Earlier this week, the Seattle City Council finally adopted a set of restrictive new rules making it harder and more expensive for property owners to remove trees in their private lawns by more than tripling the number of regulated trees in the city.
The rules, which govern removal of any tree larger than six inches in diameter, go further than any previous ordinance, requiring land owners to replace any tree larger than 12 inches in diameter or pay a “payment in lieu” of replacement that ranges from $2,833 to tens of thousands of dollars. They are, in a word, Byzantine—and do nothing to address tree loss in the city’s own parks and open spaces, which are losing a greater proportion of their trees than privately owned property.
Which made it all the more remarkable when, at Tuesday’s meeting, “tree protection” advocates—in many cases, people who use “save the trees” as a proxy for anti-housing, anti-renter sentiments—argued that the council should scrap the whole policy in favor of a brand-new proposal floated by Councilemember Alex Pedersen that would vastly restrict development on nearly all the city’s low-density residential land. During public comment, speaker after speaker lined up to argue that the restrictive new tree ordinance would empower developers to “cover 85 percent of detached residential lots with structures,” as one commenter put it—a misinterpretation, encouraged by Pedersen, of regulations that do no such thing.
Pedersen did nothing to dispel his supporters’ misinterpretation of the law on Tuesday. Instead, he argued that the council “should vote [the legislation] down and start over”—presumably with his own proposal, rejected overwhelmingly earlier this month, that would have made it difficult to build anything other than single-family houses in areas where low-density multifamily housing, such as duplexes, was recently legalized.
The misconception stems from the fact that the new bill limits the amount of “developable” land on any residential lot to a maximum of 85 percent, once all tree protection requirements are factored in. In a maximal development scenario, in which tree protection areas only make up 15 percent of a lot, it would still be impossible to turn the rest of the lot into buildings. That’s because the city also has many other ordinances in place requiring walkways, landscaping, parking, green plantings, and other mandatory amenities. Altogether, these mandatory amenities restrict housing development to between 30 and 45 percent of any residential lot.
Pedersen did nothing to dispel his supporters’ inaccurate interpretation of the law on Tuesday. Instead, he argued that the council “should vote [the legislation] down and start over”—presumably with his own proposal, rejected overwhelmingly earlier this month, that would have made it difficult to build anything other than single-family houses in areas where low-density multifamily housing, such as duplexes, was recently legalized.
Quoting at length from the Seattle Times editorial board’s error-riddled argument against the legislation, which also repeated the inaccurate claim that “developers would be able to build on 85% of the lot in low-rise and other zones,” Pedersen said, “The process produced a pro-developer tree removal measure instead of one that actually preserves and grows trees. If this bill passes, there will be less shade and higher street level temperatures. That’s from the Seattle Times editorial board and I concur with those comments.”
The tree ordinance passed 6-1, with Pedersen voting “no”; Councilmembers Debora Juarez and Kshama Sawant were absent.
City Councilmember Alex Pedersen, who’s leaving next year after a single term, had hoped to stuff a new tree-protection ordinance with amendments that would prohibit new development in many historically exclusive single-family areas.
Instead, Pedersen’s colleagues rejected nearly every one of his proposed amendments, leaving Pedersen—whose Zoom background includes a yard sign promoting the Seattle advocacy group TREEPAC—to vote against a bill that would have represented his primary legacy on the council.
The bill that passed out of committee, without Pedersen’s amendments, still creates a Byzantine maze of new regulations aimed at preventing tree removal on private property.
But Pedersen’s proposals would have gone much further—dramatically increasing the cost to remove trees, restricting where new trees could be planted, and shrinking the area where a property owner could build new housing through a series of overlapping protections that would require a PhD. in math to decipher. Pedersen said he based his amendments on a letter from the Urban Forestry Commission.
In all, Pedersen proposed 17 amendments that would have imposed new restrictions on development or made it more expensive to build. Every one of his substantive amendments failed—a limp denouement to the Northeast Seattle council member’s years-long efforts to prevent new housing in the guise of tree protection.
Some, like an amendment to change the way the maximum developable area on a piece of property is calculated, would have made it harder to build anything other than a single-family house in neighborhoods where, thanks to a groundbreaking density bill the state legislature passed this year, it’s now possible to build up to four units per property. Others, like an amendment to increase the amount property owners must pay to remove trees, were designed to maximize the financial pain of removing trees for development. A third group of amendments would have created new reporting requirements and enlarged the bureaucracy charged with enforcing the new tree laws.
All of Pedersen’s amendments failed—a limp denouement to the Northeast Seattle council member’s years-long efforts to prevent new housing in the guise of tree protection.
One of the primary new rules in the underlying tree protection bill is a change allowing development on up to 85 percent of residential lots, with exceptions that would make the development area smaller or larger in some cases. Pedersen wanted to change that baseline, in zones where multifamily housing is allowed, to a variable rate based on floor-area ratio—a measure of the total square footage inside a building, including buildings with multiple floors—which could have the impact of reducing the size of new housing developments or making them infeasible to build.
“This almost feels like a proxy for anti-density more than it is about protecting trees,” land use chair Dan Strauss, who sponsored the underlying tree legislation, said before the vote.
Councilmember Sara Nelson—a frequent Pedersen ally—also voted against several Pedersen amendments, citing the need to encourage new housing in lower-density zones. Mid-rise areas, where small apartment buildings and townhouses are allowed, are “where some of the most affordable pathways to homeownership, through townhomes, is happening,” Nelson said, “and so that’s a pretty important zone to just single out [for new restrictions].”
The committee also voted down a Pedersen amendment that would change the “tree protection area,” where construction is prohibited, from a consistent area defined by a tree’s “drip line” to a complicated, variable formula based on a tree’s diameter, age, root spread, soil health, tree health, and species. At its upper limit, Pedersen’s proposal could have prohibited construction within hundreds of feet of a tree in every direction.
Pedersen also attempted, unsuccessfully, to change the standard for replacing trees removed for development to an “inch for inch” requirement, meaning that if a person removed a 24-inch tree, for example, they would have to plant six four-inch trees somewhere else.
The term echoes anti-development demands for “one-for-one replacement” of dilapidated housing as well as the concept of “concurrency”—the idea that cities should not allow new development until they expand the capacity of its streets, transit systems, sewers, and other amenities to accommodate new residents. The biggest difference between “inch for inch” and “one for one,” of course, is that trees grow.
The legislation still places the burden of tree preservation and replacement on individual property owners, despite the fact that almost half the tree loss in Seattle has occurred in city-owned parks and rights-of-way.
Pedersen also failed to pass an amendment that would require property owners to plant new trees only in areas of the city with low tree canopies. The idea sounds equitable—historically, the city failed to plant trees in neighborhoods where more people of color live, and has an obligation to right that wrong—but, in practice, it would do little to improve tree canopy in underserved areas. And it would create logistical and ethical questions—requiring homeowners building a backyard apartment in North Seattle, for example, to physically take trees to South Seattle and plant them in front of other people’s homes.
A final Pedersen amendment, which would increase the fee to remove midsize trees from $2,833 (in the underlying legislation) to a variable rate ranging from $4,000 to $7,425, didn’t get a vote. (Making the case, Pedersen claimed developers would choose to take lower profits rather than passing the cost of tree replacement fees on to renters or homebuyers.) Instead, the council adopted an amendment from Strauss increasing the fee to remove some protected tree species while keeping the basic fee at $2,833.
The full council will vote on the entire tree protection later this month.
As we’ve noted, the legislation still places the burden of tree preservation and replacement on individual property owners, despite the fact that almost half the tree loss in Seattle has occurred in city-owned parks and rights-of-way. Forcing private property owners to plant or preserve trees on their lawns won’t save Seattle’s tree canopy, but it will prevent some development and drive up the cost of housing as developers pass along their increased costs. The good news is that the council majority seems to have prevented Pedersen, an anti-density crusader to the end, from using tree protections to place a stranglehold on new housing in every corner of the city.
Ron Davis, a tech entrepreneur and urbanist who’s running for the District 4 (northeast Seattle) city council seat being vacated by one-term Councilmember Alex Pedersen, is a first-time candidate who decided to run before he knew Pedersen was leaving his seat—spurred on, he told PubliCola, by frustration with the incumbent’s intransigence on housing, taxation, and the city budget. “Alex was a wall-builder extraordinaire—he literally uses the power of the regulatory state to keep people out of high opportunity neighborhoods,” Davis said.
Davis, who announced his candidacy on January 31, grew up in a working-class family that rose into the middle class through what he calls “almost the fairy-tale American dream,” enabling him to go to Harvard Law School school and ultimately create and sell off a software company that aimed to reduce burnout and stress for call-center employees. Since selling that company, he’s been a sales executive and consultant for tech companies, and more recently started getting involved in local politics, joining the Roosevelt Neighborhood Association, 46th District Democrats, Sound Transit’s Citizen Oversight Panel, and the boards of Futurewise and Seattle Subway, a pro-transit group.
If that seems an awful lot like the resume of someone who’s been planning to run for office for a while, Davis doesn’t disagree. “I have a lot of passion for local land use and transit, and although there area lot of levers that can be pulled at the state state level and other places, I care about my local community and I was represented by someone that made me crazy.” After talking with local political leaders, campaign consultants, and policy experts, it “became clear that that [running for council] was the best fit,” Davis said.
“The 15-minute city concept has been really abused here to justify urban villages. It’s supposed to be that every person lives in a 15-minute city, not little 15-minute neighborhoods that are stuck on arterials everyone can drive through.”
If he’s elected, Davis said, he’ll push for a more inclusive housing strategy for the city, starting with the city’s comprehensive plan, which is up for a major revision this year. The city’s decades-old “urban village” strategy, which concentrates multifamily housing along busy arterial roads while reserving most of the city’s residential land for suburban-style single-family houses, is on the table.
“The fact that all five [comprehensive plan] options still include urban villages is preposterous,” Davis said. “The 15-minute city concept”—the idea that everyone should be able to access what they need within 15 minutes without a car—”has been really abused here to justify urban villages. … It’s supposed to be that every person lives in a 15-minute city, not little 15-minute neighborhoods that are stuck on arterials everyone can drive through.”
Davis, unsurprisingly, connects density to homelessness—you can’t solve homelessness without housing, and you can’t build housing in cities where it isn’t allowed—but he also said he supports adding a lot more shelter while the region ramps up housing investments, a view that puts him in the company of both the King County Regional Homelessness Authority and Mayor Bruce Harrell.
“You can throw a million social workers at a problem—and we do need more, and they need to be paid a living wage—but at some point, if they don’t have resources to offer, they’re going to be limited in what they can do,” Davis said. “I think one of the mistakes that we on the left have made is [not acknowledging] it takes a ton of money and time to build the houses. We have to build the housing. I’m 1,000 percent for that. But … I am for intermediate solutions while we build,” like tiny houses and safe lots for people living in their vehicles, Davis said.
The city recently convened a new progressive revenue task force to come up with recommendations to increase revenues at the local level—including, potentially, for affordable housing. At the same time, Gov. Jay Inslee has proposed a statewide ballot measure to authorize $4 billion in bonds to fund thousands of new units across the state.
Davis said he supports both those efforts, but when it comes to housing for people experiencing homelessness in King County, “I would rather see a serious King County tax, so that it would be genuinely regional, and … so that various individual governments wouldn’t have an incentive to defect and hold everyone else hostage.” Currently, only King County and Seattle fund the regional homelessness authority, although four north King County cities recently voted to contribute.
Davis is currently one of three people seeking the District 4 seat—the others are socialist UW grad student Matthew Mitnick and former Teresa Mosqueda opponent Kenneth Wilson—but the race for this open position will almost certainly get more viable candidates in the months before the May filing deadline. State Rep. Gerry Pollet, who was a rumored candidate for the seat, did not respond to PubliCola’s questions last month.
In preparation for sparring with Sandeep about Alex Pedersen’s record on Seattle Nice this week, I looked back through our coverage of the one-term council member, who recently announced he won’t seek reelection.
Instead, it spoke to Pedersen’s penchant for spinning up misleading narratives to flatter his conservative-for-Seattle base. (Pedersen, like most of the technically nonpartisan council, is a Democrat). In a statement explaining his vote to reject the budget, Pedersen accused his council colleagues of defunding the police—an inflammatory (and patently false) claim that council budget chair Teresa Mosqueda called “a willful attempt to spread misinformation.”
Pedersen’s throwback agenda went beyond putting as many cops on the streets as possible. The former Tim Burgess council aide consistently treated new housing like a burden to be borne by existing homeowners, rather than an asset that keeps neighborhoods lively and neighborhood businesses alive. Even before he ran for office, Pedersen argued in his newsletter, Four to Explore, that “density ideologues” were trying to shove housing into neighborhoods that were already full; unsurprisingly, he vehemently opposed the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA), which allowed modest density increases in a tiny swath of Seattle’s dominant single-family areas.
Pedersen picked up on this theme as soon as he was elected, using one of the city’s most enviable attributes—our (inequitably distributed) tree canopy—to argue against new housing. One of his first acts as council member was to call a meeting to discuss future legislation to “protect” individual trees on privately owned land by preventing development of denser housing where single-family homes now stand. Draft legislation to make it harder and more expensive to remove trees is still moving forward with support from Pedersen and his Northwest Seattle colleague Dan Strauss. Pedersen has also consistently supported “impact fees” that would make dense rental housing more costly to build—an anti-affordability strategy wrapped in an anti-displacement façade.
One of his first acts as council member was to call a meeting to discuss future legislation to “protect” individual trees on privately owned land by preventing development of denser housing where single-family homes now stand.
Even when Pedersen supported legislation that would be beneficial to renters—such as a bill, also backed by socialist District 3 Councilmember Kshama Sawant, that would have required landlords to disclose the rents they charge—his rationale was still anti-development. In the case of the rent transparency bill (which Mayor Bruce Harrell ultimately vetoed), Pedersen said the data would be a useful argument for preserving development restrictions in the city’s upcoming comprehensive plan update. Separately, Pedersen opposed statewide legislation that would have allowed fourplexes and sixplexes in more areas, calling it an “ill-conceived” preemption of local control that would destroy “naturally occurring” single-family affordable housing in Seattle.
Advocates for nonmotorized transportation were understandably concerned when Pedersen became chair of the council transportation committee, a position he still holds. Years before his 2019 election, Pedersen argued against renewing the city’s transportation levy, in part because it supposedly prioritized bike lanes over “basics” like sidewalks, “traffic congestion,” and bridges. He also opposed Sound Transit 3, the 2016 light-rail expansion measure, and the completion of the downtown streetcar, arguing that buses are cheaper and more flexible—a familiar argument that is also, ultimately, an argument against transit-oriented density.
Pedersen’s term as transportation chair was largely dominated by the closure and subsequent repair of the West Seattle bridge. Still, during a time when pedestrian and cyclist deaths reached unprecedented levels, his lack of enthusiasm for bike lanes never diminished. In his first year on the council, Pedersen opposed a protected bike lane in his district, saying the safety upgrade was unnecessary because cyclists could simply zigzag from street to street, using disconnected short stretches of future bike-friendly “greenways” to avoid busy Eastlake Ave. He expanded this argument to apply to the city as a whole, arguing year after year that bridge maintenance should be a higher priority than bike and pedestrian infrastructure.
Few things, however, got Pedersen quite so worked up as the council’s habit of expressing their views on various issues via nonbinding resolution, a practice he found so irksome that he proposed (and passed) not one but two bills intended to curb them.
Pedersen’s political supporters (like my friend Sandeep) argue that he has served as a “voice of reason” on the council, preventing the council’s left wing from running amok. In reality, Pedersen generated little original legislation and spent much of his time arguing against his colleagues’ proposals.
Few things, however, got Pedersen quite so worked up as the council’s habit of expressing their views on various issues via nonbinding resolution, a practice he found so irksome that he proposed (and passed) not one but two bills intended to curb them. The first, in response to a Sawant-backed bill condemning an anti-Muslim citizenship law in India, was a sarcastic resolution condemning “all forms of oppression affecting communities throughout the world.” The second allowed councilmembers to refrain from voting on nonbinding resolutions entirely—an option he and his closest ally Sara Nelson have exercised repeatedly ever since.
In his announcement that he won’t seek reelection, Pedersen padded his list of geniune accomplishments (progress toward banning leaf blowers, more speed cameras in school zones, a new tiny house village in his district) with squishier stuff: Supporting Harrell’s agenda on police funding and homelessness, the renewal of a transportation tax for bus service, the approval of two Harrell appointments, and working to stop the sale of the National Archives building at Sand Point, a Trump-era decision that President Biden reversed in 2021. The modesty of these achievements suggests Pedersen’s true legacy on the council: Not a voice of reason, but the voice of “no.”
1. After voting against the 2023-2024 city budget yesterday, City Councilmembers Sara Nelson and Alex Pedersen issued lengthy statements explaining their rationale. In general, both argued that the council should have approved Mayor Bruce Harrell’s budget without significant changes, and should not have eliminated 80 of the 240 vacant police positions for which SPD would otherwise receive funding year after year.
The council funded Harrell’s entire police hiring plan, including large financial incentives for new and transferring officers, and moved parking enforcement officers back to SPD, another top priority for Harrell and the police department.
Still, Nelson and Pedersen described the budget (which Harrell praised) as an affront that will endanger resident and drive qualified police applicants away “With SPD down about 30% of its deployable force and fatal shootings up 35% since 2020, these are far from normal times, and we need to change the narrative that contributed to their staffing shortage,” Nelson said.
Those numbers require some context: There were 36 fatal shootings in Seattle in the first ten months of 2022, compared to 24 for the same period in 2020—at 33 percent increase. But those disturbing numbers of part of a national trend that is actually worse in rural (and Republican) areas, making it a stretch to suggest that shootings are up because of police staffing problems. Similarly, it’s far-fetched to suggest that a largely symbolic (and fairly obscure) council vote to stop funding some long-vacant positions is driving potential job applicants away.
“At best, Nelson and Pedersen are exhibiting sheer incompetence, but unfortunately it appears it’s a wilfull attempt to spread misinformation to prop up their individual political goals. They are being dishonest and actively harmful.”—Council budget chair Teresa Mosqueda
On Wednesday, council budget committee chair Teresa Mosqueda responded to the overheated rhetoric from Nelson and Pedersen, telling PubliCola: “At best, Nelson and Pedersen are exhibiting sheer incompetence, but unfortunately it appears it’s a wilfull attempt to spread misinformation to prop up their individual political goals. They are being dishonest and actively harmful.”
Although Nelson was just elected to her citywide position last year, Pedersen (who represents Northeast Seattle’s District 4) is up for reelection in 2023. One candidate has already announced, and PubliCola has heard about at least one more potential opponent—an urbanist who will challenge Pedersen from the pro-housing left.
2. One program that did not receive full funding from the council this year—the Public Defender Association’s Co-LEAD program, which provides case management and hotel-based shelter to people experiencing homelessness—may end up having to shift their focus away from Seattle neighborhoods to encampments near state highways, PDA co-director Lisa Daugaard said.
That’s because without $5.3 million in annual city funding to keep the program going, the PDA may end up moving Co-LEAD to the King County Regional Homelessness Authority, which has access to state funds to address encampments in state-owned rights-of-way, such as embankments and overpasses.
“[Focusing on state highways] will take us further away from the focus on public safety in Seattle neighborhoods and the public safety concepts that both the Harrell Administration and the City Council have strongly espoused.—Public Defender Association co-director Lisa Daugaard
The PDA made a similar change to its JustCARE program, which previously focused on large encampments inside the city of Seattle, earlier this year. The program moves encampment residents to hotels and enrolls them in intensive case management, enabling the Washington State Department of Transportation to remove encampments in state rights-of-way—a top goal of Gov. Jay Inslee during the last legislative session—without simply displacing them.
“I think the most likely solution is that more of Co-LEAD may shift over to RHA, if indeed RHA is successful in advocating for the state to double down on the approach that we and other partners have brought to the state transportation right-of-way work,” Daugaard said. “But that will take us further away from the focus on public safety in Seattle neighborhoods… [and] the public safety concepts that both the Harrell Administration and the City Council have strongly espoused.”
JustCARE and Co-LEAD both emerged during the pandemic, with support from emergency federal funding, to address the proliferation of large, sometimes dangerous encampments in places like City Hall Park in Pioneer Square. The council’s budget does provide funding for LEAD, the PDA’s original diversion program, which provides case management to people involved in the criminal legal system, such as homeless people facing charges for misdemeanor crimes.
The Seattle City Council adopted a final two-year city budget by a narrow 6-3 margin late Tuesday afternoon, with Councilmembers Kshama Sawant, Alex Pedersen, and Sara Nelson voting “no.” The budget requires six votes to pass, so if even one council member (such as Lisa Herbold, who voted remotely from an airport) had not been present, the entire budget would have failed.
PubliCola reported Monday on the reasons Nelson and Pedersen gave for voting against the budget. In brief, both argued that reducing the number of vacant officer positions at the Seattle Police Department (from 240 to about 160) represented a step back on public safety; Pedersen called the move an example of police defunding, while Nelson said funding fewer vacant positions would send a negative message to potential police recruits.
Nelson and Pedersen also denounced the council majority (which is ordinarily Sawant’s department) for failing to add a number of new programs Harrell included in his original budget, such as a new gunfire detection system (Shotspotter) and an expanded anti-graffiti team.
“It would be out of line with the role of the legislative branch to just adopt [the mayor’s budget], and it would be impossible for every council member amendment to be added to the mayor’s proposed budget without any changes, given the resources that we have.” —Council budget chair Teresa Mosqueda
Neither Nelson nor Pedersen spoke at Tuesday’s meeting, but Pedersen sent a newsletter update to constituents on Tuesday arguing that the budget—which fully funds Mayor Bruce Harrell’s police recruitment and hiring plan—could discourage potential recruits from applying for jobs at SPD.
“It’s tempting at City Hall to ‘go along to get along‘ to avoid conflict with colleagues, but I ultimately believe each elected official should vote their conscience as they strive to synthesize the concerns and input from their constituents,” Pedersen wrote. “I cannot in good conscience endorse a final budget that I believe fails to learn from recent public safety policy mistakes and falls short on public safety for a third year in a row.”
In her own newsletter, Nelson reiterated the comments she made on Monday about what she views as the budget’s shortcomings. “[L]et’s be clear,” Nelson wrote.”This is a policy choice to fund something else, not a necessity driven by a $9 million addition to our General Fund shortfall—which is a relative drop in the bucket.”
The council majority wasn’t exactly hiding the fact that they had their own priorities—in fact, as council budget chair Teresa Mosqueda said Tuesday, it’s the council’s job as the legislative branch of city government to amend the mayor’s budget, not just rubber-stamp it. “It would be out of line with the role of the legislative branch to just adopt [the mayor’s budget], and it would be impossible for every council member amendment to be added to the mayor’s proposed budget without any changes, given the resources that we have,” Mosqueda said. “Those are the facts. That’s the role of the legislative body.”
Compared to Nelson and Pedersen’s heated denunciations, Harrell’s own statement about the council’s budget was anodyne and supportive.
“The amendment process led to important changes in the proposed budget, including ensuring our police recruitment plan is funded and respecting the requests of parking enforcement officers to reside in SPD,” the statement read. “The Council embraced our proposed budget’s needed investments in improving public safety, urgent action on the housing and homelessness crises, and recommitment to the essential services that residents demand.”
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.
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.
1. The Seattle City Council voted not to overturn Mayor Bruce Harrell’s veto of legislation that would have directed a research university, such as the University of Washington, to collect information from landlords about the size of their units and how much they charge. City Councilmember Alex Pedersen sponsored the proposal because, he said at Tuesday’s meeting, it would help the city “validate [the] affordable benefits of smaller mom and pop landlords,” informing the city’s upcoming Comprehensive Plan rewrite; Councilmember Tammy Morales (District 2) co-sponsored it because she said it would give renters better information to make housing decisions and could ultimately bolster support for rent control.
“This could mean, for tenants, that they finally have the ability to make an informed decision and to make a choice between units when they’re searching for a new home—something that landlords have been able to do with background checks on tenants for decades,” Morales said. “We would finally have concrete data that dispels the illusion that private-market, trickle-down economics is the solution to our affordability crisis.”
Renters, unlike homeowners, lack access to crucial information to help them make informed housing decision. While home buyers can easily access public information about what a house sold for most recently, the assessed value of adjacent and nearby houses, and (through data maintained and published by the Multiple Listing Service) the average prices of houses in a particular area, renters have to rely on sites like Apartment Finder and Craigslist to get a general idea of local rents. Searches for the “median rent” in Seattle yield numbers that vary by hundreds of dollars, making it impossible to know whether the rent a landlord is charging is reasonable.
In vetoing the legislation, Harrell argued that the bill would violate landlords’ rights by revealing “proprietary” information.
Overturning a mayoral veto requires a minimum of six council votes; as in the original vote, just five councilmembers supported the legislation this time.
2. JustCare, the COVID-era program that engaged with people living in encampments and moved them into hotel-based shelter, will no longer continue in its previous form. The program, run by the Public Defender Association, ran out of city funding at the end of June. Its new iteration, which will focus exclusively on encampments in state-owned rights-of-way, will be funded using state dollars allocated in a supplemental state budget for shelter and services tied to encampment removals on state-owned property.
“In the sense of a response to the conditions in the specific neighborhoods we served, there is no more JustCare. That era is over – it’s been superseded. The City of Seattle and KCRHA are now in charge of that response.”—Lisa Daugaard, Public Defender Association
The funding is only available to groups that focus on encampments in sites “identified by the department of transportation as a location where individuals residing on the public right-of-way are in specific circumstances or physical locations that expose them to especially or imminently unsafe conditions, including but not limited to active construction zones and risks of landslides.”
By moving its focus to encampments in state rights-of-way, such as highway overpasses, JustCare will lose its geographic, neighborhood-based focus, PDA co-director Daugaard acknowledges.
When City Councilmember Alex Pedersen proposed legislation that would require landlords to report basic information about their rental units, such as the size of each unit they own and how much it rents for, twice a year, his intent wasn’t to make it harder for small landlords to stay in business.
In fact, one of the goals of the proposal was to provide data to demonstrate the value of protecting so-called “naturally occurring affordable housing”—private, nonsubsidized apartments that rent below market rate—against development, through limits on density in areas that might otherwise be redeveloped into high-rise apartments.
So it was somewhat surprising when, earlier this month, Pedersen’s frequent ally Sara Nelson accused him of trying to impose onerous regulations that would “burden small landlords” who are “really struggling to deal with the impacts of the pandemic on their businesses.” Comparing housing to consumer goods, Nelson said the legislation would force landlords to divulge “proprietary” information that other types of businesses don’t have to disclose.
“We don’t ask other small business owners for this kind of detailed information,” Nelson said during a May 20 meeting of the council’s renter’s rights committee. “For example, we don’t ask all produce vendors to submit the kinds of vegetables they sell and the prices they charge.” (Actually, we do, and on a much larger scale.)
Pedersen, seeming a bit startled by the analogy, pointed out that “the current prices of products are publicly available, whereas we don’t know what the current contract rents are for an apartment project.”
“The problem here is that the price of housing is not known,” added committee chair Kshama Sawant, who supports Pedersen’s legislation. “I don’t understand how it is a burden to disclose the amount of rent you charge—it seems to be the most basic form of information that landlords should be required to share.”
In response, Nelson said people can find out what rents landlords are charging, “kind of, when you’re looking for units,” and that if the city wants to know more about rents they should hire a contractor to do a study. Then she said supporters of the legislation should be honest and acknowledge that “this information is going to be used for other political purposes, such as rent control.”