Category: Police

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”

Parking Officers Lose Labor Complaint But Will Return to SPD; Utility Managers’ Union Files Complaint Over Wages

1. On Monday, the state Public Employee Relations Commission rejected an unfair labor practice (ULP) complaint by the Seattle Parking Enforcement Officers Guild (SPEOG) over changes that took place when the parking officers moved from the Seattle Police Department to the Seattle Department of Transportation in 2021, ruling that the issues the union raised in its complaint were not mandatory subjects of bargaining.

As PubliCola previously reported, the parking officers argued that they needed access to a database called the Criminal Justice Information System (CJIS). The officers can scan a vehicle’s license plate and determine whether it’s on a “hot sheet”—a list of license plates that have law enforcement information attached to them, including stolen vehicles and those whose owners are in a criminal database—and report back to SPD, which can then investigate Without CJIS access, however, they can’t know exactly what issue is associated with a particular vehicle.

In its decision, PERC said the parking enforcement officers could still find out whether a vehicle was stolen or associated with a crime or outstanding warrant; the only information they no longer have access to is detailed information about the issue with a particular vehicle. “SDOT does not require or expect PEOs to issue a citation or remain in the area after dispatch informs them that SPD has an interest in or is responding to a vehicle,” the commission wrote.

The move reverses a change the council made in 2021, at the urging of then-mayor Jenny Durkan, to shift parking enforcement out of SPD in order to “reduce” spending on police; this on-paper reduction, which advocates for more police funding have characterized as “defunding the police” ever since the city made it, was little more than a budgetary sleight of hand

PERC has not yet ruled on a counter-claim that the city filed against the parking officers’ union in July.

Parking enforcement officers who wanted to move back to SPD got their wish on Monday, when the city council voted to return the officers to SPD and use the budget savings to pay for a number of items that would have otherwise been cut. The council decided to move the officers back to SPD in a 6-3 vote as part of the overall 2023-2024 city budget, which we’ll cover in more detail in a separate post.

The move reverses a change the council made in 2021, at the urging of then-mayor Jenny Durkan, to shift parking enforcement out of SPD in order to “reduce” spending on police; this on-paper reduction, which advocates for more police funding have characterized as “defunding the police” ever since the city made it, was little more than a budgetary sleight of hand by Durkan and the council. Nonetheless, because taking on nearly 100 new staff added significantly to SDOT’s overhead, removing the parking enforcement officers freed up millions to spend on other purposes.

Harrell has said he plans to establish a “third department” to oversee public safety, which could be the parking enforcement officers’ ultimate destination if they don’t stay at SPD; last year, the council wanted to move the officers to the newly created Community Safety and Communications Center, which took 911 call response off SPD’s hands, but Durkan and SDOT lobbied hard to put them at SDOT.

2. In other city labor news, the union representing strategic advisors and managers at Seattle Public Utilities has filed an unfair labor practice complaint against the city for, according to the union, withholding wage increases it should have provided and imposing a new return-to-office policy in the middle of contract negotiations. The group of 175 SPU managers and strategic advisors was just certified for representation (by the Washington State Council of County and City Employees, Council 2, AFSCME) last year; this is the group’s first contract negotiation.

The primary issue at play in negotiations between the union and the city is the way SPU allocates raises to this group of about 175 workers. Bill Keenan, the organizing director for Council 2, said SPU has “an archaic process” for deciding how much its managers and strategic advisors make, which results in persistent pay disparities between people doing the exact same work.

The result of SPU’s wage increase process, according to the union, is that women in these positions earn $1.20 less per hour than men, and people of color earn 99 cents an hour less than their white counterparts. One 26-year veteran of the department, a woman of color, makes $10 less per hour than a man who has been at SPU for five years, the union’s organizing director said.

Typically, a new city employee starts at the bottom of the “pay band” for their position and proceeds through a series of “steps,” or pay increases, over a set period of time. If the city hires someone as a Strategic Advisor 1, for example, they’re supposed to start at the bottom of the pay range for that position and receive pay bumps according to a set schedule.

At SPU, Keenan said, there’s no such process for managers and strategic advisors; instead, their pay is set by the person who hires them, and “once you get placed on the pay scale where they decide you should be placed, they have another broken process where [future raises] are again up to an individual. … It’s totally subjective.” The result, Keenan said, is that women in these positions earn, on average, $1.20 less per hour than men, and people of color earn 99 cents an hour less than their white counterparts. One 26-year veteran of the department, a woman of color, makes $10 less per hour than a man who has been at SPU for five years, Keenan said.

The city has said the salaries and pay increases the union is seeking would cost as much as $40 million, a number the ULP calls “greatly exaggerated.”

The unfair labor practice complaint doesn’t deal directly with the labor issues Keenan that are at play in the negotiations; instead it accuses SPU of halting the existing annual wage increase process for most of the union’s members and imposing a return-to-office policy that the union had no role in negotiating. “Until we reach a contract, they have to retain the status quo on wages and conditions of employment unless we agree to bargain otherwise,” Keenan said.

Currently, the union and city are in mediation over the underlying contract. A survey of all SPU employees found that a majority of workers enjoyed working with their immediate teams and felt valued, but felt that higher-level management doesn’t care about SPU workers or understand what they do. In an email to employees, SPU general manager Andrew Lee—a Harrell appointee who just started in June—called the results “very humbling” and expressed his “strong commitment to improvement.

SPU’s call center employees—a group of about 85 workers who are among the city’s lowest-paid employees— fought Harrell’s return-to-office mandate earlier this year and won. 

Keenan said he expects the union and city will return to mediation after the holidays.

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”

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.

Chamber Poll On Homelessness, Public Safety Shows That It Matters How You Frame the Questions

Graph showing high support among Seattle voters for removing encampments

By Erica C. Barnett

A new poll from the Greater Metro Chamber of Commerce, produced by EMC Research, reveals that many Seattle voters’ “top concern” has shifted from homelessness to crime, but fails to shed any light on the reasons behind the shift. whether this shift represents declining empathy toward people living on Seattle streets.

Overall, according to the poll of 700 registered Seattle voters, 57 percent of people named homelessness as one of the issues they were most “frustrated or concerned about,” followed by “crime/drugs/public safety” at 46 percent. Both categories declined slightly from last year, while “racial issues/policing/police brutality” and “taxes” ranked slightly higher as matters of public concern. Asked what changes would improve the “quality of life” in Seattle, “closing encampments in parks, on sidewalks,” and in public rights-of-way ranked number one on the list, with 79 percent of voters saying their lives would be improved by encampment removals.

“I think our voters are pretty sophisticated. This is a community that does not assume that all people experiencing homelessness are also committing crimes and does not conflate homelessness and criminal activity.”—Seattle Metro Chamber CEO Rachel Smith

During a media presentation on the poll results, Seattle Chamber CEO Rachel Smith said she believed voters are somewhat less concerned about homelessness because of “an all-hands-on-deck regional approach that has made a visible difference” in the number of tents on the street. As we’ve reported, Mayor Bruce Harrell has dramatically accelerated homeless encampment removals since taking office, and has proposed expanding the city’s homeless outreach and encampment removal team and making many temporary “cleanup” positions permanent.

“I think our voters are pretty sophisticated,” Smith continued. “This is a community that does not assume that all people experiencing homelessness are also committing crimes and does not conflate homelessness and criminal activity.” Andrew Thibault, an EMC partner, added that most of the voters in the survey identify as Democrats and progressives.

Breakdown by demographic category of support for encampment removals among Seattle voters

Like all the previous versions of this annual survey, the poll framed a question about homeless encampments in a misleading way that does not represent what the city actually offers unsheltered people during sweeps, nor the reasons people “refuse” shelter or services that may be unsuitable for their needs. The survey asked voters whether they would support the city “continu[ing] to close homeless encampments once people have been offered shelter and services, even if it means those who refuse help will be displaced.” Only 18 percent of respondents said they would oppose such a policy.

The problem is that this policy does not exist, nor can it be “continued.” In reality, the city has only “closed” two encampments—one at Woodland Park and another at the Ballard Commons, which remains fenced-off and inaccessible—by making individualized offers of shelter and services to encampment residents. Other than these exceptions, the city removes encampments the same way it always has—typically, by posting a notice two or three days in advance so people know they have to leave, giving encampment residents the option to take one of the handful of shelter beds typically available citywide on any night, and sweeping anyone who remains on site on the appointed day. That’s a far cry from “offering shelter and services” to people who, for whatever (presumably irrational) reason, “refuse” to take them.

As long as the question describes a far more ideal scenario than the one that actually exists, people who might oppose removals will likely continue supporting them—after all, who can blame the city for sweeping people who simply don’t want any help?

Voters, particularly Republicans and people living in North Seattle, said they felt less safe than they did last year and supported hiring more police; more than half also said they were “actively” thinking about leaving Seattle, largely because of crime. These question routinely get high positive responses, to the point that you might think bullets were routinely whizzing through the empty streets of Phinney Ridge and Laurelhurst, past empty houses abandoned by people fleeing the city.

Graphs showing support among all demographic categories, except Republicans, for "more housing in your neighborhood"

Poll respondents also said they didn’t trust the Seattle City Council to reform the police department—an oddly worded question, given that the mayor, not the council, oversees SPD and is responsible for setting policy for department. There was no corresponding question about the mayor. Blaming the council for problems at the police department and other departments that are controlled by the mayor is a longstanding Seattle pastime—one that reflects a general misunderstanding about how city government works that is exacerbated by polls suggesting the council has more power than it does.

Voters continue to support the general idea of “more housing in my neighborhood”; however, as in previous years, the Chamber’s poll doesn’t push that question beyond “duplexes and triplexes” to include denser housing types that might also include affordable housing. As the Urbanist noted in its coverage, the Chamber has supported legislation to increase density further in single-family areas and Smith said the framing of the question wasn’t meant to indicate that triplexes should be the upper limit.

The poll includes a demographic breakdown of respondents that lumps all BIPOC people into a single “POC” category—a grouping necessitated, according to Thibault, by the fact that breaking the categories down further would lead to an excessive margin of error. According to the crosstabs provided by EMC, the “POC” group included 26 Black voters in all, an average of fewer than nine Black respondents for each of three broad geographic areas sampled in the poll.

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”

SPD Fires Controversial Cop Who Taunted Protesters, City Eases Back-to-Office Mandate

1. The Seattle Police Department has fired controversial officer Andrei Constantin, who created a fake Twitter account to harass and mock protesters and make fun of victims of police violence, including George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.

According to the SPD disciplinary action report explaining why Constantin was fired, the officer posted dozens of “extremely unprofessional, offensive, derogatory, and entirely unacceptable” tweets that “celebrated violence against protesters, ridiculed human beings who were injured or killed, taunted the family members of deceased individuals, and publicly accused SPD of hating its employees, blamed victims of assault, appeared to celebrate a homicide, and stated George Floyd ‘got justice.'”

Constantin’s tweets, originally uncovered by Twitter user @WhiteRoseAFA in October 2021, included posts calling people who participated in the 2020 protests against police violence “antifa terrorists” who should be “napalmed”; mocking the death of the young activist Summer Taylor, who was struck by a driver in a section of I-5 that had been closed down for a march; and telling the mother of an activist who was murdered in Portland, “Rest in piss bitch.” Constantin posted as @1SteelerFanatic under the name “Bruce Wayne”; he deactivated the account last year.

Constantin was previously the subject of at least nine other Office of Police Accountability complaints. Those complaints, detailed on the SPD.watch website, included: Pulling over a driver without justification, pointing a gun at him, and handcuffing himthreatening to use his Taser on a man who was not being threatening; and detaining a homeless Black bike rider and for nearly an hour. Last year, as PubliCola reported, Constantin received an eight-day unpaid suspension after shattering the driver-side window of someone’s car while they were sitting at a gas station.

In his written decision to fire Constantin, SPD police chief Adrian Diaz acknowledged Constantin had received “counseling” for the mental anguish he claimed to have endured as the result of the 2020 protests, but said that in light of his long disciplinary history and the “inexcusable” nature of his posts, Constantin could no longer work at SPD. Constantin last day at SPD was September 22.

2. The union representing Seattle Public Utilities’ 85 call center employees has reached an agreement with the city that exempts these workers from the mandate that all city employees come in to the office a minimum of two days a week, PubliCola has learned. As we reported in July, many call center workers preferred working from home because it was a huge improvement on commutes that could add up to hours of unpaid time in the car or on the bus each day.

“The City shall exempt the employees in the SPU Contact Center from any in-office minimum requirement, in acknowledgement of the substantial expense compliance would cause that department to incur,” the agreement says.

As we reported in July, call center workers have been more efficient and effective, by the city’s own metrics, since representatives started working at home instead of a crowded room in downtown Seattle.

The agreement allows SPU to require workers to come back to the office if management decides it will “improve operations.” It also requires call center employees to live within a three-hour drive of the Seattle Municipal Tower so they can get there if needed—a change that narrows the possibilities for true telecommuting.

In addition, other city employees who are subject to the mandate—part of Mayor Bruce Harrell’s “One Seattle” effort to bring workers back into a still-struggling downtown—will be allowed to spread their in-office days across a two-week pay period, instead of coming in two days every week. The agreement also clarifies what counts as “in the office” (field work, including inspections, public meetings, and trainings will count as in-office time) and give individual departments the opportunity to ask for exemptions from the rules.

SPD Risk Analysis Recategorized 911 Calls More than Half the Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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