Tag: city budget

Mayor Announces Membership of New Equitable Communities Task Force, Faces Criticism from Social Justice Activists

by Paul Kiefer

Today, a little more than four months since Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan first said she would invest $100 million in services for BIPOC communities, and more than two weeks after she announced she was creating a task force to recommend how to spend the money, she announced the initial members of the task force.

The 28 members of the group, the Equitable Communities Initiative Task Force, are drawn from an array of BIPOC-led nonprofits and civic organizations around Seattle, including well know civil rights leaders such as Estela Ortega, the Director of El Centro De La Raza, and Dr. Sheila Edwards Lange, President of Seattle Central College. They will be tasked with “develop[ing] recommendations for a historic $100 million new investment in Black, Indigenous, and people of color communities to address the deep disparities caused by systemic racism and institutionalized oppression,” Durkan said in the announcement, ostensibly building on existing city investments

At present, the mayor’s proposed budget would take that $100 million from the revenues of the new Jumpstart payroll tax the City Council passed earlier this year. The council originally intended to use the Jumpstart tax revenue for COVID-19 relief for Seattle residents for the next two years, and later to fund affordable housing, projects outlined in the Equitable Development Initiative, Green New Deal investments, and support for small businesses; many of those budgetary priorities were the result of years of lobbying and activism by local BIPOC organizations.

As PubliCola reported last month, city budget director Ben Noble told reporters in September that “budget priorities for the city have changed, arguably, since that [JumpStart] plan was developed,” justifying the mayor’s affront to the council’s legislation.

Because the task force is expected to divert city dollars from JumpStart projects championed by racial and climate justice activists — and not from the Seattle Police Department — the Equitable Communities Initiative has raised alarms among some activist and nonprofit leaders in the past month.

Continue reading “Mayor Announces Membership of New Equitable Communities Task Force, Faces Criticism from Social Justice Activists”

Mayor’s 2020 Budget Would Reallocate JumpStart, Uber Taxes to Pay for BIPOC Investments To Be Determined by New Task Force

Screen shot from internal City of Seattle presentation obtained by PubliCola.

UPDATE: Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office has confirmed that the mayor plans to use both JumpStart (payroll) tax revenues, which are currently earmarked for housing, people experiencing homelessness, and small businesses, and money from the Transportation Network Companies (Uber/Lyft) tax to help pay for her $100 million “new investment” in BIPOC communities. The details of that spending would be hammered out by a task force whose members Durkan will announce next week. (More information in original story, below.)

The TNC tax is currently earmarked for affordable housing near transit and the Center City Streetcar. Using TNC revenues to get to the $100 million goal could mean abandoning the troubled downtown streetcar project.

Earlier this year, the city council passed the JumpStart tax—a graduated payroll tax on high-income workers’ earnings. Durkan, who opposed the tax, nonetheless only vetoed the council’s JumpStart spending plan, letting the tax itself become law without her signature. (The council overrode the veto).

It was an odd move that many observers questioned at the time. However, if Durkan was planning to use the tax revenues to pay for her July commitment, which she made at the height of clashes between protesters and Seattle police, the mayor’s decision to preserve the tax but try to undo the spending plan makes sense. 

But it will have consequences. Under the council’s plan, payroll tax revenues would be used in the short term to fund rent relief, non-congregate shelter beds, immigrant and refugee relief programs,grocery vouchers, and direct assistance to child care centers and other small businesses. In the long term, the tax is supposed to provide $214 million a year for low-income and affordable housing, equitable development, small business support, and Green New Deal projects.

Council member Teresa Mosqueda, who proposed the JumpStart plan, told PubliCola, “JumpStart funding for 2021 was supposed to lessen the austerity cuts that were expected to core government services, much of which serves BIPOC communities. We cannot take expected JumpStart revenue to make good on a promise [Durkan] couldn’t keep.”

The council, which is just coming off a bruising battle over the 2020 rebalancing package, will have to decide now whether they want to fight Durkan’s plan to allocate $100 million to a list of projects that won’t be determined until her task force comes up with spending priorities; or to give in and abandon some or all of the JumpStart spending plan they adopted in July.

If they fight, the mayor will be able to accuse the council of “not listening to community” because their spending plan didn’t involve the kind of lengthy community process Durkan has proposed. If they don’t, community groups that worked to secure the funding in that plan, including groups that advocated for months for the Green New Deal spending plan, could lose out.

Overall, according to PubliCola’s reporting, Durkan’s budget plan would require between 75 and 80 outright layoffs, representing about $7 million in city spending. The mayor will present her budget to the council next Tuesday at 1pm.

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Original story follows.

As PubliCola reported yesterday, in advance of today’s announcement, Mayor Jenny Durkan is convening a new “Equitable Investment Task Force” as part of a “Reimagining Seattle” process that will begin discussions to “realign” the city’s spending  for a post-COVID recovery. The mayor’s announcement, made in an op/ed in the South Seattle Emerald, does not provide many details about her “Equitable Communities Initiative” or the makeup of the task force, but does indicate that this will be a multi-year process, starting with the 2021 budget she’ll propose next Tuesday and continuing with an already planned supplemental budget next spring.

As we noted on Twitter yesterday, PubliCola has obtained additional details that shed more light on the mayor’s plans, which also involve numerous internal “work groups” (distinct from the external task force) and more than 30 city staff, most of them from the city budget office or the mayor’s office.

In an internal PowerPoint presentation titled “Reimagining Seattle As We Know It,” Durkan’s office laid out a plan that that includes new internal city of Seattle “work groups” and an Equitable Investment Task Force with various committees and a paid facilitator, which will “interface” with, and get technical assistance from, the city by way of the new work groups. The mayor’s office will serve as the liaison between all these different groups, and a still-to-be-hired Director of Re=covery and Equitable Investment will head up the whole effort.

The mayor has been criticized in the past for appointing task forces to discuss urgent problems in the past instead of taking quick and decisive action. Past task forces have included groups that discussed homelessness (One Table), zoning in industrial areas (the Industrial and Maritime Strategy Council), and business (the Small Business Advisory Council), among others.

This purpose of this task force is, in part, to discuss how to spend the $100 million the mayor has pledged in “new spending” on BIPOC communities in her 2021 budget, which her office will present to the city council on Tuesday.

One likely source of these revenues will be the JumpStart tax, which is intended to help individuals and businesses recover from the COVID-related economic downturn next year, to cover some of the $100 million. Earlier this year, Durkan vetoed the spending plan for the tax, but not the tax plan itself (the council overrode the veto).

Council member Teresa Mosqueda, who proposed the JumpStart plan, told PubliCola, “JumpStart funding for 2021 was supposed to lessen the austerity cuts that were expected to core government services, much of which serves BIPOC communities. We cannot take expected JumpStart revenue to make good on a promise [Durkan] couldn’t keep.”

According to the city’s internal presentation, the task force—whose members the mayor’s office has not yet identified—will have four co-chairs, and the whole effort will be headed up by the mayor’s new Director of Recovery and Equitable Investment, who has not been hired yet (the job posting went up in early September). PubliCola hears it’s been a challenge to find someone to fill the cabinet-level position, which has a pay range of $120,000 to $180,000.

 

Morning Fizz: Veto Crunch Time, a $100 Million Mystery, and Other Budget News

Council President Lorena González, via
City council president Lorena González, via Youtube

1. Today at its special 3pm meeting, the Seattle City Council will vote on whether to overturn or uphold Mayor Jenny Durkan’s veto of their 2020 “rebalancing” budget package. The council’s version of the budget included modest cuts to the police budget, new spending on a process to reinvest city dollars in alternatives to policing, and the elimination of the Navigation Team, a crew of cops, sanitation workers, and three social workers that until recently removed hundreds of homeless encampments a year.

The mayor actually vetoed three separate bills. Two require a six-vote majority to overturn; the third, which actually appropriates funding for the remainder of 2020, requires seven votes—so seven is the number council members who want to overturn the mayor’s veto will need to shoot for. A vote to overturn all three vetoes would restore the council’s budget. A vote to sustain the veto(es) would lead to a vote on a separate, “compromise” piece of legislation, put forward by council president Lorena González, that would preserve the police department at existing levels, eliminate a loan between city departments that would pay for city and community human services programs, and keep the Navigation Team at current levels while requesting that the Seattle police chief reduce the total size of the team by eliminating two police positions that are already vacant.

On Monday, it looked unlikely that there would be seven votes to overturn the mayor’s veto, although several council members were conspicuously silent during the discussion. Interestingly, González herself tweeted on Monday night that she would vote to overturn the veto, in support of “the work to divest from a broken model of policing.”

A vote for the compromise bill would hand Durkan a significant victory on the eve of her 2021 budget speech next week, and on the threshold of her 2021 reelection campaign. Council members suggested Monday that they believe their hands are tied—if they overturn Durkan’s veto, the mayor can simply ignore any budget provisos that restrict police spending (forcing the council to overturn those provisos so that officers will continue to get their paychecks) and any negotiation with the Seattle Police Officers Guild would probably take three months anyway, pushing the discussions into 2021.

“I think we’re faced with the unfortunate reality that even though we can appropriate money, we can’t compel the mayor to spend the money, and that is sort of the condition we found ourselves in with a lot of these projects around how we’re going to restructure and defund” SPD, District 7 council member Andrew Lewis told PubliCola after the vote.

The consolation prize, to the extent that there is one, consists of $3 million that, according to the legislation, “is intended to be spent on providing non-congregate shelter,” like tiny house villages and the hotel rooms Durkan has resisted funding in response to the COVID-19 crisis. That funding is secured through what council members called a “verbal agreement” with the mayor’s office; Lewis said after the meeting that because the council discussed the agreement publicly, “it’s on record that that’s going to be the understanding of how this is going to work. We are about to [discuss] the 2021 budget and we can make sure this is in there, and we would be fully within our rights to be very indignant about that if there’s not a shared commitment to keeping that deal.”

There’s also $500,000 to be divided among a long list of human service needs, including behavioral health investments, “support[ing] the work of the Navigation Team,” diversion funding, and rapid rehousing funds. The entire half-million would flow through the Navigation Team, even though some of the programs—such as rapid rehousing, a kind of short-term rent subsidy that assumes a person will be able to pay full market rent within a few months—are not really geared toward people experiencing long-term unsheltered homelessness.

Under the compromise bill, the $3 million allocated for research into community-led alternatives to policing in the council’s budget is shrunk to $1 million, with the rest to follow, also apparently by verbal agreement, next year. And there’s $2.5 million for “organizations engaging in community safety,” such as (for example) Choose 180 and Community Passageways.

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2. If the compromise passes, Durkan will also get to keep the Navigation Team at its current level. The future of the team was a major sticking point in the budget negotiations (the other two being whether the council would overturn the veto—which Durkan was adamantly against even if the council immediately adopted a compromise—and cuts to police) and a vote for the compromise bill will only forestall the debate over the fate of the team.

Already, Durkan has reportedly indicated that she plans to keep the team going through 2021, although Lewis—who chairs the council’s special committee on homelessness—says the team’s role, like public safety in general, may be “reimagined.” What that might look like remains unclear, but it could involve renegotiating the terms under which the city can remove encampments, or—as Lewis puts it—”pivoting to more of a coordinating and clearinghouse kind of space to coordinate service providers.”

The council voted unanimously to remove police from the team last month through another budget proviso. The compromise bill also states the council’s “policy intent” to cut five positions from the Navigation Team total; Lewis indicated during the meeting that the additional cuts would come from removing non-SPD staffers from the team.

3. With the 2020 budget almost the rearview mirror, it’s time for Durkan’s 2021 budget proposal, which she will send to the council next Tuesday. The biggest-ticket promised item—”$100 million in community-driven programs for Black youths and adults,” as she put it when she first committed to the funding in June—will also be the hardest to pay for. Durkan has not said publicly where she plans to come up with $100 million in a budget that will have to address ongoing revenue shortfalls in 2021.

Will the money be new revenue—something like a flat income tax, with rebates to low- and middle-income people to get around a court ruling quashing the city’s high-earners’ income tax? Will the revenue come by reallocating funds from a tax that already exists? Or will the mayor use budgetary magic—similar to the math that turned an interdepartmental transfer of 911 call center staff into a huge “cut” to the police department—to conjure $100 million from existing dollars?

Durkan Will Veto Council Budget Over Cuts to Police Department; Council President Hopes for Compromise

As I first reported on Twitter this morning, Mayor Jenny Durkan will announce this afternoon that she will veto the city council’s midyear budget rebalancing package, a move that could effectively remove one co-equal branch of government from the city’s budget process by reinstating Durkan’s original budget proposal with no input from the council. The council could overturn the veto, as they did the mayor’s recent veto of a COVID relief package that relies on future revenues from the JumpStart payroll tax. Or—as seems likely—the council try to work with Durkan to come up with a rebalancing package that the mayor will accept.

“The bills I am vetoing today were passed without the level of collaboration that I think we need, and more important, that the city expects of us,” Durkan said at a press conference this afternoon, “but I am optimistic that we can continue to work together to bridge the gaps. I continue to believe that we can [reach] common ground on the vision for SPD that has been laid out by Chief [Carmen] Best and I.”

The objections Durkan raised were familiar to anyone who has been following the debate over police defunding: The mayor said that the council is attempting to change things “overnight,” “without a plan,” and that her budget proposals already contain large cuts to the police department. The vast majority of those cuts, however, come from transferring some current SPD functions, such as the 911 dispatch center, into other parts of the budget—not from transforming the city’s approach to public safety or reducing the number of SPD officers, as protesters have been demanding since May.

City council president Lorena González said in an interview that she is “incredibly disappointed’ in the mayor’s decision to veto yet another council spending proposal. “It is obvious that there is a significant difference of opinion between the City Council and the mayor and the chief on what can and should be achieved in 2020 in order to respond to the calls from community to reduce the Seattle Police Department’s budget this year and begin the process of investing in community safety programs,” González says.

The rebalancing proposal was necessary to deal with a midyear budget shortfall of around $300 million, a number that keeps getting edited upward as new revenue projections come in.

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If you enjoy breaking news, commentary, and deep dives on issues that matter to you, please support this work by donating a few bucks a month to keep this reader-supported site going.

If you don’t wish to become a monthly contributor, you can always make a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by mailing your contribution to P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104. I’m truly grateful for your support.

The council’s plan included more significant, but still relatively minor, cuts. The version they adopted cuts SPD’s budget by 7 percent by eliminating the encampment-removing Navigation Team, reducing the salaries of SPD command staff (including Best, whose 2020 pay was reduced by $6,000) and cutting 100 positions at SPD through a combination of layoffs and attrition. The council’s proposal also provided $3 million to start a participatory process to reallocate SPD to community-based public health and safety programs, plus $14 million to a combination of city and community programs, funded through an interfund loan that Durkan said was the main reason for her objection to that particular spending proposal.

“Look, it’s a loan that I’m not sure we can repay, and we know with the coming budget that we will have to do some interfund loans just to keep the city services that we have,” Durkan said.

Durkan mentioned the Navigation Team specifically at several points during her press conference, suggesting that the council wanted to cut the team “without a plan” to deal with dangerous encampments. “I’ve had open houses with a number of community and neighborhood groups in the last weeks, and the impact that some of these encampments are having are real— and they are also real for the people living in those encampments,” she said. “We have to have a way to bring people inside and address the public safety [issues], and the cuts did not allow us an opportunity to do that.” Since the pandemic began, the city has provided only about 100 new shelter spaces for the thousands of people living unsheltered in Seattle.

Under the city charter, the council must take a vote to overturn or sustain the veto within 30 days. Council president Lorena González says her hope is that, rather than simply overturning another mayoral veto, the council will be able to “come to some agreement  with the mayor around a rebalanced package, and that’s going to be a two-way street. We need her to make a good-faith effort to engage in order to meaningfully move this forward.”

Otherwise, González says, the council and mayor will likely stay stuck in “this constant back and forth” of vetoes and votes to overturn. “This mayor has made a historical number of vetoes. I’m not aware of any other mayor in the history of the city of Seattle who’s used veto power at this level, and I think that she is sending us a clear message that she will continue to do so,” González says.

It’s clear that there are still significant gaps between what the council wants and what the mayor will accept. In particular, it’s unclear what, exactly, the mayor would consider “on the table” when brokering a future “compromise” with the council. The Navigation Team, community spending, participatory budgeting research, command staff salaries, and SPD personnel cuts seem to be off the table.

But there is also now precedent for compromise between the mayor and the council. This afternoon, Durkan also announced an agreement on the COVID relief package that is much smaller than the council’s original proposal but that will, in the words of JumpStart sponsor Teresa Mosqueda, enable the city to “mov[e] forward jointly as we cannot wait another day” for relief to residents and small businesses impacted by the pandemic.

City Could Be On Hook for Nearly-Empty Hotel It’s Been Renting Since March

While the city and county debate whether to move people experiencing homelessness from individual rooms into mass shelters, which offer no privacy and minimal protection from airborne transmission of COVID-19, the city continued to pay for unused hotel rooms in a high-end downtown hotel through the end of June. Last Wednesday, the council learned that the city has only received a guarantee of $325,000 in federal reimbursement for the empty rooms, which were originally intended for first responders, leaving at least a $1.6 million gap.

The city rented the Executive Pacific Hotel’s 155 rooms in March, at a time when it seemed that emergency personnel responding to the COVID-19 pandemic might need a place to isolate during the crisis. When that turned out not to be the case (thanks largely to county-wide efforts that limited the number of cases), the city expanded eligibility to include health care workers, who didn’t end up needing many rooms, either. Ultimately, the hotel sat mostly empty during the city’s three-month lease, while thousands of homeless people slept outdoors or crowded into mass shelters—the city’s preferred solution for sheltering people during the crisis.

Because so few people ever stayed in the Executive Pacific Hotel, the city’s actual bill ended up being about $2 million—a sum that paid for about 12 hotel rooms a night. But budget director Ben Noble revealed Wednesday that the city could be on the hook for much of that cost, unless FEMA changes its mind about what it will reimburse.

Noble said he was hopeful that the federal government would reconsider its reimbursement, given that so many cities initially thought they would need mass hospitals and temporary housing for first responders during the early days of the pandemic.

“In terms of facilities, [the city] went out looking for a contract arrangement and that was the one they were able to find on short notice,” Noble said. “FEMA is apparently open to reconsidering the reimbursement, because as it turns out, we weren’t the only city who found itself in this situation at the time.”

Going forward, the city will be paying for the rooms it uses, rather than the cost of the entire hotel.

The larger context for the discussion about reimbursement is the fact that many cities, including San Francisco, Los Angeles, Baltimore, and New Orleans used high hotel vacancy rates as an opportunity to move people experiencing homelessness into individual rooms that offered more safety, privacy, and dignity than cots or mats in mass shelters. Mayor Jenny Durkan has resisted calls for a similar shift of resources in Seattle, preferring to re-distribute mass shelters so that people can sleep slightly further apart.

As council member Lisa Herbold noted Wednesday, the city already has a hotel/motel voucher program that could have been providing families and individuals with safe places to stay, if it had been funded adequately during the pandemic. As it was, the city didn’t have enough vouchers to offer the small number of homeless people removed from Cal Anderson Park during the city’s recent sweep of the CHOP protest zone.

“What is keeping us from boosting funding for that existing program and making those vouchers available for people who are currently in congregate-model shelters?” she asked. “I just imagine there are a lot of hotel rooms in the city that aren’t being used.”

In response, Noble pointed out the existing budget shortfall that will require about $300 million in midyear cuts.

It’s possible, perhaps likely, that the federal government would not see the wisdom in using FEMA dollars to move people into individual rooms rather than warehousing them in shelters. What’s harder to stomach is the argument that spending potentially millions of dollars on empty hotel rooms was a better use of those limited funds than filling some of those beds with people.

Durkan’s Proposed $20 Million Cut to Police Is Just $4 Million More Than Initially Planned

The overall budget picture, via City Budget Office.

After weeks of soaring, budget-speech-style rhetoric about “reimagining the police” and “working with community,” Mayor Jenny Durkan’s proposed midyear police budget cut of $20 million, or just 5 percent of the department’s $400 million budget, was underwhelming. Moreover, according to sources familiar with Durkan’s initial budget balancing package, the proposed cut is only one percentage point (or $4 million) higher than the one Mayor Durkan proposed internally three weeks ago, before protests against police violence upended the city’s business-as-usual approach to public safety. That $4 million can be accounted for by Durkan’s proposal to delay the construction of a second North Precinct for the department.

Despite demands from activists against police violence to start cutting SPD right away, the 5 percent cut will not even reduce the size of the police force. As a presentation on the budget cuts makes clear, SPD is on track to hire and train enough new officers to make up for the expected rate of attrition through the end of the year. The presentation emphasizes that SPD is taking the biggest budget hit, in dollars, of any department; it does not point out the fact that this is because SPD is by far the largest department in the city.

SPD spent an extra $6.3 million this year policing protests over a period of 12 days, including the ones that led to the Capitol Hill Organized Protest zone near the East Precinct. That $6.3 million paid for 72,619 hours of overtime.

None of the changes proposed for SPD’s budget in 2020 represent a realignment of priorities; rather, they nibble around the edges by cutting things like new IT investments and cars.

SPD’s midyear budget adjustment also does not include any changes to the Navigation Team, the group of police officers and Human Services Department employees who do outreach and remove encampments around the city. Currently, the SPD budget includes $2.4 million for the Navigation Team, which pays for one lieutenant, two sergeants, and nine officers. School resource officers—police who provide security at schools, a role that is also extremely controversial—have been repurposed to go out with the Navigation Team while schools are closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

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During this unprecedented time of crisis, your support for truly independent journalism is more critical than ever before. The C Is for Crank is a one-person operation supported entirely by contributions from readers like you.

Your $5, $10, and $20 monthly donations allow me to do this work as my full-time job. Every supporter who maintains or increases their contribution during this difficult time helps to ensure that I can keep covering the issues that matter to you, with empathy, relentlessness, and depth.

If you don’t wish to become a monthly contributor, you can always make a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by mailing your contribution to P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104. Thank you for reading, and supporting, The C Is for Crank.

The mayor’s budget announcement included a commitment from SPD to come up with proposals to cut its own budget by 30, 40, and 50 percent for 2021, and a commitment from the city to “engage community to provide substantive input on what 2021 SPD budget choices should be made.”

It’s standard for the city to ask departments to come up with potential cuts themselves, but the case of SPD is different because protesters are clamoring for its budget to be cut in half (to begin with) and for the entire concept of public safety to be reimagined in a way that does not center police. The Human Services Department, for example, came up with 2020 cuts that include not filling vacancies and reducing or eliminating travel and trainings—but, unlike the ongoing outcry over police funding, no one is clamoring for fewer human or social services, so the process of asking HSD to propose its own cuts is less politically fraught.

The police department spent an extra $6.3 million this year policing protests over a period of 12 days, including the ones that led to the Capitol Hill Organized Protest zone near the East Precinct. That $6.3 million paid for 72,619 hours of overtime.

The mayor’s proposed 2020 budget balancing package would also draw on funds from several voter-approved levies to pay for normal city operations. For example, $10 million will be shifted this year from the Move Seattle Levy, which was supposed to fund new transportation capital projects, toward the day-to-day operations of the Seattle Department of Transportation. The library levy, which was supposed to fund increased services, will now pay for basic operations—keeping the lights on at branches that might otherwise see reduced hours or closures.

The council will be discussing the mayor’s proposed budget cuts this afternoon. Most members of the council support passing a progressive tax to reduce the impact of next year’s budget shortfall. A payroll tax on large employers with high-paid workers, proposed by council budget committee chair Teresa Mosqueda, has five co-sponsors (a majority), but council member Kshama Sawant has threatened to put her own competing employee hours tax on a citywide ballot if Mosqueda’s proposal goes through in its current form. Durkan has not endorsed Mosqueda’s package and has never supported any tax proposal at the city level.

Budget director Ben Noble said yesterday that the budget cuts the city expects to make in 2021 (again, in the absence of any progressive revenue package) will amount to about 10 percent of the city’s overall budget—an “unprecedented” amount that even dwarfs the cuts the city made under former mayor Mike McGinn during the Great Recession.

Council Bans Use of “Less Lethal” Weapons and Chokeholds as Cop Funding Discussion Gets Underway

Police stand by during a recent encampment removal by the Navigation Team, which is made up mostly of Seattle police officers.

This story first appeared in the South Seattle Emerald.

The Seattle City Council voted unanimously today to ban the Seattle Police Department from owning or using so-called “less lethal” weapons such as blast balls, tear gas, and pepper spray for any purpose, and, in separate legislation, to ban the use of “chokeholds,” a term that includes various methods of restraining a person by cutting off their air supply or blood flow to their brain.

City council member Lisa Herbold, who chairs the council’s public safety committee, had proposed delaying the legislation barring less-lethal weapons for one week at the request of the Office of Police Accountability and the Office of Inspector General, which asked the council for one week to review the legislation and make recommendations. The OPA and OIG, along with the Community Police Commission, are the three accountability groups charged with implementing and overseeing police reforms required by a 2012 federal consent decree.

Delaying a week would not have allowed police to resume the use of blast balls, tear gas, and other weapons against protesters, thanks to a federal court ruling from Friday, June 12, barring the use of force against peaceful protesters for two weeks. However, council member Kshama Sawant, who sponsored the legislation, said on Monday morning that she was “at a loss to understand how any council member can play a role in delaying the passage of what is absolutely bare minimum legislation.” 

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If you don’t wish to become a monthly contributor, you can always make a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by mailing your contribution to P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104. Thank you for reading, and supporting, The C Is for Crank.

Sawant continued to inveigh against Herbold at the full council meeting at 2pm, calling an amendment that would allow police to use non-lethal weapons under circumstances unrelated to free speech or “crowd control,” such as subduing individual suspects, “nothing less than a racist amendment [and] a betrayal of the movement and the Black community.” Earlier, Sawant called the same amendment “horrific” and suggested that it would “create giant, truck-sized loopholes that will allow these weapons to be used in virtually any situation.”

Herbold’s amendment mirrored language adopted by the Community Police Commission in 2015 and in 2020 recommending a ban on these weapons specifically for crowd control purposes. The CPC, OIG, and OPA have not weighed in on whether less-lethal weapons should be banned outright, a move Herbold—a longtime advocate for police reform—said she worries could have unintended consequences.

Herbold didn’t directly address Sawant’s accusation, but did agree to withdraw the portion of her amendment to Sawant’s bill that would have allowed less-lethal weapons to be used for purposes other than crowd control. Her amendment, which ultimately passed, added language to Sawant’s bill asking the OPA, CPC, and OIG to “make a formal recommendation to the City Council on whether the Seattle Police Department should be reauthorized to use less-lethal weapons for crowd dispersal purposes” by August 15.

The council is sending the legislation to the Department of Justice, Federal District Court Judge James Robart, who presides over the consent decree, and court monitor Merrick Bobb, who was appointed to oversee the decree. The consent decree is an agreement, signed by the city in 2012, that committed the city to police reform after the federal court found a pattern of excessive force and racially biased policing. 

In early May, Mayor Jenny Durkan asked the judge to find the city in long-term compliance with federally mandated reforms, one of the final steps before the dissolution of federal oversight SPD. Less than three weeks later, George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis and police in Seattle responded to mostly peaceful protests with violent force. 

The discussions about less-lethal weapons are just the first phase of discussions about the size and purpose of the police department, which will continue on Wednesday at 2pm with a discussion in the council’s budget committee about proposals to defund the department and invest in community organizations that provide alternative approaches to community safety and prosperity.

 

The City Has Been Renting Two Shower Trailers Since March. If They Open, Each Shower Could Cost $500.

Image via VIP Restrooms.

This post has been updated to reflect the fact that the city’s estimate of 16 showers per day was for each trailer, not for both trailers combined. This changes the total cost per 15-minute shower to $500 each, not $1,000, a change that has also been reflected in the headline. 

On March 10, Seattle Human Services Department director Jason Johnson sent a memo to Mayor Jenny Durkan proposing to spend $1.3 million from the city’s 2020 budget to “rent up to five” mobile shower and restroom trailers to  serve people experiencing homelessness during the COVID-19 pandemic. The city council added the money to Durkan’s proposed budget last year to buy five shower trailers outright, but the mayor’s office didn’t take action until the COVID-19 pandemic was well underway. By the time the city started looking for trailers, many other cities were doing the same.

Eventually, the city rented two three-stall units from a California company called VIP Restrooms, securing a last-minute credit limit increase to charge the first week’s rental fee of $28,700 on a city credit card. That eclipsed what King County was paying for similar, but much larger trailers, and the city’s outlay continue to rise week after week, while the trailers sat unused. As of this afternoon, both trailers remain in storage, and have not provided a single shower since the city first started paying for them back on March 26, nearly two months ago.

A series of emails shows city staffers scrambling to increase the credit limit on a city MasterCard to pay for the trailers before another city could snag them. “We are trying to both rent and procure sanitation trailers, along with every other major city,” SPU director Mami Hari wrote. “Suppliers are demanding cash/credit card/check and will not accept PO’s. The available pool diminishes each day and we have a bead on 2 trailer rentals and a couple for purchase.”

Last month, I reported that the trailers would  “likely cost the city hundreds of thousands of dollars a month,” based on an estimated cost of $36,000 per month just to rent the trailers, plus a range of potential costs to pump out wastewater and an unknown cost to hire security and staff for each unit.

The documents from SPU show that this estimate was, if anything. According to memos and spreadsheets created by the city to estimate costs for FEMA reimbursement, the monthly cost for rental, wastewater, and materials will be around $159,000, with pumpout costs at the low end of the city’s original range. Staffing the trailers, according to the city, will add another $333,000. That’s a total cost of $484,000— nearly half a million dollars a month for two rented hygiene trailers that will provide, according to the city, between 16 and 24 individual showers per day. If the showers operate every day (not a given), and provide 16 showers each per day, that works out to a cost of about $500 per shower.

 

This spreadsheet has been altered to remove unrelated costs for portable toilets. The unaltered spreadsheet, with the additional numbers in place, is available here.

Since the city has not actually used the trailers since paying for them on March 26, of course, the actual cost has been lower. But that’s the same logic that enables the city to claim that it is paying less than expected for the 155 rooms it has rented out at the Executive Pacific Hotel in downtown Seattle. As long as the rooms are empty, the city doesn’t have to pay for food. As long as no one is using the showers, the city doesn’t have to pay for water and staffing.

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SPU’s records show that as the pandemic began shutting things down from coast to coast, the city became increasingly desperate to get their hands on showers—any showers. A series of emails on March 26 shows city staffers scrambling to increase the credit limit on a city MasterCard to pay for VIP’s trailers before another city could snag them. “We are trying to both rent and procure sanitation trailers, along with every other major city,” SPU director Mami Hari wrote in a mass email to mayoral, council, and city finance staff. “Suppliers are demanding cash/credit card/check and will not accept PO’s.  The available pool diminishes each day and we have a bead on 2 trailer rentals and a couple for purchase.”

Three hours later, the city’s charge had gone through, and the trailers were on their way to Seattle.

SPU spokeswoman Sabrina Register confirmed, “There was a shortage of available hygiene trailers for purchase because of the pandemic and we couldn’t secure any trailers without prompt payment. In order to move more quickly, we used a City-issued credit card to secure two trailers in Southern California.”

Since the city has not used the trailers since paying for them on March 26, the actual cost has been lower. But that’s the same logic that enables the city to claim that it is paying less than expected for the 155 rooms it has rented out at the Executive Pacific Hotel in downtown Seattle. As long as the rooms are empty, the city doesn’t have to pay for food. As long as no one is using the showers, the city doesn’t have to pay for water and staffing.

The city considered many potential locations for the trailers, documents obtained through a records request reveal, including Wallingford, City Hall Park, the downtown library, and Regrade Park in Belltown. (Much of the information reported here comes from documents provided by Seattle Public Utilities in response to a records request. The Human Services Department, which was initially in charge of the shower program, has not yet provided records in response to a similar request.) The city’s latest plans would place the trailers outside the Exhibition Hall at Seattle Center and in front of King Street Station in Pioneer Square. It’s unclear exactly when and whether this will happen, although recent chatter indicates that the Seattle Center site could finally open in the next week.

City maps show one shower trailer at Seattle Center’s Exhibition Hall, which is currently functioning as a shelter.

Not everyone was on board the mobile shower bandwagon,. On April 2, one day before the trailers were schedule to arrive, Hara and SPU strategic advisor Danielle Purnell sent a memo to Deputy Mayor Casey Sixkiller raising questions about whether the shower trailers were really the best option. “As SPU researched shower trailer operational plans, it was discovered that experienced mobile shower providers in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Oakland and Denver have suspended operations due to COVID-19 siting pandemic safety and transmission concerns,” the memo said. (Emphasis in original).

Instead of opening showers, the memo continued, the city could consider handing out “enhanced hygiene kits” with body wipes and sanitizer, doing more outreach about the existing showers that remain open, or offering “safe, controlled shower and hygiene services utilizing large scale locker room and shower facilities at volunteering universities, public high schools, health clubs, churches, etc.”—something advocates for people experiencing homelessness have pushed for.

The list of alternatives to mobile showers is listed from least to most expensive, with the most expensive being “seeking emergency sheltering agreements with major hotels (i.e. Westin, Hyatt, Sheraton) similar to efforts in Oakland, Chicago, UK and others.”  However, it should be noted that hotels offer a few more amenities besides showers, including a bed and a safe, secure place to stay. Mayor Durkan has rejected this option repeatedly, preferring to move people into “de-intensified” mass shelters where they sleep six feet apart but share bathrooms and common areas.

SPU also expressed concern that showers, as well as portable toilets, would be magnets for illegal activity, such as “drugs, prostitution, [and] vandalism.”

The city plans to seek FEMA reimbursement for the cost of the shower trailers as well as portable toilets that were rolled out in April. About $1.5 million in funding will come from the original budget line item for mobile showers, plus about $250,000 that was supposed to expand shower services for homeless people at community centers.

Gaming Out the Latest “Amazon Tax” At the Start of an Unprecedented Recession

Let’s start out by stating the obvious: Barring a miracle, the “Amazon Tax” proposed by Seattle council members Kshama Sawant and Tammy Morales will not become law in its current form. The bill, which the council will continue discussing into next month, would slap a 1.3 percent payroll tax on companies with more than $7 million in payroll expenses, raising more than $500 million a year from about 800 Seattle companies.

Sawant and Morales decided to designate the bill as an “emergency,” which makes it invulnerable to a future voter referendum; the tradeoff is that they need 7 votes for approval, plus the support of Mayor Jenny Durkan, since the city charter requires mayoral approval of all emergency legislation. In other words, even if Morales and Sawant got five other council members on board—unlikely, if comments at Wednesday’s budget committee from council members who are ordinarily sympathetic to tax-the-rich arguments are any indication—the mayor could simply let the proposal die without a formal veto. Durkan fought Sawant’s last effort to “tax Amazon,” a $275-per-employee tax on employees of companies with gross receipts of more than $20 million, and is implacably opposed to this one as well.

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During this unprecedented time of crisis, your support for truly independent journalism is more critical than ever before. The C Is for Crank is a one-person operation supported entirely by contributions from readers like you.

Your $5, $10, and $20 monthly donations allow me to do this work as my full-time job. Every supporter who maintains or increases their contribution during this difficult time helps to ensure that I can keep covering the issues that matter to you, with empathy, relentlessness, and depth.

If you don’t wish to become a monthly contributor, you can always make a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by mailing your contribution to P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104. Thank you for reading, and supporting, The C Is for Crank.

There is also some question whether the proposal complies with an emergency order issued by Gov. Jay Inslee in March, and extended this week, barring public agencies from adopting or discussing legislation unless it’s “routine” or “necessary to respond to the COVID-19 outbreak and the current public health emergency.”

Despite all that, it’s still worth taking a look at the legislation, which dwarfs the “head tax” the council passed in 2018, then overturned, by a factor of more than ten. What would happen if, against all apparent odds, the bill were to pass in its current form?

In its first year, 2020, the legislation would fund cash payments of $2,000 over four months to 100,000 low-income Seattle residents to respond to the COVID crisis. (This is the part of the bill most obviously compliant with Inslee’s order). Because revenues from the tax wouldn’t be available until 2021, the bill would fund these checks by taking a short-term loan from six city funds that, according to a companion bill, have “sufficient cash” to contribute up to $50 million each. Those funds would be paid back in 2021, plus $5 million interest.

From then on, assuming all the assumptions that went into the proposal remain correct, the tax would pump more than $500 million a year into funding for “social housing” for people making between 0 and 100 percent of the Seattle median income, operational support for permanent supportive housing, and funding to implement the Green New Deal, which includes strategies like weatherization and converting buildings from gas to electric heat. The amount of funding from the tax would be less, of course, if the number of businesses spending more than $7 million annually on payroll declined because of the recession.

Even if the legislation is safe from any future referendum, it would still be subject to lawsuits, and there’s no guarantee that litigation over the tax would be resolved quickly, or in the city’s favor.

The $200 million “interfund loan” would come from six voter-approved levies and taxing districts, including the Move Seattle levy; the Families and Education Levy; the Seattle Parks District; and the Library Levy. Some of these funds do have “sufficient cash” to give up $50 million in the short term, but it’s worth taking a look at why that is, and how this might impact their ability to fund promised projects.

The Low Income Housing Fund, which receives money from the Housing Levy and payments from developers through the Mandatory Housing Affordability program, has more than $146 million on hand because property taxes have continued to flow in to fund future projects that are not yet off the ground. That money is in the city’s “bank,” but it’s already spoken for. Other funds, such as the Library Levy Fund, the Move Seattle Fund, and the Parks District Fund, have significantly less than $50 million lying around. The Parks District fund, in fact, is actually in the red; the 2020 budget makes up a $6 million shortfall with an interfund loan, to be repaid as more revenues come in. Some of these funds simply aren’t that big to begin with—the library levy, for example, is supposed to raise just over $200 million, total, over seven years,

None of that might matter if the $200 million could be repaid in just one year as proposed. But even if the legislation is safe from any future referendum, it would still be subject to lawsuits, and there’s no guarantee that litigation over the tax would be resolved quickly, or in the city’s favor. If funding from the tax didn’t come through quickly, or ever, it’s unclear how the $200 million would be repaid. If, say, the Library Levy found itself short $50 million, that could significantly impact the library’s ability to provide services promised to voters—especially as the recession eats into the city’s tax base.

There are also other interests competing for that money. As city budget director Ben Noble noted in his grim revenue forecast presentation Wednesday, the city may have to dip into some of the dedicated levy funds to pay for basic services—using the parks levy to fund basic maintenance instead of new capital projects, for example. “If the base levels of funding for which the levies were intended to be additive are no longer feasible, the question is whether it would make sense to use the levy funds for operational purposes,” Noble told the council Wednesday. Continue reading “Gaming Out the Latest “Amazon Tax” At the Start of an Unprecedented Recession”

Navigation Team Switches Gears During Storm, More Homelessness Funds on Hold? And Speculation on KC Exec’s Political Future

Left: HSD director Jason Johnson; right: Mayor Durkan

1. UPDATE on Thursday, Jan. 16: According to HSD, the Navigation Team made 41 referrals to shelter on the first two nights of the winter storm—14 on Monday and 27 on Tuesday. Additionally, HSD spokesman Will Lemke said that there was no shortage of mats or other supplies at any of the emergency winter shelters. “The City is not low on supplies,” Lemke said. “Far from it. The City has strategic caches of supplies placed around Seattle for events like this. These supplies include supplies, cots, mats, sleeping bags, blankets, and first aid-kits.” A source who works for the Salvation Army, which staffed the downtown shelters, said people were sleeping on the floor or in chairs at the Seattle Municipal Tower on Tuesday night with only “thin blankets” to protect them in the chilly lobby, which has a revolving door.

At a briefing on winter storm response on Tuesday, officials with the city’s Human Services Department emphasized efforts by the city’s Navigation Team to get people living in encampments into shelter during the freezing weather, noting that members of the team—which ordinarily removes encampments—were out “from 7 am to midnight” on Monday making contact with encampment residents. What they weren’t able to say was how many people actually accepted an offer of transportation or shelter from the team, whose job ordinarily involves removing encampments and telling their displaced residents about available shelter beds, typically with few takers. HSD director Jason Johnson would not answer followup questions about the Navigation Team’s success rate, pointedly ignoring calls of “Jason!” from several reporters as he rushed out of the briefing room at the city’s Emergency Operations Center.

In a followup conversation, HSD spokesman Will Lemke said he would not have an exact number of shelter referrals, contacts made, or the number of people who received transportation from the Navigation Team until the city had crunched the numbers and entered them into the Homeless Information Management System. “I just haven’t been able to verify those numbers yet. Everything is very much in flux because everyone’s out in the field right now,” Lemke said when I asked for more detailed information. The number is reportedly in the single digits.

Last year, the city did publish the numbers right away, and did not issue any subsequent corrections to indicate their early numbers were wrong. On the first major snow day last year, February 8, the Navigation Team reported getting 18 people into shelter. On the 9th, 50. On the 10th, 67.

At the briefing, Durkan said that the city “saw greater uptake [on offers of shelter] last year on the second or third day of the storm. … We had a great deal of success with the Navigation Team going out to encampments and saying, ‘Hey you should come inside. It’s a good place. It’s safe.'” 

Johnson said that none of the shelters were over capacity and denied that there were any issues providing enough mats or other supplies to its severe weather shelters, which include space at the Seattle Center Exhibition Hall, in the lobby of the Seattle Municipal Tower, and at the Bitter Lake Community Center. There is also space for men only at the King County Administration Building. All shelters are operated by the Salvation Army.

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2. Last week, I reported on the fact that Mayor Jenny Durkan has hired an $86,000 consultant to evaluate the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program and make recommendations that will inform whether LEAD will receive funding approved in last year’s city budget to reduce caseloads and expand into new parts of the city. But LEAD isn’t the only human services program that might not receive operational funds that were approved last year. At least two other programs are under review by the mayor’s office.

One, a $700,000 pilot program called Homes for Good that would provide small “shallow” rent subsidies to people who receive federal disability payments and are at risk of homelessness, is under review because Durkan is reportedly cautious about funding a pilot program without a plan to continue paying for it in the future. David Kroman wrote several stories about this issue for Crosscut. Continue reading “Navigation Team Switches Gears During Storm, More Homelessness Funds on Hold? And Speculation on KC Exec’s Political Future”