By Erica C. Barnett
Seattle City Councilmember Sara Nelson raised objections to funding several small harm-reduction programs using funds from the state’s settlements with opioid makers and distributors on Thursday, saying that the funds might better be spent on “treatment” rather than drug user health programs at the Hepatitis Education Project (HEP), Evergreen Treatment Services, and the People’s Harm Reduction Alliance.
These programs, which total less than $500,000, were originally funded using money the council set aside for a safe consumption site; in the face of strong political opposition to that idea, including from former mayor Jenny Durkan, the city worked with advocates to come up with alternatives that would still fulfill the original mission of harm reduction and health care without requiring a physical site.
Nelson, who has advocated for the city to fund traditional, abstinence-based inpatient treatment, said she wanted to know “what is the harm that is being reduced by the use of this money, and how do we measure the the performance of that investment? Because I know people know that I prefer that our scarce dollars should be used for treatment.” Although the three groups received funding from King County through a competitive Request for Proposals process, Nelson said they should go through another one, since the funding source is new.
According to City Attorney Ann Davison’s office, any lot for storing RVs that were previously used as residences has to be directly adjacent to a noncongregate shelter site—a requirement that has had the effect of virtually prohibiting such a lot. Davison said RVs could be allowed in this situation for up to 90 days, with extensions on a “case-by-case basis if the resident is working in good faith towards permanent housing”—a significantly more paternalistic approach than the previously approved proposal.
Both council president Debora Juarez and Councilmember Lisa Herbold seemed exasperated by Nelson’s objections. Juarez said it was already the city’s policy to fund both conventional treatment and harm reduction, while Herbold noted that the King County Board of Health, which includes Herbold and Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda, just unanimously approved a resolution supporting harm reduction as one use for the opioid settlement funds.
The council, Herbold pointed out, just approved spending $5 million in block grant funds for a new low-barrier opioid treatment facility, along with $2 million for a post-overdose recovery site, on Tuesday.
Another odd detail that emerged on Tuesday: Although the city allocated $1 million a year last year for people who had been living in RVs to store their vehicles for up to a year while they transitioned to living in shelter or permanent housing, the money has not been spent. The reason? According to City Attorney Ann Davison’s office, any lot for storing RVs that were previously used as residences has to be directly adjacent to a noncongregate shelter site—a requirement that has had the effect of virtually prohibiting such a lot.
The reason for allowing people to hang on to their old vehicles, at least for a while, while they transition into shelter is obvious. Many people are reluctant to move from the relative safety and privacy of their own RV into a shelter bed or tiny house, and don’t go into shelter as a result. If people can keep their RVs as a backup option, they’re much more likely to say yes to offers of shelter.
In a memo, an advisor to the city’s Human Services Department told the KCRHA that Davison’s office had determined that RV storage is “not identified as a permitted princip[al] use in the Seattle Land Use Code and is prohibited” everywhere in the city. RVs, the city attorney’s office said, could be allowed as an “accessory use” to a tiny house village for up to 90 days, but only if each resident who owned an RV started meeting with a case manager within 90 days to move toward permanent housing; extensions allowing people to store their vehicles longer “could be granted on a case-by-case basis if the resident is working in good faith towards permanent housing.”
This significantly more paternalistic version of the original proposal will require a provider willing and able to meet the city’s new conditions and restrictions. KCRHA put out an initial “letter of intent” seeking providers that are interested in opening an RV storage lot and a tiny house village next to each other on Wednesday.
On Thursday, Councilmember Lisa Herbold called the city attorney’s interpretation a “pretty significant misunderstanding” of the reason people want to store their RVs while they stay in a shelter. “The idea is is that this is a lot—much like a tow lot—where people voluntarily allow their vehicles to be towed into a fenced-in area,” Herbold said. “There are tow lots all over the city and they don’t all have to be next to housing for formerly homeless people.”
The council is just starting its annual budget deliberation process. At a high level, the council will be debating how best to prepare for a “structural” general-fund budget deficit that’s now estimated at $212 million in 2025, an improvement from earlier predictions. Harrell’s budget plan would increase that structural deficit by adding $51 million in new expenditures, of which almost $28 million are ongoing annual costs.
Although the general fund is actually projected to do better in 2024 than anticipated, a lot of one-time funds that created new programs during COVID are set to expire, and the new council, which will likely have at least five new members, will have to come up with new revenues and, most likely, cuts.
Given that reality, it’s likely the council will scrutinize Harrell’s decision to add 110 new city employees next year, most of them permanent positions that create ongoing new funding obligations for the city. Overall, Harrell’s 2024 budget adds $51 million to the 2024 budget the council and Mayor Bruce Harrell “endorsed” last year) and increases the estimated deficit in 2025 to $247 million. Of the 110 positions, 40 are funded through the general fund—the part of the budget that pays for most of the city’s operations—and another 16.5 come from Jumpstart.
Jumpstart revenues are now expected to come in about $21 million below previous predictions; the tax is based on payroll expenses for the highest-paid employees at the city’s very largest companies, which makes it susceptible to swings when big tech companies cut jobs or move offices elsewhere.
The mayor’s proposal would extend an exemption from the tax for highly paid employees of nonprofit hospitals who make between $150,000 and $400,000. If this exemption was allowed to expire as scheduled, the city would take in an additional $5 million. Most of the private hospitals in Washington state are nonprofits and are exempt from many other taxes.
Harrell’s budget transfers $27 million from the Jumpstart tax fund to the general fund, an ongoing practice that the council has approved every year for the past several years to keep COVID-era programs going. Much of that includes new spending beyond what the council approved last year in the “endorsed” 2024 budget.
For example, the mayor’s budget would use revenues from the Jumpstart tax—which are supposed to be dedicated to affordable housing, small businesses, equitable development, and Green New Deal investments—to pay for higher human service worker pay, relocation costs for a tiny house village that needs to move off Sound Transit property; and subsidies for child care workers.
Nelson noted that she was the only councilmember to vote against raising human service workers’ pay, because she thinks the goal of eventually raising human service workers’ wages by 37 percent—the increase a University of Washington study concluded they would need to get to parity with similarly skilled workers—is unrealistic.
“The taxpayers are paying for a lot,” she said, citing several voter-approved human services levies.
“Regardless of what jurisdiction, it is—city, county, state, federal—it’s all taxpayer money,” Councilmember Lisa Herbold responded, and noted that other local jurisdictions, like King County, are also contributing to higher wages for human services workers, who often make so little that they qualify for social service programs themselves.
Harrell’s budget does not continue funding for a one-time 4 percent pay increase, plus an ongoing 3.6 percent increase, for homeless service workers, which the city had hoped the KCRHA would figure out a way to fund long term. Paying for these pay increases would cost the city an additional $1.9 million a year.
Councilmember Alex Pedersen, who represents the University District, suggested that it would potentially harm the people living at the tiny house village to “quibbl[e] about the pots of money”—a position that runs counter to his frequent calls for audits and “accountability” for programs he believes may be wasting money.
The mayor’s proposal also includes $1 million a year in new funding to evaluate the effectiveness of the Jumpstart tax, which would include two new permanent employees and unspecified additional expenses. It would also extend an exemption from the tax for highly paid employees of nonprofit hospitals who make between $150,000 and $400,000. If this exemption was allowed to expire as scheduled, the city would take in an additional $5 million. Most of the private hospitals in Washington state, including Virginia Mason, Providence/Swedish, and Pacific Medical Centers, are organized as nonprofits and are exempt from many other taxes.
Given how often the council has had to agree to exemptions from the spending plan since Jumpstart went into effect in 2021, a council staff memo asks semi-rhetorically, “is it time to consider expanding the areas of spending the JS Fund can be used for on a permanent basis?” Jumpstart architect Teresa Mosqueda may object to changing the spending plan, as she has in the past, but she’s likely to be replaced by a new, appointed council member next year, assuming she wins election to the King County Council.