The King County Regional Policy Committee—a group of regional leaders that makes policy recommendations to the King County Council—voted narrowly on Monday to put off a decision about the size of the Veterans, Seniors, and Human Services Levy proposal, which will be on the ballot in August, until after Tuesday’s vote on a countywide behavioral health-care levy.
The crisis centers levy, which is currently winning by a 10-point margin, will create five new behavioral health crisis centers and fund new residential mental health care beds. A wide margin of victory for the crisis centers levy could provide a gauge of voters’ appetite for new taxes to fund human services; the last time the veterans’ levy was renewed, in 2017, it passed with 69 percent of the vote. The levy pays for housing, domestic violence prevention, senior centers, and supportive services for low-income and homeless veterans, seniors, and other King County residents.
The debate for the RPC and the county council itself comes down to how large the levy should be. Some committee members representing the suburban Sound Cities Association, including Auburn Mayor Nancy Backus, supported renewing the levy at the current rate of 10 cents per $1,000 of property value, which Backus called a “true renewal,” rather than raising it to 12 cents, as the county council’s budget committee recommended last week.
Others, including King County Councilmember Claudia Balducci, who represents Bellevue, said a higher rate would help offset inflation, which has eroded the impact of the levy. “A straight rollover—even though, because of the way property tax calculations work, it would generate more dollars—… would not keep pace with the needs, and in fact we would be falling behind,” Balducci said.
Last week, after what Balducci called a “robust discussion,” the county council’s budget committee recommended boosting the initial levy in light of analysis showing that thanks to inflation, a flat renewal at the 10-cent level will significantly reduce the amount of housing the levy will build, and force outright cuts to housing operations and rental assistance.
Renewing the levy at the original, 10-cent initial level would cost the owner of a median (in 2024), $838,000 home just under $84 a year—an increase of about $17 a year from the current levy, whose rate has declined over time as property values have skyrocketed. (By law, the amount of funding the levy produces can only increase by 3.5 percent a year, so property value growth higher than that rate results in a reduction to the “effective rate” of the tax, which is currently just over 8 percent.) At that rate, the levy will raise about $564 million over six years.
A 12-cent rate, for comparison, would cost the same homeowner about $100 a year and raise around $678 million a year.
In previous levy discussions, opponents of a larger levy have suggested the higher levy could overburden homeowners who are struggling to make ends meet. In an RPC meeting earlier this month, Backus said, “I fear tax fatigue, and I want to make sure that both of these levies pass. I would love to see them go higher. But I just don’t think right now is the time when so many people are struggling.”
The RPC will hold a special meeting on Friday afternoon to vote on the levy, and the county council is scheduled to vote on a final ballot measure at its meeting Monday.
House Bill 1110, which allows new multifamily housing near transit stops, will impact residential neighborhoods in cities of all sizes across Washington state.
But some of the biggest changes will be in Seattle. The legislation, which passed last week, ties density to public transit infrastructure, allowing significantly more density—up to six units per lot—in areas near frequent transit stops.
The bill requires larger cities, including Seattle, to allow four residential units on every lot, and to allow six units on lots within a quarter-mile walking distance of bus rapid transit, light rail, and streetcar stops.
That means that in significant segments of Queen Anne, Madrona, Wallingford, and Mount Baker, where property owners are currently limited to building two accessory dwelling units—like a basement apartment and a backyard cottage—courtyard apartments, six-unit apartment buildings, and townhouses will now be legal.
Seattle’s lobbyists quietly worked to support bills like HB 1110 throughout the session, while trying to make sure they wouldn’t interfere with the city’s own density laws, such as Mandatory Housing Affordability; MHA requires developers to provide affordable housing or contribute to an affordable housing fee when building in the cities’ designated “urban villages.”
“It’s still Seattle and there’s still a process that we still have to go through, but I do think by having these frameworks in place now, it’s going to be able to help accelerate some of the development that we need, and have needed for a long time.”—Sen. Joe Nguyen (D-34)
“I think it’s going to have a huge impact on Seattle,” Senator Joe Nguyen (D-34), whose district includes Pioneer Square, West Seattle, and Burien, said.
“Obviously, I don’t think it will be perfect, because it’s still Seattle and there’s still a process that we still have to go through, but I do think by having these frameworks in place now, it’s going to be able to help accelerate some of the development that we need, and have needed for a long time,” he said.
The legislature also made some significant changes to how the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) affects individual housing projects. Currently, as part of the official SEPA review process, anyone can appeal a proposed housing project over its potential impacts, such as loss of views, increased noise, or traffic. These delays can add months or years to project timelines, even if they’re ultimately dismissed. A group called Save Madison Valley, for example, appealed a proposed mixed housing and retail development featuring a PCC in both 2018 and 2020, delaying the project.
Senate Bill 5412, sponsored by Senator Jesse Salomon (D-32, Shoreline), will limit those appeals. Under the adopted bill, if a proposed housing project complies with a city’s existing comprehensive plan, it will be categorically exempt from SEPA review, eliminating the lengthy appeal process that’s now common for developments that are controversial for reasons that have nothing to do with local environmental law.
The final version of the bill includes a provision that allows projects in Seattle to take advantage of it before other cities in Washington.
“A lot of the costs that are associated with delay and with litigation get passed on in the high cost of housing,” Councilmember Andrew Lewis, who represents downtown, Queen Anne, and Magnolia, said. “Ultimately as consumers we pay for all the lawyers that interject into these processes along the way.”
“We can legalize increased density, but it’s not going to come very quickly if you keep in place a lot of the tactics and methods that people use to slow it down or to whittle the ambition of the projects down,” he said.
“The debate [now] really is about how we can be thinking about new nodes of development, or new corridors where denser development will happen. How are we thinking about integrating things like corner stores, or other basic or essential services, into those neighborhoods?”—Futurewise Executive Director Alex Brennan
Lewis says intense environmental review of dense housing in the middle of cities is counterproductive and notes that dense housing provides an environmental benefit in its own right. “In the aggregate, it has a colossal environmental benefit. If we are unable to build a significant amount of new housing units in the City of Seattle, in an efficient amount of time, we’re just going to have compounding challenges relating to climate.”
A spokesman for the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections said it was too early to say how the new batch of housing legislation would impact SDCI’s work.
The collective impact of changes to statewide zoning will impact Seattle’s comprehensive plan update, due in 2024, as city planners grapple with how to accommodate at least 112,000 new units of housing—Seattle’s share of King County’s growth target—over the next two decades. The zoning provisions in HB 1110 automatically take effect six months after that update to the comprehensive plan.
Alex Brennan, the director of Futurewise, a statewide smart growth advocacy group, says allowing four housing units per lot increases Seattle’s options for future growth. “We don’t have to fight for that baseline anymore,” he said. “So, the debate really is about how we can be thinking about new nodes of development, or new corridors where denser development will happen. How are we thinking about integrating things like corner stores, or other basic or essential services, into those neighborhoods?”
In the final days of the state legislative session, Seattle lawmakers quietly bailed out a hotel-based homeless shelter program that ran out of money in early April, using $6 million in “underspend” from a program that addresses encampments in state-owned rights-of-way to keep the hotels open while the King County Homelessness Authority tries to find places for hotel residents to go.
The KCRHA has until the end of June to spend the money, which can only be used to “maintain the operations of, and transition people out of, as appropriate, a hotel housing more than 100 people experiencing homelessness that is at imminent risk of closure due to a lack of funding,” according to language state Rep. Nicole Macri (D-43, Seattle) and Sen. Joe Nguyen (D-34, Seattle) inserted into this year’s supplemental budget.
“Generally speaking, a request of that amount coming this late would not have had the sympathy that it did. At that point, I was like, ‘I don’t want 300-plus families to be unsheltered.'”
—State Sen. Joe Nguyen[/perfectpullquote]
“[KCRHA CEO] Marc Dones reached out, saying they had discovered this crisis several weeks [earlier], saying they had been trying to figure out how to transition people” out of the hotels, Macri said. At the time, the KCRHA estimated there were more than 300 people living in rooms at six hotels, a number that has since dwindled. “They said this is an urgent need—it’s an immediate need right now.”
“Generally speaking, a request of that amount coming this late would not have had the sympathy that it did,” Nguyen said. “At that point… I was like, ‘I don’t want 300-plus families to be unsheltered.'”
Because it was so late in the session, Macri said, it wasn’t possible to just move the underspent dollars from one year’s budget to the next. A change like that would require legislation to reallocate the funds, which are earmarked for the highway encampment program. Instead, the state Department of Commerce provided supplemental budget language that allowed the KCRHA to use the leftover money, which would otherwise have gone back to the state’s general fund, to pay for the hotels.
As PubliCola reported exclusively earlier this month, the Lived Experience Coalition received a total of $1.3 million in federal grants through the United Way of King County, but the money ran out earlier this year, forcing a scramble to save the program.
The LEC, formed in 2018, is a group of people who have direct experience with homelessness or systems that homeless people frequently encounter, such as the mental health care system. Until last year, they had never been in charge of a shelter or housing program. The LEC has blamed the hotel crisis on its fiscal sponsor, a nonprofit called Building Changes, which denies responsibility for financial errors.
We Are In, the funder for Partnership for Zero, stepped up to pay for the hotels through the first week of April. (According to a spokesman, the two We Are In board members who are affiliated with the LEC recused themselves from the vote.) The KCRHA is planning an investigation into what happened with the hotels, which will be paid for by the Campion Advocacy Fund, one of We Are In’s funders. Later this month, the authority reportedly plans to discuss the hotels during a joint meeting of the agency’s governing and implementation boards.
Meanwhile, Dones has said the regional authority only recently became aware of the hotel funding crisis and had nothing to do with the LEC’s contract to run the hotels. However, the KCRHA’s own downtown outreach workers, known as systems advocates, placed dozens of people in the hotels this year as part of the Partnership for Zero, a public-private partnership aimed at ending unsheltered homelessness downtown.
It’s unclear why the KCRHA asked for so much spending authority. “I really left it to the executive branch to vet it and to determine, ‘is this a reasonable thing to do?'” State Rep. Nicole Macri said. “I didn’t get a clear accounting.”
At its peak, the hotel shelter program was spending more than $1 million a month to pay for about 250 hotel rooms, including rooms in two last-chance hotels for people who had been kicked out of other locations due to behavioral issues. If the KCRHA uses up the entire $6 million between April and the end of June, it will have spent $2 million a month.
It’s unclear why the KCRHA asked for so much spending authority. “I really left it to the executive branch to vet it and to determine, ‘is this a reasonable thing to do?'” Macri said. “I didn’t get a clear accounting. … It seems like a lot.” A Commerce Department staffer did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Tuesday.
When PubliCola inquired about the hotels this week, a KCRHA spokeswoman said “our team is continuing to match people to resources” and that it would be a day or two before they could provide details about plans to wind down the hotels and how much it will cost. “We’re still finalizing some of the locations and ensuring that everyone is taken care of,” the spokeswoman said Tuesday.
In a joint statement sent to PubliCola after this story was published, the offices of Gov. Jay Inslee, King County Executive Dow Constantine, and Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell said, “This hotel voucher program was launched and operated independently from any city, regional, or state effort. When our teams were alerted to the situation, we worked with partners in the public and private sectors to identify potential solutions and coordinate with the King County Regional Homelessness Authority (KCRHA).”
“Without continued funding, hundreds of individuals that include families with children and seniors with significant health issues would likely return to living outside. Because of the vulnerability of this population, the Legislature approved the governor’s request for $6 million to further support this transition effort.”
Sharon Lee, the director of the Low-Income Housing Institute, said the KCRHA asked LIHI for access to some of its tiny houses, including units that are ordinarily reserved for referrals from the city’s HOPE Team, which offers shelter to people living in encampments. Many of those living at the hotels will need shelter that can accommodate special needs, including women and families fleeing domestic violence and well as people with debilitating mental and physical health issues.
In addition to her work as a legislator, Macri works as a deputy director at the Downtown Emergency Service Center, which provides shelter, health care, and housing. She said Dones initially asked for six months to move people out of the hotels, but that she suggested a quicker time frame “because of the high cost.” However, she noted that it can be challenging to find shelter and other resources for people with high needs, especially in a city with so few available shelter beds.
In 2021, DESC had to relocate 130 people from an emergency COVID shelter at Seattle Center to other locations when that shelter shut down. “Of course, DESC does operate other shelters, so we were able to slowly refer people to beds at DESC and other providers,” but even that took three months, Macri said. To make it work, “we had to redeploy staff [and] stop taking referrals”—a tradeoff that meant people living unsheltered were unable to access those shelter beds.
The right-of-way cleanup program, originally proposed by Gov. Jay Inslee to reduce the number of encampments on property owned by the Washington State Department of Transportation, funds JustCARE, a program headed up by the Public Defender Association that shifted its focus last year to provide case management and shelter exclusively for people living on state-owned rights-of-way. According to the Department of Commerce, the program was fully or partly responsible for sheltering or housing more than 300 people in King County. The The reallocation, reduces the KCRHA’s 2022-2023 budget for right-of-way work from $45 million to $39 million.
Over the weekend, the legislative debate over the state’s new drug possession law took a surprising turn, as 15 house Democrats voted against—and helped defeat—a compromise bill that would have made possession of drugs such as fentanyl, meth, and cocaine a gross misdemeanor, which can result in up to 364 days in jail.
The legislature was forced to deal with the issue of drug possession because of the 2021 state supreme court ruling Washington State v. Blake, which tossed out the state’s existing law on narrow legal grounds. A temporary law passed in 2021 expires on July 1, and Democrats have been scuffling all session over how to replace it, swerving between a public health/harm reduction approach and a more punitive bill focused on prison time and coercive treatment.
Earlier in the session, house Democrats had passed a bill that made drug possession a simple misdemeanor and focused on treatment and diversion. The more punitive senate bill proposed pushing people arrested for possession into treatment and sending those who drop out of treatment back to jail.
Rep. Tarra Simmons (D-23, Bremerton) who served time in prison for a drug possession conviction and who advocated for a less punitive version of the bill, was among the Democrats who voted against the senate compromise.
“Putting people in a cold concrete cell room and shaming them is not how you get people to change their behavior.”—Rep. Tarra Simmons (D-23, Bremerton)
“At the end of the day, we have to do no harm,” Simmons said, noting that making the penalty for drug possession a gross misdemeanor allows for a maximum sentence of almost a year in prison, making the law even more strict than the previous felony possession law. “I would have hoped the Democrats in the Senate could have conferenced a more compassionate and humane bill.”
“Putting people in a cold concrete cell room and shaming them is not how you get people to change their behavior,” she said.
Sen. Manka Dhingra (D-45, Redmond), who helped craft the final, compromise version of the bill, had hoped a handful of House Republicans would vote for the final bill. In the end, none of them did. “It was bipartisan in the senate because that’s what we needed,” Dhingra said of the senate version, which passed with the support of 14 Democrats and 14 Republicans. “We needed our Republican colleagues to work with us towards that solution. And in the house, [Democrats] had 43 votes and none of the Republicans showed up to vote for it.”
During a press conference on Sunday, Gov. Jay Inslee hinted that he might call a special session before the temporary law expires on July 1, to avoid effectively decriminalizing drug possession in the state. “We need to hammer out a bill that could pass and that needs to happen before July 1,” Inslee said. He pointed fingers at House Republicans for failing to vote for the senate bill. “We expect the Washington state legislature to produce a bill that will not decriminalize drugs, will provide measures for treatment and will provide some sanction for those who fail to accept treatment,” he said.
But considering Democrats hold the governor’s mansion and substantial majorities in both houses of the legislature, the failure to come to a compromise rests on their shoulders.
In a press release, Rep. Peter Abbarno (R-20, Centralia) took a harsh line on drug possession, saying, “Senate Bill 5536 took the very policies that have failed to address substance abuse on the local level and would have expanded those failed policies statewide. It would have led to more substance abuse, more homelessness, more preventable tragedies, and less local control. If the majority party were serious about addressing this crisis, they would work with us, on a bipartisan basis, and pass legislation that effectively helps people recover from addiction.”
Minority leader Drew Stokesbary (R-31, Auburn) and Rep. Roger Goodman (D-45, Kirkland), who was involved in crafting the final house version of the bill, did not respond to requests for comment.
If the legislature doesn’t reconvene and pass a bill by July 1, the state will be without a drug possession law and drugs such as opioids, meth, and cocaine will no longer be criminalized at the state level. That could leave Washington with a patchwork of varying laws as local jurisdictions pass their own ordinances.
“I recognize that substance use disorder is a medical issue and treatment services are necessary. However, without proper support and encouragement, a person with a substance use disorder cannot be expected to make the decision to stop using.”—Kent Mayor Dana Ralph
Without missing a beat, Kent Mayor Dana Ralph announced on Monday that she plans to propose legislation to the Kent City Council making drug possession a gross misdemeanor. In a press release, Ralph made arguments for coercive treatment, going so far as to suggest people with substance use disorder don’t have the capacity or agency to decide for themselves if they want to enter recovery.
“I recognize that substance use disorder is a medical issue and treatment services are necessary,” Ralph said. “However, without proper support and encouragement, a person with a substance use disorder cannot be expected to make the decision to stop using.”
The mayor of another south King County city, Des Moines, said he would propose a bill criminalizing drug possession, banning the use of illegal drugs in public places, and “making it a crime… to be in possession of drug paraphernalia.” This would criminalize possession of needles and pipes legally obtained from harm-reduction programs such as needle exchanges, and potentially items like the lighters and foil that are used to vaporize fentanyl.
In 2018, King and Snohomish counties stopped prosecuting anyone caught with less than one gram of drugs, and turned instead to programs such as LEAD, which focuses on pre-arrest diversion to social services, treatment, housing, and behavioral health services. “Places like the city of Seattle,” Simmons said, “will continue to treat people humanely and offer harm reduction.”
Last week, Mayor Bruce Harrell unveiled a Downtown Activation Plan that focuses, in part, on the fentanyl crisis. Along with a vaguely described commitment to “arrest and hold accountable narcotics traffickers,” the plan includes a short menu of harm reduction efforts including expansion of the Seattle Fire Department’s overdose response unit, increasing availability of drug overdose medications such as naloxone, and a pilot “contingency management,” program that will give low-value rewards to people with substance use disorders who abstain from their drug of choice.
Simmons hopes the legislature will return in a special session or next year and pass a bill that limits penalties for possession and funds treatment, housing, and behavioral health services. “My life and my family were impacted for the worse because I was incarcerated,” she said. “This loss is hard. It’s very personal for me.”
Last week, the King County Regional Homelessness Authority’s implementation and governing boards approved a 2024 budget proposal that assumes the agency will receive significant future funding from Medicaid to keep the Partnership for Zero program, which aims to end unsheltered homelessness in downtown Seattle, going. Currently, the program is funded by corporate and philanthropic donations through a public-private partnership called We Are In.
The federal funding would come through a statewide program for Medicaid clients called Foundational Community Supports that funds “pre-tenancy” services for chronically homeless people—everything from getting an ID to negotiating an apartment lease.
“Based on current research, we estimate that Medicaid will reimburse 85% of Partnership for Zero (PfZ) costs,” or about $5.2 million, the KCRHA’s 2024 budget says. In 2022, a group of corporate and philanthropic donors pledged $10 million to fund the initial downtown Seattle “demonstration project,” which pays case managers known as system advocates to connect people living downtown to services, shelter and housing. Over the next five years, KCRHA plans to expand Partnership for Zero countywide.
Several members of both boards, including Auburn Mayor Nancy Backus, expressed reservations about relying on a federal program that the KCRHA has never used before to fund one of the agency’s marquee initiatives. “I’m just concerned about approving [a budget] where you don’t have the money,” Backus said. “As someone who provides our budget to the council every two years, we never put anything in the budget … that’s aspirational.”
“I think that there were some estimates that were like, ‘this will make it rain money,’ and then there were other estimates that were like, ‘this will get you two nickels.’ We feel confident that this is a capturable amount of revenue.”—KCRHA CEO Marc Dones
“I would love not to spend more money than we have,” KCRHA CEO Marc Dones responded. “So what we’re doing is a number of dry runs with Medicaid billing while we’re still entirely grant- funded”—essentially, submitting invoices for real services to see what gets rejected and approved.
“Our current conservative estimate [is] an 85 percent reimbursement,” Dones added. “I think that there were some estimates that were like, ‘this will make it rain money,’ and then there were other estimates that were like, ‘this will get you two nickels.’ We feel confident that this is a capturable amount of revenue.”
But providers and advocates familiar with Foundational Community Supports, speaking to PubliCola on background, said that although the concept behind FCS is extremely forward-thinking—the six-year-old program treats housing as a form of health care, which is new for Medicaid—relying so heavily on FCS to fund a costly, high-profile effort like Partnership for Zero is a significant risk.
To understand why, it’s helpful to understand a bit about how nonprofits use the program to fund services for unsheltered people in King County.
Foundational Community Supports is a fee-for-service program; it pays $112 for every documented “encounter” between a service provider and a client, up to a maximum of six encounters a month. (In the case of KCRHA, the government itself, rather than a nonprofit, will be the service provider). If a case manager has a dozen clients and manages to document six encounters with each of them every month for a year, that adds up to about $95,000. The starting salary for KCRHA’s system advocates—formerly homeless peers who serve as case managers and outreach specialists for Partnership for Zero—is $75,000, so a $95,000 reimbursement would more than pay for both’ salaries and benefits, with some to spare for administration and other costs.
So far so good. Except, service providers say, that it’s almost impossible to “max out” on providing services to unsheltered people this way. Case managers must document each encounter with an unsheltered person in detail, with case notes that demonstrate what service they provided and how that encounter got the person closer to their housing goal.
Opportunities for “wasted” time abound. If a case worker goes out looking for a client and doesn’t find them—a common situation when trying to find unsheltered people, especially in a city that sweeps encampments—that time doesn’t count. If a case manager is new and still in training, or in the process of convincing someone to sign up for the program, that time doesn’t count. And if everything goes perfectly but the case notes are too short, or too long, or don’t include the right kind of details to convince the third-party administrator reviewing a person’s forms, that time doesn’t count either.
Because Foundational Community Supports isn’t a reliable source of funding, service providers don’t typically rely on it to fund entire programs; instead, they “braid” FCS with other funding sources to create a stable foundation for ongoing programs. The constant documentation and pressure to monetize every interaction with unsheltered clients can make it harder to build relationships with unsheltered people. According to one experienced homeless service provider, FCS is “just not really how rapport-based type outreach services relationships work, or how they’re usually delivered.”
Multiple people with Medicaid billing experience mentioned the concept of the “golden thread”– a consistent narrative through every piece of documentation that explains why the person needs specific services and how each of those services are helping them achieve their self-determined goals. Failure to convincingly document that “thread” is “why a lot of claims get denied,” one former service provider said.
“We are comfortable that that’s a good number, but we’re not going to know until we start doing it and we’ll build a better and better understanding of what a successful reimbursement package is.”—KCRHA Chief Administrative Officer Meg Barclay
Facing pushback from board members last week, Dones pointed that the agency still has money left over from We Are In’s original $10 million commitment to pay for the program through 2023 and potentially beyond, if getting funds through Medicaid proves more challenging than the agency anticipates. And, KCRHA Chief Administrative Officer Meg Barclay noted, the KCRHA is consulting with the Corporation for Supportive Housing, which trains service providers to do Medicaid billing, to learn how to maximize their reimbursements.
Even so, Barclay added, Medicaid is “kind of a black box—sort of strange. So we are comfortable that that’s a good number, but we’re not going to know until we start doing it and we’ll build a better and better understanding of what a successful reimbursement package is.”
Debbie Thiele, CSH’s managing director for the western United States, told PubliCola last year that FCS is “designed to be as user-friendly as possible to a group of providers who are not health care providers.”
One implementation board member, Simha Reddy, said he saw the KCRHA’s effort to fund Partnership for Zero through Medicaid as an experiment that could be helpful to other nonprofit providers who could “jump on the bandwagon” and “learn alongside us.”
And Dones pointed out that the KCRHA won’t be the only government entity to rely on Medicaid funding to run a homelessness program—Spokane, they said, “funds a huge portion of their system” with Foundational Community Supports.
“I do think that the discussion around the difficulty of these dollars is not actually borne out by even our neighbors in Washington,” Dones told the implementation board last week. However, service providers who spoke with PubliCola said Spokane is both smaller (with a homeless population of around 1,800) and more affordable than King County, making it easier to house people in private-market housing and help them stay there.
The budget both boards approved last week isn’t a final spending plan. The KCRHA will send it to its two primary funders, King County and the city of Seattle, later this year, and adopt a finalized budget in December. What the votes represent is a bet on Dones’ plan to fund Partnership for Zero, which will otherwise run out of funding next year.
Editor’s note: Due to a transcription error by the author, the original version of this story incorrectly attributed Backus’ quote to Seattle Deputy Mayor Tiffany Washington.
City Light electricians, Parks Department construction workers, librarians, and other city employees unfurled a 50-foot-long petition down a flight of steps inside the lobby of City Hall yesterday to demonstrate their opposition to a proposed 1 percent “cost of living adjustment” Mayor Bruce Harrell’s labor negotiators proposed earlier this year. The petition included signatures from nearly 6,000 people in support of the Coalition of City Union’s efforts to improve the unions’ contract.
Members of the 11 unions that make up the Coalition of City Unions—which, collectively, represent about 6,000 city workers—expressed disappointment and outrage about the Harrell Administration’s proposal, which would boost these workers’ wages just 1 percent in 2024, and a maximum of 2.5 percent over the next four years. According to the Professional and Technical Workers Coalition, the largest union in the Coalition, Harrell’s office recently offered additional wage increases for people in a “small handful” of job classifications, along with additional vacation time—contingent on the union accepting the 1 percent COLA.
In contrast salaries for rookie police officers quickly rise to six figures, not counting overtime, over a new recruit’s first four years, and that amount will increase again after the city concludes contract negotiations with the police union, which are ongoing now. The city also offers police hiring bonuses of up to $30,000.
One percent, many workers told me Tuesday, is far less than the rate of inflation, which topped 8 percent in Seattle last year. Ed Hill, an electrical construction and maintenance supervisor who has worked for Seattle City light almost 30 years, said that for him, a 1 percent pay boost “is just like 0 percent. That puts me, actually, going backwards. Because everything else is going up everything except my wages.”
Hill said he had high hopes for the negotiations when Harrell showed up for an initial meeting with union negotiators and told them “this was going to be a collaborative process… a nice, easy process. And the whole thing—well, it just hasn’t turned out to be that.”
Joan Estes, another electrical construction and maintenance supervisor who rose through the ranks at City Light, said she took a supervisory job on the assumption that it would be a better career path than her previous job as a City Light electrician. Instead, she said, “I’m making less now than the job I came from.” On top of that, Estes said, City Light is seeing an increase in wage compression, as the wages of lower-ranked workers, who are represented by a different union, close in on what higher-ranking employees earn. In its most recent contract, IBEW 77, which represents City Light line workers and electricians, negotiated a cost of living adjustment up to 4 percent along with one-time wage increases of 10 percent.
Hill, Estes, and many other workers at Tuesday’s event wore city ID cards bearing a red “ESSENTIAL WORKER” badge—an early-pandemic designation for city employees who didn’t have the option of working from home. Marvin Christianson, a carpenter for the Parks and Recreation department who worked “straight on through” the pandemic, called the 1 percent offer “insulting.”
“We’ve been told over and over again that we’re the best-funded parts department in the nation, and we’re going, why is our work underpaid—so far underpaid that we have recruitment and retention problems?” Christianson said.
Anne Cisney, a librarian at the Central (downtown) Seattle Public Library, said library workers have become an part of the support system for people experiencing homelessness, mental health issues, and addiction, including people in crisis who lash out at library staff. “And in that environment, to hear from the city that our wages will not even keep pace with inflation, that’s a very hard thing to hear,” Cisney said. “And it leaves us feeling unsupported, devalued and disrespected by the city that we’re working so hard to support. So that’s why such an overwhelming number of library workers feel strongly about this issue.”
Brianna Thomas, Harrell’s labor liaison, came down from the mayor’s office to receive a printed-out version of the petition, but noted several times, “I’m not the negotiator!” Harrell’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the issues the union members raised on Wednesday afternoon.
On Tuesday, Seattle Department of Transportation crews removed some of the dozens of concrete “eco-blocks,” including many originally installed by Fremont Brewing to prevent homeless people from setting up tents or parking their RVs there, that abut a patch of mulched dirt known as the Leary Triangle.
They did not, however, remove any of the dozens of blocks that still surround the brewery, which is owned by Seattle City Councilmember Sara Nelson and her husband Matt Lincecum. The blocks have sprung up all around the city to prevent people who live in their vehicles from parking in industrial areas, which are the only parts of the city where RVs and oversized vehicles can park overnight. Fremont’s eco-blocks occupy two full block faces and prevent anyone, including neighborhood residents and visitors, from parking on either street without being in the roadway.
Placing obstructions in the public right-of-way, including sidewalks, curb space, and parking strips, is unambiguously illegal under the Seattle Municipal Code, which authorizes the city to order property owners to remove obstructions at their own expense. However, the city has chosen not to enforce the law; when PubliCola asked about the proliferation of eco-blocks last year, SDOT director Greg Spotts said the department wouldn’t prioritize removing eco-blocks, a point he reiterated later on Twitter.
SDOT is also a partner in the city’s Unified Care Team, a group of city workers that removes homeless encampments and RVs from public spaces.
A spokeswoman for SDOT said the department removed the blocks “as a part of a larger City of Seattle project to reopen Leary Triangle.” After the city is done with its work on site, she said, the area where the blocks once stood will become a four-hour parking zone, to “make it easier for people visiting Leary Triangle and nearby businesses to park for a short period of time.” Removing the eco-blocks from the surrounding streets would create more parking spaces, but turning the area around the new dog park into a four-hour parking zone will have the effect of permanently banishing people who live in RVs or other vehicles.
PubliCola asked SDOT why they didn’t remove the other eco-blocks that surround Fremont Brewing, since they, too, are preventing “people visiting Leary Triangle and nearby businesses” from parkingfor any period. “The concrete blocks were removed in this location due to construction from a larger project to reopen Leary Triangle,” the spokeswoman said. “The circumstances are unique to this location.”
1. Unredacted audio of the 911 call to which Seattle police officer Kevin Dave was allegedly responding when he struck and killed student Jaahnavi Kandula in January further confirms that the caller had used cocaine, not opiates, and was breathing heavily but calm when he called 911 to report that he was “freaking out.” PubliCola obtained the audio through a records request.
Police Chief Adrian Diaz has said Dave was responding “as an EMT” to provide medical aid at a Priority 1 overdose call when he hit Kandula. Dave is certified as an EMT, but there is no evidence beyond Diaz’ statement that he was responding as a medic rather than a police officer, and the 911 call itself contradicts that claim.
SPD has also said police need to be present when Fire Department medics are reviving someone from an opiate overdose in order to provide backup if the person is violent when they come to and to keep people from stealing items or intervening while SFD medics are occupied with rescue breathing and other lifesaving measures. However, the full recording of the 911 call makes it clear that the caller had used cocaine, not opiates, and told the dispatcher his symptoms were “starting to go away” by the end of the six-and-a-half-minute call.
In the first moments of the recording, the caller, a man in his 20s, told the dispatcher, “I did cocaine and I don’t know if I’m having an overdose. I think I’m over-amped.” After being transferred to a dispatcher for Medic One, the Seattle Fire Department’s emergency medical response team, the caller added that he was “trying not to freak out” and was standing outside his apartment building. “Do you think you’ve overdosed?” the dispatcher asked. “I looked it up and I think so,” he said. “I’m extremely anxious,” the caller added, and “shaking a little bit.”
The original dispatcher then kept the man on the line, telling him to breathe and getting more information. “Am I going to get in trouble?” the man asked. “Oh, no,” the dispatcher responded. “I’m still just kind of freaking out right now, but it’s starting to go away,” the caller said. By the end of the call, the dispatcher and caller were joking about the weather. “At least it’s not raining today, right?” the dispatcher said. “That’s one way to look at it, yeah,” the caller responded.
SPD is doing an internal investigation into whether Dave was acting within SPD policy when he hit Kandula in a marked and lighted South Lake Union intersection. Three months after the crash, the department has not said when it will conclude its investigation.
2. The state senate gave final approval Monday to a bill that will lower the standard of evidence required for police officers across the state to initiate vehicle pursuits, sending the bill to Governor Jay Inslee’s desk.
Under SB 5352, sponsored by Senator John Lovick (D-44 Lake Stevens), officers will only need to have a “reasonable suspicion” that a driver has committed a violent crime or is driving under the influence. The bill reverses a 2021 change in state law that raised the standard for most offenses, apart from DUI, to a higher “probable cause” standard, which requires more evidence, with the aim of reducing pursuits overall.
The policy change nearly failed to move forward earlier this session, when state house leaders declined to bring their version of the bill to the floor for a vote ahead of a key deadline, prompting state senate leaders, in a dramatic move, to bring the bill to the floor even though it had never received a hearing in that chamber.
“I am asking you to vote no because the people trusted us, and they are disappointed that we are rolling back something that they thought put us on the first step to accountability.” —Debra Entenman (D-47, Covington)
Inslee is expected to sign the bill. “I think we need to move this needle, I think that’s where the public is,” he said in early March.
The house approved the bill on April 10, with opposition from both Republicans who wanted it to go further and allow more pursuits for non-violent offenses like auto thefts, and from Democrats who say the current policy, which allows fewer pursuits, is saving lives.
Many Democrats view the reversal as a step back for police accountability in Washington. Before the house floor vote earlier this month, Representative Debra Entenman (D-47, Covington) noted that the bill reversed recommendations made by legislative task force created in 2020 in response to nationwide protests over racial injustice.
“I am asking you to vote no because the people trusted us…and they are disappointed that we are rolling back something that they thought put us on the first step to accountability,” she said.
Last year, the legislature rolled back another 2021 law that prevented police from using force to prevent people from walking away from investigative stops, also known as Terry stops.
A previous version of the pursuit bill included a 2025 sunset date, but that’s no longer in the bill. Some of Washington’s largest police departments, like Seattle and Tacoma, already have policies in place that require a higher standard of evidence to pursue a suspect.
Mayor Bruce Harrell issued an executive order Monday expanding Health One to include a new overdose response unit aimed at getting people into treatment, directing the Seattle Police Department to “prioritize enforcing [illegal drug] sales and distribution related crimes to the fullest extent permissible,” and committing the city to “site, explore funding for, and work with the University of Washington Addictions, Drug and Alcohol Institute (UW ADAI), and County partners to establish a post overdose diversion facility where EMS can bring people after non-fatal overdoses to recover, get stabilized on medications, and access resources.”
Currently, when medics revive someone who has overdosed, the person can either agree to go to the hospital, where they’ll get information about treatment, or decline; a post-overdose facility would provide another route for people who would ordinarily decline additional care.
“What’s going to happen now is that [in addition to Fire Department medics], Health One is also going to respond” to overdoses, Seattle Fire Chief Harold Scoggins said at an event announcing the order in Pioneer Square Monday afternoon. “Health One comes with case managers and firefighters who are trained [to] talk to folks and really explain the resources that are available to them. After the fire units leave, the police units leave, Health One will still be on the scene.”
The order also endorses an evidence-based harm reduction strategy called contingency management, which involves providing incentives, such as low-dollar gift certificates, to drug or alcohol users who enroll in treatment and stay clean.
Harrell didn’t have many details about the plan to open a post-overdose response site, such as how it would be funded, who would staff it, or—importantly—why people who overdosed and refused to go to Harborview would be willing to go to a different facility. “Full disclosure: How it’s staffed, how we fund it—that’s the work we’re trying to do now, because in looking at the numbers of fatalities and overdoses, we realize that’s sort of a gap in our treatment scenario,” Harrell said.
The order also endorses an evidence-based harm reduction strategy called contingency management, which involves providing incentives, such as low-dollar gift certificates, to drug or alcohol users who enroll in treatment and stay clean. Contingency management has been especially effective at reducing stimulant use, for which—unlike opiates—there is no drug-based treatment. “We will do what makes sense to get people in treatment,” Harrell said.
City Councilmember Sara Nelson, who is in recovery and has previously expressed opposition to harm reduction approaches like medication-assisted treatment, called contingency management a “proven method… that rewards people who want to stay sober, and get on the path to long term recovery, no matter what their addiction.” After the press conference, she told PubliCola the program already has a funding source: Seattle’s share of a statewide fund that resulted from a settlement in the state’s lawsuit against the three largest opiate distributors.
The executive order also commits the city to “convene a workgroup to map out the various local, county and state programs and services available to treat and respond to the opioid and synthetic drug crisis.”
“This time-limited workgroup will be tasked with identifying gaps in our current systems and making recommendations on how to better coordinate a treatment-first approach to reducing substance abuse disorders and overdose rates. The workgroup will also assess ongoing investments and programs to determine what is working well and how existing investments could be expanded to serve more people.”
As a separate part of the downtown plan, the head of the city’s Office of Economic Development, Markham McIntyre, announced that the city will reopen City Hall Park next to the downtown King County Courthouse, which has been closed and fenced off since 2021 (more “jumbo chess boards”); open up streets to pedestrians more often for special events, including, “perhaps, on-street pickleball tournaments”; and ask the Washington Liquor and Cannabis Board for “sip and stroll” liquor permits that would allow people to walk around with drinks during events like First Thursday art walks.
After an emergency meeting last Friday, the King County Regional Homelessness Authority sent dozens of its downtown outreach workers, known as system advocates, to four hotels where the majority of people temporarily sheltered by the Lived Experience Coalition have been staying, to assess what their needs are and where they can go now that funding for the LEC hotels has run out.
As PubliCola has reported, the LEC—an advocacy group made up of homeless and formerly homeless people who also appoint members to the KCRHA’s implementation board—received federal grants to move people from the streets into hotels across King County through a partnership with the nonprofit Building Changes, but ended up spending far more money than they had. Money from a philanthropic group called We Are In paid for the rooms, which recently totaled over 200, through April 7.
The KCRHA’s CEO, Marc Dones, has distanced the authority from the hotel debacle, saying they only “recently became aware” of the situation. However, KCRHA’s own system advocates used the LEC program this year to shelter dozens of people as part of an effort to end unsheltered homelessness downtown, which is partly financed by We Are In.
People living in least 55 of the LEC-funded hotel rooms are participants in the state-funded Recovery Navigator program, which provides resources for people with addiction, including co-occurring mental health disorders; that program is now responsible for those residents.
The KCHRA is reportedly trying to place other hotel residents in shelter through the United Way, Salvation Army, and other nonprofit agencies.
“KCRHA, with the support of King County, the City of Seattle, and We Are In, has moved into an active emergency response to address the financially unstable LEC motel shelter program,” a KCRHA spokeswoman told PubliCola Monday.
The challenges are significant: Hotel residents include people with significant physical and mental impairments, including a number of amputees, along with people staying in the hotels anonymously because they are fleeing domestic violence. People who can’t be placed in another shelter or housing will be “exited” to the streets, including several dozen the LEC said were planning to “self-resolve” by leaving without shelter or services.
“At this time, we have verified that there are a significant number of families with young children, seniors, and medically fragile individuals, and these groups are prioritized for placement in shelter and housing with appropriate care,” the KCRHA spokeswoman said.
“There Will Always Be a Crisis”
Dones was at the KCRHA’s emergency meeting on Friday, and did not attend a long-planned, all-day implementation board retreat at the same time. Portions of the retreat were audible at a publicly accessible Zoom link on Friday. During their discussion about an upcoming vote on the agency’s 2024 budget, board members expressed frustration that Dones didn’t show.
Dones has no formal contract or job description, board member Ross added, which will make it hard for the board to conduct a credible evaluation of their performance.
“[The hotel emergency] is one crisis, with up to 300 people, but there are thousands more out there,” board member Christopher Ross said. “There will always be a problem [or] a crisis. You should be able to have other people step up. And this crisis, by the way, has been going on for several weeks, so to miss the one day where you need to bond with your bosses—they are creating a hole by not being in this room.” Dones has no formal contract or job description, Ross added, which will make it hard for the board to conduct a credible evaluation of their performance.
Dones has suggested that the budget vote should be a pro forma matter, since the agency adopted a biennial budget last year, but the proposal includes an expansion of the agency to include 11 new staff positions (two of which are currently grant-funded). Board member Ben Maritz questioned the budget’s focus on adding administrative staff, including three human resources officers. “This budget ask doesn’t reflect our shared goal of getting as many more people inside as possible,” he said.
The budget also assumes that the KCRHA will be able to continue the Partnership for Zero project after private funding runs out. The agency plans to use $5.2 million in Medicaid funding through a program called Foundational Community Supports, which pays for “pre-tenancy services,” like case management, for Medicaid enrollees people with complex health problems that make it difficult to keep housing or hold a job.
Also during the retreat, the implementation board decided to have a special meeting Tuesday evening to go over the budget in more detail before approving it and passing it on to a separate governing committee made up largely of elected officials from around the region. That board, whose job is mostly limited to approving policies and strategies the implementation board recommends, is scheduled to meet this Thursday and pass the budget.