save about $3 million a year. Cutting and delaying capital projects funded by the city’s Real Estate Excise Tax, which stands to take a $64 million hit over the next three years, would save millions more. Another source of unanticipated funding—about $5 million a year—will come from the money the city planned to spend expanding an existing shelter in SoDo, a project King County Executive Dow Constantine abandoned earlier this year.

And then, of course, there is the JumpStart payroll tax, which the council originally earmarked for housing, Green New Deal programs, equitable development, and small businesses. Harrell’s budget would have empowered the mayor to use JumpStart for non-JumpStart purposes in perpetuity, by overturning a law, passed just last year, that only allows JumpStart spending for general government purposes if the city’s general fund falls below $1.5 billion.

Although Mosqueda’s budget provides a two-year exemption to this rule, she says she’s confident the council won’t have to do the same thing after 2024,, because by then a revamped progressive revenue task force will have come up with new funding sources to make the annual budget less susceptible to economic downturns.

The balancing package also shifts some funds around so that JumpStart will mostly go to its intended purposes; for example, instead of using the payroll tax to 14 new city employees to staff Sound Transit’s light rail expansion plan, as Harrell proposed, Mosqueda’s proposal would use money from the Seattle Transportation Benefit District, funded mostly with vehicle license fees, to pay for those positions.

Although Mosqueda made some concessions on JumpStart, her budget also funds full inflationary wage increases for human service workers, rather than the sub-inflationary 4 percent increase Harrell proposed. Harrell’s plan would have required the council to overturn a 2019 law requiring cost of living adjustments that keep up with inflation; as Harrell, then council president, said in a speech supporting the measure at the time, the point of the law was to ensure that wages keep up with inflation during “hard times,” not just when things are going well.

The balancing package also keeps the city’s parking enforcement officers at the Seattle Department of Transportation, rather than transferring them back to the Seattle Police Department, as Harrell proposed. This plan, like Mosqueda’s proposal to stop funding 80 vacant police positions that cannot be filled, could end up a target for disingenuous accusations that the council is “defunding the police.”

PubliCola has heard that Councilmember Sara Nelson plans to resurrect Harrell’s original proposal to open up JumpStart spending permanently, including legislation originally sent down by Harrell’s office that would pin the threshold for JumpStart to go to non-JumpStart purposes to the rate of inflation, rather than a fixed $1.5 billion amount.

The balancing package also keeps the city’s parking enforcement officers at the Seattle Department of Transportation, rather than transferring them back to the Seattle Police Department, as Harrell proposed, and sets up a process for determining where parking enforcement will ultimately live at the city by next April.

“We’re asking them for a little bit of time to take the temperature down, have a conversation, and ask them what they need,” Mosqueda told PubliCola. “And then we’ll figure out which department has that structure. Is it SPD? Is it [the Community Safety and Communications Center? Is it a totally different department?” This plan, like Mosqueda’s proposal to stop funding 80 vacant police positions that cannot be filled, could end up a target for disingenuous accusations that the council is “defunding the police.”

The new budget proposal also includes funding to hire up to 90 parking enforcement officers and pay for supplies and new uniforms for the parking enforcement unit, which had to cut costs when the city moved parking enforcement to SDOT. The move increased administrative costs for the department by about $5 million due to a quirk in how  way general fund spending is allocated on administration; Mosqueda said neither SDOT nor then-mayor Jenny Durkan were honest with the council about the extra costs.

Other highlights of the balancing package, which the council will discuss in detail over the coming week:

• Instead of funding the mayor’s “Seattle Jobs Center,” which Harrell described in his first State of the City address as a portal “connecting workers and employers to new opportunities, workforce development, and apprenticeships,” the balancing proposal would use JumpStart revenues to fund the MLK Labor Council’s existing online “hiring hall,” while requesting a report from the city’s Office of Economic Development on what a city-run jobs site would look like.

Looking at Harrell’s budget proposal, which does not include any new details about the jobs center, “we were like, ‘what’s the plan here? What’s this going to look like? Have you consulted with labor partners?'” Mosqueda said. “And there wasn’t a lot of there there.”

• The proposal eliminates cash spending on large projects that would be funded by the Real Estate Excise Tax (REET) and proposes funding them instead with long-term debt, which increases the cost of projects but allows the city to fund them over time, rather than paying for entire big-ticket items up front. These include the redevelopment of Memorial Stadium, at Seattle Center, in collaboration with Seattle Public Schools, and the purchase of a building on the downtown waterfront for a new, 10,000-square-foot tribal interpretive center for the Muckleshoot Tribe.

• The balancing package would preserve most of the funding Harrell’s budget added for the new Unified Care Team, a group of city staffers from several departments that cleans up around and removes encampments. As we reported, Harrell’s budget adds 61 permanent positions to this team, the majority of them in the Seattle Department of Transportation and the Parks Department—the two departments primarily responsible for encampment sweeps.

However, the package would take most of the funding Harrell proposed spending to expand the HOPE Team, a group of city staffers that does outreach at encampments, and reallocate that money to the King County Regional Homelessness Authority to pay for contracted outreach providers, such as REACH. The plan would still add one new “system navigator” to the UCT, so that there will be one outreach worker for each of five areas of the city where the UCT will operate. The proposal also outlines clear, distinct roles for the city’s own system navigators and KCRHA’s outreach teams.

The formal request poses a list of 23 questions and sub-questions about “emphasis patrols” and the city attorney’s “high utilizers” list, such as “Does SPD have a theory of change for emphasis patrols?” and “How much has the City spent on jail beds for those arrested via emphasis patrols on the high utilizers list?

• As we reported on Monday, the regional homelessness authority approached the council in October, five months after submitting its annual budget request, to ask for more than $9 million in new funding to pay for ongoing programs that were originally funded with one-time federal dollars during the COVID pandemic. The balancing package provides $3.9 million—the sane amount KCRHA said it needs to continue federally funded rapid rehousing programs—and says KCRHA will use $5.4 million from its own 2022 “underspend” to fund these programs.

• The proposal includes $4 million in 2023 alone for the LEAD and CoLEAD programs, which provide case management, services, and, in the case of CoLEAD, hotel-based lodging for people who are involved in the criminal legal system, including people experiencing homelessness. The Public Defender Association, which runs both programs, has said it will need to make dramatic cuts to either or both in the absence of full funding for both. Harrell’s budget provided just $2.5 million over two years for CoLEAD, stipulating that the money was supposed to be spent moving CoLEAD clients from hotels into tiny house villages; the balancing package increases the city’s total contribution to both programs but says the PDA must come up with “other ongoing funding sources” after next year. Continue reading “Council Budget “Balancing Package” Cuts Vacant SPD Positions, Restores Human Service Worker Raises”

“Housing Command Center” Has Housed 4 So Far; Council’s Budget Could Shake Up Homeless Funding

Photo by Joe Mabel; CC BY-SA 3.0 license.

Update: On Monday morning, a spokeswoman for the KCRHA said the Housing Command Center will have housed 11 people by the end of the day.

A consultant working with the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), David Canavan, updated the King County Regional Homelessness Authority last week about the work being done by the “Housing Command Center,” which aims to house homeless people living downtown by moving them directly from the street into privately owned units, with full rent subsidies for the first year. The Command Center opened began its work in late August.

Of the 748 people on the regional authority’s “by-name list” of people living unsheltered downtown, Canavan said, three households, including a total of four individuals, have signed leases and are getting ready to move in to apartments. “We’re really at the beginning of moving folks, and there’s a tremendous amount of work goes into aligning these systems, executing contracts, developing the workforce, [and] building assessment tools” for people on the list, Canavan said. So far, he said, the command center has identified 310 housing units.

According to KCRHA spokeswoman Anne Martens, two-thirds of those 310 units are studio apartments; the rest are one-bedrooms. “The amount of time it takes to get a person housed is dropping,” Martens said, from 36 days to “18 or 19 days” after “a site is prioritized for [removal]” by the city. (During last week’s meeting, Canavan said the first housing placement took 34 days and the second took 17.)

Implementation board member and Lived Experience Coalition representative Lamont Green asked Canavan whether the command center was doing anything to add temporary shelters or transitional housing “so we can more quickly get people off the streets across King County,” since “the majority of our unhoused neighbors do not want to be living outside.”

“I don’t see shelter as part of that solution. I don’t think we have to have shelter designed into our process. But I’m also not a decision maker.” —David Canvan, HUD

No, Canavan said; HUD’s focus is entirely on permanent housing. “I don’t see shelter as part of that solution. I don’t think we have to have shelter designed into our process. But I’m also not a decision maker. I don’t get to make decisions for other people. So I’m trying to add choices to your portfolio, which means putting permanent housing solutions in front of folks experiencing homelessness. That doesn’t eliminate any of the choices that are available and my understanding is your jurisdiction has shelter options with many vacancies.”

In reality, according to outreach providers and city officials who have attempted to take a more deliberate approach to encampment removals, there are general only a handful of shelter beds available across the city on any given day. Moreover, the shelters that have more frequent openings are congregate or semi-congregate shelters like the Navigation Center in Chinatown, rather than more desirable forms of shelter, such as hotels and tiny houses.

As we noted when we reported exclusively on the command center in September, the “command center”—a room at the city of Seattle’s Emergency Operations Center in Pioneer Square—did not come with any additional funding.

At the time, the KCRHA was hoping for future funding from, among other places, the city of Seattle, from which the authority requested tens of millions of dollars in new funding for a new high-acuity medical shelter, new temporary bridge housing, and new safe lots for people living in their vehicles. Mayor Bruce Harrell’s initial budget proposal funded none of these items, but did include $10 million in new funding for temporary shelter, which wasn’t among the authority’s requests.

Since then, the KCRHA has come back to the council to ask for money to pay for programs and services that were originally funded with about $45 million in one-time federal COVID emergency dollars that will no longer be available after this year. (Once city budget adds are factored in, the KCRHA stands to lose about $30 million in COVID-era funding).

An amendment sponsored by Councilmember Tammy Morales would add $9.4 million a year to partially backfill this funding, which paid for “program modifications, shelter deintensification, and service changes that were instituted during the pandemic and have now been incorporated into the expected service models,” according to a council staff description of the amendment. However, Morales proposed that amendment before the latest dire revenue forecast, which blew new holes in both the general fund ($4.5 million next year) and revenues from the real-estate excise tax, which funds capital projects ($26.7 million next year.)

Update Monday: A city council balancing package released today includes $3.9 million in one-time funds for 2023 to partially pay for the KCRHA’s request.

A separate  proposal, which council budget chair Teresa Mosqueda is expected to release as part of an overall council budget proposal on Monday, would move some funding Harrell proposed spending on the new Unified Care Team, which oversees the city’s encampment cleanup and removal efforts, to the KCRHA.

As we reported, the city has proposed moving encampment outreach (currently performed by a small group called the HOPE Team, which has been subsumed into the UCT) to the regional authority instead of keeping them at the city. The Harrell administration, like the Durkan administration before it, has maintained that the HOPE Team has to stay at the city to avoid exposing the city to legal liability over its encampment removal practices.

Mosqueda will release her budget “balancing package” on Monday morning;  PubliCola will have full coverage after the council meets to discuss the proposal Monday afternoon.

Inmates Say Jail Water Still Coming Out Brown; Morales Opposes Expansion of “Inequitable” Seattle Promise Program

1. Last week, King County’s Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention (DAJD) announced that it had resumed the use of tap water for drinking and cooking “after new tests, like all other tests performed recently, confirmed that tap water in the jail meets EPA and Washington Department of Health drinking water standards.” The jail began distributing bottled water after complaints that the tap water in cells, ordinarily the only water source for drinking, hygiene, and heating packaged foods, was cloudy or brown.

According to DAJD spokesman Noah Haglund, the county’s facilities division “has worked diligently with water quality experts to assess the quality of the water and attempt to determine the cause of any discoloration or turbidity in the water.” (PubliCola reported exclusively on the water shutdown last month). Inmates at the jail lacked tap water for more than a month while the county was doing tests, and two current inmates told us they did not have access to adequate bottled water.

Haglund provided copies of testing results that indicated the water is safe to drink. However, multiple reports from inside the jail continue to indicate that the water is brown and cloudy. According to one defense attorney, a client at the jail reported that running the faucet in his cell “causes it to turn brown/black with visible film on top and particles in it.” The mother of another inmate said her son reported that “the water is still brown” and that guards are no longer handing out water.

Haglund confirmed that the jail is no longer handing out bottled water, and said that after following up on a complaint about water quality, a jail captain “did not observe any discoloration, abnormalities, or any other inconsistencies in the water” in the south wing of the jail. “We will continue to follow up if we receive additional reports about water issues,” Haglund said.

2. As part of the city budget deliberations that are still ongoing, City Councilmember Tammy Morales, who represents Southeast Seattle, has proposed several amendments that would claw back most of $5.7 million in unspent dollars from the Families, Education, Preschool, and Promise (FEPP) levy, which funds preschool, college assistance, and other programs. Mayor Bruce Harrell has proposed investing this underspend in Seattle Promise, whose scholarships have turned out to disproportionately benefit white students, rather than the preschool programs for which the funding was originally intended.

Morales’ amendments would reduce Harrell’s proposed new spending on Seattle Promise by $1 million in 2023 and $3.7 million in 2024 and require the city’s Department of Education and Early Learning to come up with a new plan to prioritize low-income kids, first-generation immigrants, and students of color for Seattle Promise enrollment. The amendments would not reduce overall funding for the program, and it wouldn’t eliminate funding Harrell’s office has already allocated for Seattle Promise purposes in advance of this year’s budget process.

“White students get more access to more [Seattle Promise] dollars. They also have better retention rates and better outcomes than scholars of color. Until the structural problem is fixed, we shouldn’t be expanding it.”—City Councilmember Tammy Morales

The Seattle Promise program, which provides scholarships (“Tuition”) and financial assistance (“Equity Scholarships”) to Seattle high school students who attend a local college in Seattle. Most of the funding for Seattle Promise goes toward tuition, with a smaller portion paying for grants to help kids of color and low-income kids, who often don’t qualify for scholarships because they receive tuition assistance through state and federal programs, to pay for other college necessities like food and transportation.

The implementation plan for the levy says that if demand for tuition exceeds available funds, “tuition funds will be prioritized for low-income, first-generation” students and students of color. It also says that any levy funds that go unspent at the end of the year, including tuition and scholarship funds, will supplement the preschool programs that make up the bulk of FEPP levy spending. However, this language has never been adopted into law, which is why Harrell was able to propose rolling $5.7 million in unspent Seattle Promise dollars back into the tuition side of the program, rather than spending it on preschool.

Seattle Promise was explicitly designed to close race-based opportunity gaps that keep kids of color from attending college. In reality, according to Morales, almost half the program’s tuition funding has gone to white students. “The way that it is currently structured is inequitable,” Morales said at a committee meeting late last month. “White students get more access to more dollars. They also have better retention rates and better outcomes than scholars of color. … Until the structural problem is fixed, we shouldn’t be expanding it.”

Dire Revenue Forecast Spells Trouble for Capital Projects, Delays Council Budget Action

Graphs showing stark decline in the US housing market in 2023
The problem: A spike in interest rates has made mortgages unaffordable to many, reducing revenue from real estate sales that the city relies on to balance its budget.

By Erica C. Barnett

PubliCola management has been out of the office for the past couple of weeks (vacationing in a graffiti-covered post-apocalyptic European wasteland), which is why we haven’t been posting our usual detailed city budget updates. Luckily for us, city council budget chair Teresa Mosqueda decided to take an extra week before releasing her final budget balancing package, after the city’s Office of Economic and Revenue Forecast released a new revenue forecast last week that sent budget writers scrambling.

That new forecast predicts a sharp decline in revenues from a number of sources, including the sweetened beverage tax (SBT), the real estate excise tax (REET), and the retail, business, and sales taxes that make up the city’s general fund, which pays for everything from police salaries to homeless outreach workers.

For 2023, the new forecast predicts an additional general-fund shortfall of about $4.5 million. In addition, the new projections predict an additional sweetened-beverage tax shortfall of $1.6 million and an additional REET shortfall of $26.7 million. Over three years, those projections are $9.4 million, $4.5 million, and $64 million, respectively. Revenues from REET and the sugary beverage tax, unlike general-fund revenues, can only be spent on certain purposes, which limits the city’s ability to pull funding from either source to fill general-fund shortfalls (although elected officials have frequently tried); in addition, REET is largely tied up in mandatory debt payments on major bond-financed capital projects, making much of this funding source off-limits to annual budget writers.

Usually, when people refer to the city budget, they’re talking about the general fund, which represents the part of the city’s overall budget that the city council and mayor have the greatest ability to tweak. So let’s start there. On its own, the $4.5 million general-fund shortfall is not a hugely significant number in the context of a $1.6 billion budget. However, in late October, council members proposed budget amendments that would add $80 million in general-fund spending, which would have to be offset by still-unidentified cuts to Harrell’s budget proposal.

To vastly oversimplify, last week’s revenue forecast downgrade means that if the council wanted to fund all of their own priorities, they would need to reduce Harrell’s budget by $90 million. Obviously, many of these budget amendments won’t make it through—looking at you, new Seattle Fire Department program to promote “floatplane awareness”—but any additional spending requires an equivalent cut to Harrell’s budget plan.

And some of these amendments will be sacrosanct. For example, the council has shown virtually no enthusiasm for Harrell’s plan to cap annual increases on human service provider wages at a sub-inflationary 4 percent, effectively cutting these underpaid workers’ wages. (The exception is Councilmember Sara Nelson, a longtime business owner who wondered aloud why a subinflationary wage increase didn’t constitute a “raise.”) Increasing provider wages to the level currently required by law would cost about $7.1 million in 2023.

Other amendments would increase the city’s contribution to the King County Regional Homelessness Authority by $9.4 million annually to offset the loss of temporary federal funding that enabled shelters to reduce crowding during the (still-raging) pandemic; establish new tiny house villages; preserve the LEAD and Co-LEAD programs; and pay for new and existing crisis response programs. Proposals to expand human services will be harder to eliminate than, say, an amendment from Nelson that would spend $1 million on an unspecified new addiction treatment center—something King County, which has jurisdiction over public health and addiction programs, would ordinarily fund.

Achieving a new budget balance will, as always, require some combination of spending restraint (passing only some proposed amendments) and cuts (bringing Harrell’s proposal, which includes tens of millions in new spending on priorities like removing encampments and graffiti abatement, down to size). Council members had already set their sights on Harrell’s proposal to dramatically expand the encampment-sweeping Unified Care Team and his plan to spend $1 million on a gunshot surveillance system like Shotspotter, which civil liberties advocates, including the ACLU, oppose.

Another option will be for council members to overturn a law they passed last year restricting the use of JumpStart payroll tax revenues, which are supposed to pay for affordable housing, equitable development, and Green New Deal programs, to backfill the city’s general fund. The new law says the city can only use JumpStart revenue for non-JumpStart purposes if the general fund falls below $1.5 billion. Harrell has proposed changing the law to pin the general fund baseline to inflation, allowing the city to use more of the earmarked money for non-JumpStart purposes.

The general fund is not the only budget area where the council will have to make some hard choices, nor is it the largest. Projected revenues from real estate taxes, which the city thought would continue to increase this year, have taken a nosedive thanks to rising mortgage rates and the resulting slowdown in housing purchases.

Because a large chunk of REET revenues pay for debt service, a fixed cost, or multi-year capital improvement projects such as road paving and maintenance, the city can only make limited changes to REET spending. Generally, that means cutting new or shorter-term capital projects. Some of these are improvements that mostly benefit city employees rehabbing the elevators at the Seattle Municipal Tower, for example—but others are the kind of visible, council district-level projects that voters tend to notice.

For example, Harrell’s proposed budget includes $2.5 million in new REET spending to promote “safety and accessibility” at City Hall Park; $10 million for a new Tribal Interpretive Center on the downtown waterfront; and $1 million to rehab at least one park restroom. Eliminating or delaying these programs, or any REET-funded capital project, will produce instant blowback from constituents, who will be voting next year in all seven district-based council races.

A spokesman for Harrell’s office said Monday that the mayor “recognizes that this is a challenging revenue forecast. … The mayor’s proposed budget makes critical investments in key priority areas including public safety, housing and homelessness, and the essential city services residents expect. Based on our collaboration throughout this process, we believe the Council will ensure these priorities remain adequately funded in the final budget.”

PubliCola has calls out to several council members, including Mosqueda, and will be posting additional budget updates later this week.

Jail Water Still “Cloudy” After Three Weeks; Advocates Want to Move City’s Homeless Outreach Team to Regional Authority

1. More than three weeks after inmates at the King County Jail in downtown Seattle first reported brown water coming out of their taps, jail residents are still relying on bottled water, as the Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention awaits more test results on water the DADJ describes as “cloudy,” but safe to drink. The cloudiness comes from unidentified particles suspended in the water.

Noah Haglund, a spokesman for DADJ, said jail residents get bottled water at every meal, during medication rounds, and on request. “Out of an abundance of caution, jail staff have continued to distribute bottled water several times a day since the first reports of cloudiness were received about three weeks ago,” DADJ spokesman Noah Haglund said.

But defense attorneys and people currently incarcerated at the jail dispute this, saying people are not getting enough water to drink.

“They’re saying they’re giving it to us at our request, but it’s not like that—we get [a 16-ounce bottle of] water once every six to eight hours,” one jail resident said. Another said he had received even less. At least one incarcerated person has filed a grievance with the department, saying the brown water that was coming out of the tap in late September made him sick.

Jail inmates purchase food from the commissary, such as ramen and rice, to supplement the meager jail diet, using hot tap water to cook it. According to Haglund, the county’s Facilities Maintenance Division is still waiting on test results from water samples taken this week at the jail.

2. Some advocates for people experiencing homelessness are pushing to move the city’s HOPE Team, which does outreach and offers shelter beds to unsheltered people in encampments the city is about to sweep, out of the city and into the King County Regional Homelessness Authority, PubliCola has learned. Council budget chair Teresa Mosqueda, who did not respond to a request for comment, is reportedly leading the internal discussion about this potential change to the way the city responds to encampments.

Meanwhile, one organization that has successfully moved homeless people with high needs into hotels throughout the pandemic, the Public Defender Association, is seeking full funding for its LEAD and Co-LEAD  programs. Harrell’s budget provides a total of $2.5 million for both programs next year, which isn’t enough to keep both programs going

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Harrell’s budget would expand the HOPE Team from four to 10 “system navigators” at a cost of about $1 million; moving these workers to the KCRHA, along with funds that help HOPE Team members locate available shelter beds and coordinate their work with other agencies, would shift about $2.7 million out of the city’s budget and into KCRHA’s.

That $2.7 million represents a fraction of the $38 million Harrell wants to spend on a new, consolidated encampment cleanup team called the Unified Care Team, which already includes dozens of employees in the parks, transportation, and public utilities departments. (That $38 million also includes a related effort called the Clean City Initiative). Harrell’s budget includes $15 million in new spending to increase the team to 61 members, far more than the controversial, disbanded Navigation Team had at its peak.

The KCRHA does not oversee the city’s routine encampment removals, which include both pre-scheduled and short-notice sweeps. It’s unclear how the transfer of these employees would impact their work at encampments and their ability to coordinate with the city and homeless service providers. The request is not coming from the KCRHA, which currently has its hands full fighting against another Harrell proposal that would effectively cut homeless provider pay by permanently capping mandatory contract increases at 4 percent, far less than the rate of inflation.

Meanwhile, one organization that has successfully moved homeless people with high needs into hotels throughout the pandemic, the Public Defender Association, is seeking full funding for its LEAD and Co-LEAD  programs. Harrell’s budget provides a total of $2.5 million for both programs next year, which isn’t enough to keep both programs going. Co-LEAD provides hotel-based lodging and intensive case management to people experiencing homelessness; LEAD is a case management program for people involved in the criminal legal system, including those who are housed. In addition to underfunding these programs, Harrell’s budget assumes Co-LEAD will begin moving people into new tiny house villages, rather than the hotel rooms the program currently uses.

Building a new tiny house village to shelter Co-LEAD clients wouldn’t just represent a downgrade in terms of facilities (hotels, unlike tiny houses, have individual showers, restrooms, and running water); it would also require the PDA to plan and win approval for a new, mostly outdoor shelter complex somewhere in Seattle, where protesters just killed a 90-bed expansion of an existing homeless shelter in the industrial neighborhood of SoDo.

Harrell’s Budget Would Resurrect Rejected Gunfire Detection System

Mayor Bruce Harrell and City Councilmember Sara Nelson at a recent event in the University District
Mayor Bruce Harrell and City Councilmember Sara Nelson at a recent event in the University District

By Erica C. Barnett

Earlier this year, with the city facing a budget gap of more than $140 million, Mayor Bruce Harrell asked all city departments to come up with potential budget cuts ranging from 3 to 6 percent. His proposed 2023 budget implements some of those cuts, reducing the budgets for the Human Services Department, the Office of Labor Standards, the Department of Neighborhoods, and the Office of Emergency Management, among others.

But one department remains sacrosanct: The Seattle Police Department, whose budget is set to swell substantially despite a well-documented glut of vacant, but still funded, positions. The bulk of that growth will come from re-absorbing city’s parking enforcement officers (moved to the Seattle Department of Transportation last year as part of an effort to civilianize some police jobs) into the department.“The methodology of the Journal of Urban Health study is flawed because the assessment of ShotSpotter’s efficacy was measured using data from across entire counties, when ShotSpotter coverage areas typically only cover a small part of counties. ShotSpotter does not detect and report incidents of gunfire outside of the coverage area where they are deployed. Therefore, the system would not alert officers to instances of gunfire in the majority of the geographic areas that were used to measure ShotSpotter’s impact.”

In addition, SPD will use $16 million in paper savings achieved by not funding some vacant positions to pay for a wide array of new investments, including a new acoustic gunfire detection system to “provide the police department with evidence collection capabilities for use in homicide investigations or other incidents involving firearms,” according to the budget. Setting up the system would cost the city $2 million over the next two years. But the plan will face opposition from many on the city council, who argue that the system will do little to increase prosecutions or decrease gun violence in Seattle.

Gunfire detection systems, typically shorthanded as “Shotspotter” for the name of the company that dominates the market, consist of an array of highly sensitive microphones and sensors mounted on street lights or other elevated structures throughout an area,. These sensors, which are sometimes augmented with cameras, detect and determine the approximate location of outdoor sounds that resemble gunfire and and alert human “acoustic experts” who listen to the sounds and filter out false alarms like fireworks and backfiring vehicles. These experts then alert police, who can be dispatched to the scene.

“This technology allows our evidence gatherers to determine where the shots are fired and … go right to where it was; perhaps there would be a car speeding away,” Harrell said. “Cities across the country have used this technology as an evidence gathering tool, not a violence prevention tool. And it’s been effective.”

If that argument sounds familiar, that’s because some Seattle officials have been making it for more than a decade. Both Harrell and former mayor Mike McGinn presented a virtually identical case for Shotspotter in 2012  when they pushed, unsuccessfully, for the city to fund a gunfire locator system.

But ample real-world evidence, then and now, shows that gunfire detection systems have little impact on gun violence investigations and do not reduce gun-related crime. A large study published last year in the Journal of Urban Health, for example, looked at gun homicides, murder arrests, and weapons arrests in 68 large, metropolitan counties that used Shotspotter between 1999 and 2016. The system, the study concluded, had “no significant impact on firearm-related homicides or arrest outcomes.” The ShotSpotter spokesperson said this study was flawed because it measured data across entire counties, rather than just the areas where ShotSpotter was deployed. “Therefore, the system would not alert officers to instances of gunfire in the majority of the geographic areas that were used to measure ShotSpotter’s impact.”

A 2016 report from the City Auditor’s Office backed up this finding, noting that “there has been little research to date on the efficacy of acoustic gunshot locator systems for reducing gun crime. … Moreover, although a few available studies have found that acoustic gunshot locator systems can result in slightly faster response times by police, there is no evidence that these small gains in police response times have had a deterrent effect or have led to increased apprehension of offenders.”

That report was addressed to then-city council public safety committee chair Tim Burgess (now Harrell’s chief public safety advisor), who sought funding for Shotspotter over multiple budget cycles.

In Chicago, a review of Shotspotter deployment by the city’s Office of the Inspector General found that police found evidence of a gun-related crime in fewer than one out of every 10 dispatches based on a Shotspotter alert. According to Shotspotter, that report was flawed because it isn’t always possible to gather evidence. “Linking an alert with evidence of a shooting can be challenging as some guns do not eject casings and those that do can eject haphazardly. In addition, a high number of alerts happen late at night making evidence collection difficult as well as engaging witnesses,” they added.

Graph showing Murder and weapons arrest rates per 100,000 population among large metropolitan counties, by ShotSpotter Implementation Status 1999-2016
Murder and weapons arrest rates per 100,000 population among large metropolitan counties, by ShotSpotter Implementation Status 1999-2016; Source: Impact of ShotSpotter Technology on Firearm Homicides and Arrests Among Large Metropolitan Counties: a Longitudinal Analysis, 1999-2016

Those arguments, however, apply equally to any gunfire-related dispatch; the issue the Chicago report was raising was the use of Shotspotter to determine how police resources are directed. Moreover, the “no-casings” argument is dubious; the only kind of commonly purchased guns that do not release casings are revolvers, which—according to the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms—make up just 9 percent of US guns sales.

Still, Shotspotter is still in use in Chicago and many other cities—a clear sign, the spokesperson said, that it’s working. “The Chicago Police Department consistently describes ShotSpotter as an important part of their operations,” the spokesperson said.

Other studies have shown that Shotspotter can have unintended consequences unrelated to the system’s ability to locate potential gunfire. Critics point to the potential for racially biased policing and an excessive police presence in communities of color. The Chicago report found that in some cases, officers used the mere presence of a gunshot detection system in an area to justify stopping a person on the street—suggesting that police are on heightened alert in the neighborhoods where the system is deployed.

According to ACLU of Washington Technology & Liberty project manager Jennifer Lee, gunfire detection systems “exacerbate disproportionate policing of communities of color and send police disproportionately into neighborhoods that are already overpoliced.”

Notably, Harrell’s budget says he proposed the system in response to requests from “community liaisons”—”mothers who have been directly impacted by gun violence”—to provide “an ‘equal level of service'” in all neighborhoods. “This group made recommendations in favor of the gunfire detection system technology referencing multiple unsolved homicides in Seattle’s Rainier Beach area,” according to Harrell’s budget.

Gunfire detection technology can also “pick up conversations and sounds that are not gunshots … that can be combined with other information to form an intimate picture of people’s lives,” Jennifer Lee, from the ACLU of Washington, said.

The Shotspotter representative said there is no data to suggest that ShotSpotter “puts police on high alert or creates dangerous situations any more than their response to 911 calls. Rather, ShotSpotter equips police officers with more information than they might typically have when arriving to the scene of a gunshot incident, and they arrive at the scene more situationally aware.”

Other potential unintended consequences include a reduction in 911 calls and an increase in active-shooter alerts at schools, which can lead to traumatic lockdowns. In St. Louis, the number of 911 calls declined dramatically after the city installed Shotspotter “without a corresponding decrease in actual gun incidents,” according to a city council analysisAnd in Washington D.C., Shotspotter detected 249 possible gun-related incidents near schools during a single year, with the neighborhoods surrounding a small number of schools accounting for a disproportionate number of those alerts.

Councilmember Sara Nelson said it was worth funding Shotspotter even if it only “saved [a single] life by allowing an officer to respond more quickly. I think that if any of us were the loved one of that person, we would be happy that we are spending $1 million on this, because life is precious and priceless.”

Any other gunfire detection system, especially one that includes cameras, would probably to undergo mandatory review under the city’s surveillance ordinance, which lays out a lengthy approval process for any new surveillance technology. By seeking $1 million for the technology next year, the ACLU’s Lee says, Harrell is tying up money that could be spent on other, proven gun-violence mitigation programs. “The first step from the mayor’s office should have been to publicly review the technology, draft a surveillance impact report, solicit comments, and seek council approval to see if a budget allocation would even be appropriate,” Lee said. “That money will just sit there in the budget and not be used for actually effective things that have an actual impact on violence.”

Lee said the ACLU is concerned, among other issues, with the potential chilling effect produced by the presence of dozens or hundreds of microphones, and potentially cameras, in Seattle neighborhoods. Gunfire detection technology can also “pick up conversations and sounds that are not gunshots … that can be combined with other information to form an intimate picture of people’s lives. People might not feel comfortable participating in things like protests, associating with people, going to practicing their religion, freely going to health care clinics, or just gathering in public places.”

If that seems far-fetched, it’s worth recalling that Seattle has a recent history of monitoring people in public spaces, including years of anti-loitering, surveillance, and “drug market” initiatives in the Central District and the installation of surveillance cameras throughout downtown Seattle. Continue reading “Harrell’s Budget Would Resurrect Rejected Gunfire Detection System”

Harrell Budget Would Permanently Expand Encampment Cleanup and Removal Team

Deputy Mayor Tiffany Washington and Mayor Bruce Harrell

By Erica C. Barnett

Previewing a budget proposal the council will discuss Friday morning, Mayor Bruce Harrell said on Thursday that unless the city council renews and expands funding for encampment removal and response, the “significant decrease in tents in parks and on sidewalks” since he took office might go away.

“If that funding is not renewed … this level of service that we’re demonstrating will lapse. The progress we’re making in the city, building our ‘One Seattle,’ will lapse,” Harrell said.

Harrell has proposed spending just over $38 million on the Unified Care Team and the Clean City Initiative, two initiatives that encompass a wide variety of spending and staff across several city departments, including Parks, the Seattle Department of Transportation, and Seattle Public Utilities. The two programs include all of the city’s spending related to encampment removals, outreach, and trash pickup, including the city’s “purple bag” encampment trash abatement program.

A majority of that money, about $23 million, would continue existing programs. The rest would be new funding—$10 million to replace temporary federal dollars added during COVID, and $5 million in brand-new programming. 

According to council presentation, the new funding “could significantly increase the Unified Care Team’s capacity to conduct encampment removals” across the city.

Overall, Harrell’s budget would 61 new permanent positions to the city’s encampment removal, outreach, and cleanup efforts. Among other new positions, the money would pay for two new customer service representatives to respond to encampment complaints, six new “system navigators” to do outreach and make offers of shelter in advance of encampment removals, and 48 new permanent positions in SDOT and the parks department to coordinate and conduct encampment removals.

In addition to making a number of positions funded with one-time federal emergency dollars permanent, Harrell has proposed changing the way UCT staff are deployed. Instead of working as a citywide team, staffers would be assigned to one of six geographic areas, a change Harrell said would enable encampment response workers to become more familiar with the communities and organizations where they work.

Deputy Mayor Tiffany Washington said that since Harrell took office, the city has eliminated a backlog of “1,500 complaints related to unauthorized encampments” and continues to develop more tools to respond to and resolve encampment complaints.

“What that means,” Washington said, “is that… we send someone from the Unified Care Team to do an inspection and then we resolve the issue if we can. ‘Resolve’ could be RV remediation. It could be hauling away a burnt RV that had been sitting there for weeks. It could mean making a referral to shelter and then resolving the site. And so when we say we cleared [a request], it means that for all of those [1,500] requests, someone went to the site to do an inspection, put the data in the database, and then we either addressed it, or it self-resolved.”

Harrell’s proposal would also eliminate funding for street sinks that would have provided unsheltered people places to wash their hands, and would reduce spending on public “hygiene stations” (temporary restrooms) and mobile shower trailers for people experiencing homelessness, saving a total of $1.3 million.

The request for millions in additional funding for encampment cleanups comes at a time when the city is trying to close a $141 million shortfall that is projected to grow larger every year until at least 2025. According to an issue-identification presentation prepared for the city council’s budget committee, which will discuss Harrell’s proposal tomorrow morning, the new funding “could significantly increase [the UCT’s] capacity to conduct encampment removals” across the city.  A memo accompanying that presentation adds that, legally speaking, there’s no guarantee that the new funding won’t be used to “accelerate encampment removals.”

Harrell’s proposal would also eliminate funding for street sinks that would have provided unsheltered people places to wash their hands, and would reduce spending on public “hygiene stations” (temporary restrooms) and mobile shower trailers for people experiencing homelessness, saving a total of $1.3 million.

Harrell’s predecessor, Jenny Durkan, repeatedly refused to fund or implement the street-sink program, which could have helped prevent repeated outbreaks of diseases like shigella and hepatitis A among Seattle’s homeless population.

“We have to simultaneously improve service response to rapidly house people living in shelter, and coordinate strategies to ensure public spaces are open, safe, and can be used for their intended purpose,” Washington said. As we’ve reported, there are far more people living unsheltered in Seattle than there are available shelter beds, which means it is not even theoretically possible to shelter everyone who is living outdoors.

On Wednesday in downtown Seattle, officials formally announced an effort we reported on last month to create a unified “command center” to connect people living unsheltered downtown to housing and shelter.

On a practical level, what this means is that when the city sweeps an encampment, most of the people living there do not end up in shelter, but simply “self-resolve” by moving to another location. Outreach workers, including those employed by the city, may have only one or two shelter beds to offer to the people who remain on site, which may or may not be appropriate for the people who happen to remain in that encampment. Even when people do “accept” an offer of shelter, half or more don’t end up enrolling for even one night, a damning indictment of the shelter referral system the city uses in the overwhelming majority of encampment “resolutions.”

During his presentation Thursday, Harrell name-checked the King County Regional Homelessness Authority, which will receive around $90 million from the city next year—a $10 million bump. On Wednesday, Harrell, KCRHA director Marc Dones, and representatives from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development and King County Executive Dow Constantine’s office officially announced an effort we reported on last month to create a unified “command center” to connect people living unsheltered downtown to housing and shelter.

The center—technically a conference room at the city’s Emergency Operations Center downtown—is part of a public-private effort to reduce the number of unsheltered people downtown to “functional zero” by next year. The goal, KCRHA and HUD officials said, is to break down the “silos” that keep various parts of the homelessness system from working well with each other; for example, cities often require people to go through the shelter system before they “graduate” to housing, an extra step that can act as a barrier for people stuck in the homelessness system.

So far, according to data KCRHA provided this week, the agency’s outreach staff have connected with 665 people living unsheltered downtown and identified about 300 units of existing housing for them; the goal, Dones said Wednesday, is to offer people at least three housing options to choose from, instead of the typical one, and to reduce the barriers to housing faced by people who are homeless or poor.

“What we have built into our housing system for folks experiencing homelessness is this incredibly aggressive set of mechanisms that are all based on the idea that people who are poor are out to commit fraud at every turn,” Dones said. “This morning, we were talking about,  how do we not need any of the things [like ID cards and income checks] that we’re used to needing? And if we just had this piece of paper, with someone’s housing preferences on it, how can we have them housed in 12 hours?”

That concept, however, remains speculative; so far, the effort has not moved anyone into housing, and there is no funding for additional housing or shelter attached to the project.