After squabbling with the city council over funding for Seattle’s nationally recognized arrest-diversion program Mayor Jenny Durkan has decided to withhold a majority of the program’s funding for 2020 and hire a consultant to analyze the program and make recommendations on whether and under what conditions to fund it.
The Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion Program, created and run by the Public Defender Association in collaboration with city and King County law-enforcement agencies, provides case management and referrals to services and housing for people engaged in low-level drug and prostitution crimes. Started as an arrest-diversion program in Belltown in 2011, LEAD has expanded to cover much of the city, and now accepts referrals through “social contacts” in addition to arrest diversions. Last year, PDA director Lisa Daugaard won a MacArthur Foundation award (commonly known as a genius grant) for her work on the program.
The council agreed to provide an additional $3.5 million to LEAD last year after lengthy negotiations and a promise of $1.5 million from Ballmer Group that was contingent on the $3.5 million in additional city funding. The money was supposed to allow LEAD to reduce case managers’ caseloads and expand the popular program geographically. Last month, though, at Durkan’s direction, the city’s Human Services Department sent LEAD a contract that only includes the $2.6 million the mayor proposed in her initial budget, with the rest contingent on an evaluation by New York City-based consultant Bennett Midland, which signed an $86,000 contract with the city in late December.
“The consultants will address appropriate protocols for referrals in partnership with SPD and LEAD and surface best practices in case management, behavioral health treatment and diversion,” senior deputy mayor Mike Fong told LEAD’s senior management in an email in December. “This information will inform their recommendations of relevant performance metrics to be incorporated into an amended contract and for overall consideration of what caseload levels should be. We expect the final report and recommendations this Spring.”
“Revising the contract to add the increased funding of $3.5 million will be informed by the recommendations from an independent program evaluation,” Fong wrote.
According to Bennett Midland’s contract, the goal of the consultants’ work will be “to establish a shared understanding of LEAD’s existing deliverables, reporting capabilities, protocols, and procedures in order to develop an appropriate set of performance metrics, inform future program evaluations, and align future budget resources and contract provisions with the program’s foundational goals.”
LEAD says that if the mayor does not release the approved funding this year, LEAD will have to cancel its expansion plans and lay off staff. Currently, LEAD project director Tara Moss says, “LEAD is breaking, because legitimate demand far exceeds our capacity to provide case management. By its nature, it’s a program meant to help officers resolve new current problems, as well as provide long term support to people whose behavior has been problematic in the past. So for LEAD to be healthy and useful, it has to take appropriate, priority new referrals from police and businesses. Our police partners are making appropriate high priority referrals that we have no space to absorb, and even if we shut our doors to new referrals tomorrow—which would be the end of LEAD as we know it—we can’t even sustain the current caseload.”
“We are hopeful that the Mayor’s office will release the full funding. We would be really disappointed to see the nature of our grant fundamentally change from expanding a successful program to simply paying for something we thought government had agreed to fund. That would be a loss for the city.” — Statement from Ballmer Group
Durkan’s decision to withhold approved funding from a city contractor is highly unusual and introduces a new uncertainty into the annual budget process. Ordinarily, the mayor proposes a budget, the council amends it, and the adopted budget becomes the budget for the following year. There is little if any precedent for for the mayor’s office to reject the adopted budget for a specific program on essentially a line-item basis. Council member Lisa Herbold, who chairs the council’s human services and public safety committee, says she can’t recall “any budget adds not being funded” after a budget was finalized and passed in the two decades she has worked as a council aide or council member. A resolution “declaring that the City is committed to ensuring that evidence-based, law enforcement-engaged, pre-booking diversion programs, such as LEAD, receive the funding necessary to accept all priority qualifying referrals” passed unanimously in November.
Funding from Ballmer Group was explicitly tied to the $3.5 million in additional city funding, although [UPDATE] a spokesperson for the group says they do not intend to rescind the funding now. In a statement, Ballmer Group said, “We are hopeful that the Mayor’s office will release the full funding. We would be really disappointed to see the nature of our grant fundamentally change from expanding a successful program to simply paying for something we thought government had agreed to fund. That would be a loss for the city.”
“Very sad that we are facing this uphill battle AGAIN. I thought we had your funding straightened out and on a smooth path; after our budget was complete, Council’s intentions to fund LEAD expansion was clear.”—Former City Council member Sally Bagshaw
LEAD had already begun to expand its services to include new parts of the city, signing leases on new field offices in SoDo, Capitol Hill, and North Seattle and preparing to add staff through a nationwide search, Daugaard told key LEAD stakeholders in an email last month. “Now it’s far from clear that we should proceed with any of this.” According to Moss, LEAD’s current preference is to “act as if” the $3.5 million will come through midyear, but that’s a gamble—one that Moss says “requires City assurance that the approved funding will be made available by mid-year,” regardless of whether Durkan decides to fund the program after her consultants come out with their report.