By Erica C. Barnett
A sanitation company owned by a recent city of Seattle employee has received a growing share of the city’s contracts for encampment cleanup and removal work this year, eclipsing other longtime contractors to become the largest recipient of city contract hours for this work. [Update: Debbie Wilson is no longer employed by the city, according to Seattle City Light.]
The company, Fresh Family, is owned by a former Parks Department maintenance employee who until recently worked as a customer service representative for Seattle City Light, Debbie Wilson. Last year, as PubliCola reported, Fresh Family received nearly half a million dollars from the city even though it had no formal contract, which the Parks Department chalked up to an error: According to Parks, someone misread a form identifying the company as a woman- and minority-owned (WMBE) company, misreading “B” (for “Black”), in a column labeled “ethnicity,” as “B” for “Blanket contract.”
Fresh Family is now one of nine contractors on the city’s blanket contract for various kinds of encampment cleanup work, and one of two contractors—along with Cascadia—primarily responsible for encampment removals and litter removal.
It’s unusual for someone who works for the city to simultaneously hold a major city contract—in this case, one so closely tied to a department where the company’s owner used to work. Although Wilson left the city at some point last year, Fresh Family began receiving lucrative work from the city while she was still an employee—work that continued after she left her hourly customer service job at City Light.
PubliCola has asked how much Fresh Family has received from the city under its formal contract, which began last November, and will update this post when we have more information. In 2022, when it lacked an official contract, Fresh Family charged the city $110 per hour for each of its employees.
Over the last several months, department records show, the Parks Department has steadily increased Fresh Family’s hours and crew sizes while keeping its use of Cascadia static.
A review of the weekly “snapshots” for the city’s Clean City work, provided to PubliCola by the Parks Department, indicates that Fresh Family has become the chief contractor for encampment cleanup work. The Clean City Initiative is a joint operation overseen by the Parks Department, Seattle Department of Transportation, and Seattle Public Utilities, but Parks heads up most of the work because most encampments are located on Parks property.
Over the last several months, the snapshots show, the Parks Department has steadily increased Fresh Family’s hours and crew sizes while keeping its use of Cascadia static.
For example, on a typical day in January, Fresh Family had nine crew members and four trailers doing encampment removal for the Parks Department encampment sites, while Cascadia had two crew members and one staffer working on a Parks-led crew. (Separately, SDOT routinely used four Cascadia staffers and two trailers to respond to encampments located in city rights-of-way). By the end of March, the Parks Department had bumped up its use of Fresh Family by another 50 percent, sending out 11 Fresh Family crew members with five trailers every day while keeping Cascadia at the status quo of two crew members and one trailer.
Encampment cleanup work often involves what the city calls a “litter pick”—driving along a prescribed route and picking up trash and debris at encampments along the way. Sometimes, crews are merged to do cleanup as a group—on a recent day, for example, seven Fresh Family crew members and two trailers were assigned to a single 13-stop route.
A spokeswoman for the Parks Department said the company “is not the primary contractor of the department, and we work to distribute work evenly amongst all approved contractors.”
In response to a question about whether Fresh Family is providing a superior or cheaper service compared to other contractors on the city’s list, the spokeswoman said, “The City retains the right to choose providers based on our approved lists and operational needs and both Cascadia and Fresh Family are on our approved contract lists providing similar services.”