Tag: King County Council

Business, County Leaders Say Land Trade Won’t Fix Problems Around Downtown Park

By Erica C. Barnett

The area around City Hall Park in downtown Seattle—a rough rectangle of rare urban green space located across an alley from the King County Courthouse on Third Avenue—has never been a shiny tourist destination. Located at the heart of one of the city's most historic districts, Pioneer Square, the area is also home to many of the city's homeless shelters and day centers, the King County Jail, several bus stops, and, of course, the courthouse itself. The city-owned park—for decades, a place for people who are homeless, marginally housed, or low-income to hang out—became the site of a homeless encampment that grew larger and more chaotic as the city of Seattle swept unsheltered people from other parts of downtown.

Periodically, judges at the courthouse have led the charge to implement new security measures in the area, arguing that the presence of so many visibly poor people and people involved in the criminal justice system presents a danger to innocent passersby and non-criminal courthouse users. A Seattle Times story from 2005, for example, began with a litany of the kind of people who use the courthouse: "Rapists, murderers, drug addicts and wife beaters." (As that same Seattle Times story noted, the park was known as "Muscatel Meadows" as far back as the 1960s).

More recently, an attempted sexual assault inside the courthouse itself prompted a work-from-home order and demands from King County Superior Court judges to shut down the park, which had become the site of a large, often chaotic encampment that grew dramatically as unsheltered people were swept there from other parts of downtown Seattle.

"If you address issues on one block, they're going to be across the street—literally. We’ve already funded additional sheriff's patrols to have our own sheriff’s deputies in the park and around the block, and that hasn’t solved it. It’s going to require a much bigger solution the neighborhood, not acquiring one park."

This past August, the judges got their wish: The park is now walled off by a high chain-link fence, accessible to no one. Earlier this month, the King County Council voted 7-2 to take it over, arguing that they could succeed where the city "failed" to keep the park safe and clear of encampments. If the Seattle City Council adopts similar legislation next year, the city will hand the park over to King County in exchange for several county-owned properties, and the county will get the final say over what becomes of the space. Mayor Jenny Durkan and King County Executive Dow Constantine announced the swap last month.

Joe McDermott, one of two county council members who voted against the land transfer (the other was South King County council member Girmay Zahilay), says his colleagues are misguided if they believe a county takeover will solve the decades-old issues in and around the park.

"It’s a false sense of security," McDermott said. "If you address issues on one block, they're going to be across the street—literally. We’ve already funded additional sheriff's patrols to have our own sheriff’s deputies in the park and around the block, and that hasn’t solved it. It’s going to require a much bigger solution the neighborhood, not acquiring one park."  

"The park has been closed since August. People still need to go outdoors. They can't jump in Uber and go to one of the larger parks around the city. This is their public space."—Lisa Howard, Alliance for Pioneer Square

While the county could decide to retain the park's use as a park, the legislation also leaves open the possibility of turning it into part of the larger "civic campus" that includes the county jail, the courthouse, and the King County Administration Building, depriving hundreds of people who live in and around the area of the only piece of urban green space in the neighborhood. Some council members, including East King County representative Reagan Dunn, have even suggested—in McDermott's view, fantastically—reorienting the courthouse to the south and "restoring" its original entrance on Jefferson Street.

Lisa Howard, executive director of the Alliance for Pioneer Square, said shutting down the park will deprive hundreds of low-income neighborhood residents of access to green space. "In the two blocks surrounding the park, there are 600 extremely low-income units, and in the next six to eight months, there will be 760, and most of those individuals are very low-income, high-needs individuals who need access to outdoor space," she said. "The park has been closed since August. People still need to go outdoors. They can't jump in Uber and go to one of the larger parks around the city. This is their public space."

The Downtown Seattle Association, which represents downtown businesses and has worked to activate a number of downtown parks, including nearby Occidental Square, also opposes closing down what DSA director Jon Scholes calls "precious" and irreplaceable public space downtown. "We've been ineffective at creating a space that is welcoming to all and delivering on its intended use," Scholes said, but closing the park permanently would be "a big mistake. We could have done that 10 years ago in Westlake Park too, and put in all kinds of uses and buildings and structures that were not consistent with the regional vision for [Westlake] as a publicly accessible park, but we didn't." Continue reading "Business, County Leaders Say Land Trade Won’t Fix Problems Around Downtown Park"

Homeless Authority Won’t Extend Hotel Shelter Contracts; County Won’t Adopt Republican Sweeps Policy

1. The King County Regional Homelessness Authority informed the Low Income Housing Institute this week that it will not extend its lease on the downtown Executive Pacific Hotel past January, ending a program launched by Mayor Jenny Durkan that was supposed to swiftly move hundreds of people from unsheltered homelessness into permanent housing using a combination of new permanent supportive housing and “rapid rehousing” rent subsidies for market-rate apartments. The city has used the hotel as a primary receiving site for people displaced from encampments because of sweeps, which are now performed by the Parks Department.

In a letter to the KCRHA’s implementation board, which includes elected officials from across the county, KCRHA CEO Marc Dones wrote, “Key factors [in the decision] include that each current guest has an exit plan, the lease costs requested by one of the hotels has significantly increased, and one of the service providers”—the Chief Seattle Club, which operates a shelter at King’s Inn in Belltown—”stated a desire to close on schedule.”

As recently as a month ago, the authority said that it wanted to keep the hotels open after their current contracts with the city expire, potentially using $6 million in unspent rapid rehousing funds to cover the expense.

Now, the authority may use that same money to “prevent closures and loss of beds in several of our existing permanent shelter facilities,” according to the letter to the implementation board. The authority is currently running a survey of providers to find out how much money they need to make up their 2022 funding gaps and the number of shelter beds that are at risk if they don’t get additional funding.

LIHI executive director Sharon Lee said she was “shocked” to find out that the homelessness authority will not extend the hotel’s lease, adding that LIHI doesn’t know where the 126 people still living at the Executive Pacific will go.

“We have quite a number of people in the hotel who are very interested in moving into tiny houses” in LIHI’s tiny house villages, Lee said but many of those spots have already been claimed by the city’s HOPE Team, which offers shelter placements to people in encampments the city is about to sweep. LIHI recently opened two new tiny house villages—Rosie’s Place in the University District and Friendship Heights in North Seattle—and expanded an existing village in Interbay.

LIHI received 93 federal emergency housing vouchers through the federal American Rescue Plan. Allocating the vouchers could open some spaces in existing villages and shelter programs, but it’s unlikely that enough beds will open up to shelter all 126 current hotel residents.

The hotel-based shelter program was based on the assumption that it would be a fairly simple matter to move people from unsheltered homelessness to market-rate housing in a matter of weeks or months. But as PubliCola noted when the city adopted this plan, rapid rehousing subsidies work best for people in good physical and mental health who just need some temporary financial assistance to get back on their feet. By using the hotels as receiving sites for sweeps, the city engineered failure right into its plan.

Currently, Lee said, just 11 of the people living at the hotel are “enrolled” in rapid rehousing, which simply means they have started the process to qualify for a subsidy.

Lee estimates that LIHI will have to move about 24 people out of the hotel every week between now and the end of January to have everyone out by the end of the lease. “The concern I have is that the end of January  is the coldest part of winter and we have two major holidays between now and then,” Lee said.

2. King County Council member Reagan Dunn, who recently announced he is running against Democratic Congresswoman Kim Schrier (D-8), tried unsuccessfully to pass a motion (similar to a city council resolution) directing County Executive Dow Constantine to adopt a plan that would make it easier for the county to remove encampments in unincorporated parts of King County. (Dunn’s mother, the late Jennifer Dunn, represented the Eighth Congressional District until 2005; in 2019, Schrier became the first Democrat to represent the district.)

Because the committee where Dunn introduced his motion is made up of two Democrats (sure votes against the proposal) and two Republicans (Dunn and Kathy Lambert, who recently lost her reelection bid), the vote was a foregone conclusion. However, it did give Dunn and Lambert an opportunity to issue a scathing (and, for Dunn, politically beneficial) press release “slamming” their Democratic colleagues, Girmay Zahilay and Joe McDermott, for “refus[ing] to even engage in a conversation about how to provide housing and support services to people currently living in County parks or other County-owned property.”

In fact, the legislation was silent on the question of housing and support services. Instead, it would have represented a first step toward banning encampments on public land in unincorporated King County and empowering county officials to sweep encampments for a broad array of reasons, including the presence of human waste, lack of running water, and criminal activity.

Noting that King County plans to eventually house as many as 1,600 people through the Health Through Housing sales tax, Dunn said, “I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect now that there has been such an investment in these services that these open spaces begin to be cleared. … If there is help available, King County should have expectations that people utilize that help and they should be prepared to remove encampments that are a public nuisance and a danger.”

The last annual count of King County’s homeless population, in 2020, found about 5,600 people living unsheltered across the county. The point-in-time count, which King County will forgo for a second consecutive year in 2022, is widely considered an undercount.

—Erica C. Barnett

Lambert Removed from Leadership Roles After Racist Mailer; Tried to Get Issaquah Voters Removed from Her District

By Erica C. Barnett

The King County Council voted today to remove Kathy Lambert, the East King County Republican facing a difficult reelection battle this year, from all of her leadership roles on council committees.

Earlier this month, as first reported on Twitter by PubliCola, Lambert sent a mailer to voters portraying her opponent, Sarah Perry, as a “socialist…anti-police puppet” being manipulated by the likes of Bernie Sanders, Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant, Vice President Kamala Harris, and her South King County council colleague Girmay Zahilay. The message to white voters—if you elect Perry over Lambert, scary Black and brown leftists (and one Jew) will impose their agenda on your communities—was barely subtext.

The motion, sponsored by council chair Claudia Balducci, who represents Bellevue, said that Lambert’s mailer had “adversely impacted the ability of the council to conduct its business efficiently and effectively.” A related ordinance eliminated the health and human services committee, which Lambert chaired, and combined its duties with that of the law and justice committee, chaired by Zahilay.

“People know Seattle’s not going in the right direction, and they don’t want this to spread to their communities. … I don’t believe that one insensitive item should take away a person’s reputation.”—King County Councilmember Kathy Lambert

In a statement after the vote, Balducci said Lambert’s “mailer and subsequent statements have undermined our ability to work with each other, our staff’s confidence in us as leaders, and our reputation and relationships with outside organizations and agencies. Based on those impacts, it was imperative that we take concrete action quickly.”

Before the vote, the council’s Employment and Administration Committee, which includes all nine council members, held a lengthy executive session to discuss a “Personnel Matter related to Council’s Policies and Procedures Against Harassment and Discrimination. Balducci confirmed in her statement that the council is considering an investigation into whether Lambert’s mailer violated the council’s anti-harassment policy.

Both the motion and the ordinance passed unanimously, but not before Lambert gave a self-pitying, unapologetic speech that minimized the harm the mailer had caused and accused her colleagues of ulterior motives.

The council’s decision to remove her from leadership roles, Lambert said, was “clearly not about race, but about political opportunity to damage my reelection campaign.” Calling the mailer merely “one lapse in judgment” in decades on the council, Lambert accused her colleagues of trying to push “Seattle-centric ideas” by empowering Zahilay to oversee health and human services as part of his committee.

“The people in this county are worried about public safety, crime and response times due to political decisions, people are smart. They see the data and the needs. People know Seattle’s not going in the right direction, and they don’t want this to spread to their communities.”

“I am not going to allow one poorly depicted picture to find who I am,” Lambert said. After the vote, she added, “I don’t believe, as I said earlier, that one insensitive item should take away a person’s reputation, and I hope that for everybody who’s in politics, that you do understand what’s going on.”

Of course, what happens to a politician’s reputation as the result of their own actions is largely out of their control; voters will decide in November whether to reelect a conservative Republican who opposes harm reduction, has floated conspiracy theories about “shredded ballots,” supports anti-choice “crisis pregnancy centers,” and has expressed anti-labor and pro-Trump views, and also sent out a racist mailer. Lambert was on her heels long before the latest controversy, for one simple reason: Her district is changing, as more people move to Issaquah and dilute the power of the white, conservative, rural areas that reliably vote for Republicans.

In late September, Lambert wrote a letter to the chair of the King County Districting Committee, which is in charge of redrawing the lines for county council districts every 10 years in response to demographic shifts, asking that the city of Issaquah be removed from her district, and that the commission shift her district’s boundaries to include more of the rural Sammamish Valley. She added that if the commission needed to move more voters out of her district, they could take some of Redmond as well. Continue reading “Lambert Removed from Leadership Roles After Racist Mailer; Tried to Get Issaquah Voters Removed from Her District”

Calls for King County Sheriff Resignation Expand Beyond County Council

Sheriff JohanknechtBy Paul Kiefer

County and state lawmakers continue to join the chorus calling for King County Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht to resign for comments she made in a department-wide email about the killing of 20-year-old Tommy Le by a sheriff’s deputy in Burien in 2017. On Thursday, state senator Joe Nguyen (D-34, West Seattle) became the latest elected official to add his voice, joining three county council members.

Johanknecht sent the email at the heart of lawmakers’ criticisms only hours after a March 24 press conference at which Le’s family announced a $5 million settlement with King County for their son’s death. The email’s contents were first reported by the South Seattle Emerald.

In the department-wide email, Johanknecht shared her “appreciation of the difficulty” of Deputy Cesar Molina’s decision to shoot and kill Le, who was unarmed. Johanknecht also wrote that the county’s settlement with Le’s family—which implied some admission of wrongdoing by her department—was “not a reflection of how [Johanknecht] view[s] the actions of Deputy Molina in this incident.”

In a statement on March 26, King County Councilmember Joe McDermott said that the sheriff’s email “was, in the most charitable light one might muster, disrespectful to the young person who was killed, to his family and our entire community.”

Both Le’s shooting and the internal investigation into his death have sparked scrutiny by police accountability advocates and lawmakers. A critical review of the investigation by the county’s Office of Law Enforcement Oversight in September 2020 identified an array of flaws in the internal review into Le’s death, which an internal review board determined to be justified in 2018. Those flaws included the internal investigators’ failure to note that two of the six shots that Molina fired hit Le in the back, contradicting Molina’s assertion that he fired at Le in self-defense. Though Johanknecht was not sheriff at the time of Le’s death, she assumed leadership of the department during the investigation into the incident.

The publication of Johanknecht’s email spurred King County Councilmember Joe McDermott to join Le’s family in calling for the sheriff’s resignation; in a statement on March 26, McDermott said that the email “was, in the most charitable light one might muster, disrespectful to the young person who was killed, to his family and our entire community.”

Johanknecht maintains that she has no plans to resign, but as the county’s transition from an elected sheriff to an appointed sheriff in 2022 looms on the horizon, her future with the department may be limited.

McDermott’s call for Johanknecht’s resignation was preceded by that of County Councilmember Dave Upthegrove, who quietly expressed his opposition to Johanknecht in a March 12 Facebook post in which he shared his support for relatives of Black victims of police shootings in King County and called for Johanknecht to step down for “her failure to treat racism with the seriousness it requires.”

On Wednesday, Councilmember Girmay Zahilay became the third council member to call for Johanknecht’s resignation. In a series of tweets, Zahilay wrote that a sheriff’s comments were evidence that she presents a barrier to police accountability and “do not reflect the values we need in that office.” Sen. Nguyen, who voiced his support for Johanknecht’s resignation on Twitter a day later, called the email “dehumanizing, disrespectful [and] dismissive.” Continue reading “Calls for King County Sheriff Resignation Expand Beyond County Council”

Morning Fizz: City Will Repair West Seattle Bridge, Won’t Earmark License Fee for Bridge Maintenance

Image via City of Seattle

1. This morning, Mayor Jenny Durkan announced that the city will repair, rather than replace, the West Seattle Bridge.

According to the Seattle Department of Transportation, repairing the bridge will cost around $47 million, plus an additional $50 million for “traffic mitigation” and ongoing maintenance of several hundred thousand dollars a year. Rebuilding the bridge would have cost between $310 million and $522 million, according to the city’s estimate.

The decision to repair the bridge doesn’t mean the city won’t have to replace it eventually. Instead, the repairs could extend the useful life of the bridge by up to 40 years—essentially, the length of time the bridge was expected to last until city crews discovered significant cracks in the structure and took the bridge out of commission earlier this year.

There is a possibility that the bridge could fail sooner than that—about 5 percent, according to a cost-benefit analysis by the engineering firm WSP that the city released last month. (For a detailed look at that analysis, which also includes higher long-term estimates that “monetize” certain risk factors and include inflation-adjusted maintenance costs over the remaining life of the bridge, I recommend Mike Lindblom’s October 20 piece in the Seattle Times.) SDOT director Sam Zimbabwe said Tuesday that SDOT’s own experts “anticipate that we can get 15 years out of the bridge,” but added, “We can’t give a date certain on the point when the repairs will stop working.”

Durkan said Wednesday that she had been leaning toward replacing the bridge, but that a realistic timeline for what SDOT calls the “rapid replacement” option—”perhaps five years,” once time for environmental review and permitting is factored in—was just too long. “It became clear that the amount of money and the time it would take were not feasible options,” Durkan said. The city believes they can repair the bridge by mid-2022. Maintaining a repaired bridge will cost significantly more than maintaining a brand-new one, because engineers will have to inspect the bridge frequently to make sure that it isn’t showing signs of failure.

“It makes no sense to build a bridge that does only one thing… so I’m hoping to have a conversation with our colleagues at Sound Transit to see if the city can work with them to build a joint crossing for the bridge that they are going to build.”—Mayor Jenny Durkan

Meanwhile, Sound Transit still plans to build its own light rail bridge connecting West Seattle to downtown parallel to the existing bridge. Durkan, who sits on the Sound Transit board, suggested that the new bridge should include bike lanes and sidewalks for pedestrians. “It makes no sense to build a bridge that does only one thing,” Durkan said. “I think we need more transit capacity, more pedestrian capacity, and more bike capacity, so I’m hoping to have a conversation with our colleagues at Sound Transit to see if the city can work with them to build a joint crossing for the bridge that they are going to build.”

Image via WSP

2. While Durkan and SDOT staffers were discussing the West Seattle bridge with press yesterday, West Seattle’s representative on the city council, Lisa Herbold, was making the case for a proposal she co-sponsored, along with Alex Pedersen and Andrew Lewis, to use the proceeds from a $20 increase in the city’s vehicle license fee to pay for bridge maintenance, including on the West Seattle Bridge.

The vehicle license fee moved forward to a final vote on Wednesday, but it won’t be dedicated to bridges; instead, under a substitute offered by council president Lorena González, the city will adopt a spending plan for the proceeds from the fee— around $3.6 million next year, and $7.2 million a year after that—after a process to identify stakeholder priorities.

“I support a $20 increase to the vehicle license fee because I believe it is necessary to support ongoing operations of our city’s transit services and the maintenance of our transportation infrastructure and networks,” González said. “I do feel, however, that more work and stakeholder engagement must be done before we can decide how to appropriate this additional revenue.”

Herbold countered that the bridge maintenance proposal was an attempt to address problems identified last year by the city auditor, who found that “the City is not spending enough to keep its bridges in good condition and avoid costly future repairs,” particularly given the high number of bridges that are near the end of their useful lifespan. The city spends about $6.6 million each year on bridge maintenance, the audit found—”far below SDOT’s most conservative estimate of what is needed—$34 million.”

Under the plan adopted Tuesday and headed to final approval next week, the city will hold a three-month process to get input from stakeholders on how to spend the $20 fee, and adopt a plan by the middle of next year.

3. Next year’s King County budget will be almost 7 percent smaller than in 2020, thanks to cuts that fell heavily on the Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention (DAJD) and the King County Sheriff’s Office. The council opted for slightly smaller cuts to both departments’ budgets than County Executive Dow Constantine proposed in September: instead of an $8 million cut to the sheriff’s office, the council only cut around $6 million, amounting to less than 2 percent of the department’s 2019-2020 budget; the cut to the DAJD’s budget likewise totaled less than two percent of its budget.

The council also added some funding for the sheriff’s office, including $175,000 for emphasis patrols outside the county courthouse on 3rd Avenue, where the Seattle Police Department has also targeted special patrols in the past.

The largest portion of the cut to the sheriff’s budget is $4.6 million in marijuana tax revenue that the council voted to redirect toward anti-marijuana programming for youth and programs that help clear marijuana convictions from clients’ records. When Constantine proposed shifting marijuana tax revenue away from the sheriff’s office in September, Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht publicly claimed that the move would cost the county as many as 30 officers, largely affecting residents of unincorporated King County. KCSO did not respond to PubliCola’s request for comment.

However, the council also added some funding for the sheriff’s office, including $175,000 for emphasis patrols outside the county courthouse on 3rd Avenue, where the Seattle Police Department has also targeted special patrols in the past. Several of the council members who voted to provide funding for the patrols expressed hesitation about their votes; when casting her vote in support, Council Chair Claudia Balducci commented that the county will eventually need to “back off and let Seattle patrol Seattle’s streets.”

The council’s budget package also included an array of provisos (spending restrictions) put forward by council members Girmay Zahilay and Dembowski intended to lay out a roadmap for downsizing the county’s law enforcement and detention operations. The provisos included directives for Constantine to assemble reports on the county’s juvenile detention center, fare enforcement officers, and school resource officers, and to provide the council with a plan to meet the goal of zero youth detention set by Constantine himself in July.

King County Council Debates Bus Service Priorities and the Meaning of “Equity”

King County Council member Rod Dembowski, in pre-COVID times (flanked, L-R, by King County Executive Dow Constantine and council members Jeanne Kohl-Welles and Joe McDermott)

by Erica C. Barnett

The King County Council shelved a budget proposal by North Seattle council member Rod Dembowski yesterday that would have kept 47,000 hours of bus service inside Dembowski’s district after the Northgate light rail station opens next year. The proposal came in the form of a budget proviso, or restriction on spending, that would have withheld $5.4 million in funding for King County Metro unless the bus service went to North King County.

The hours will become available because King County Metro is shutting down its Route 41 bus line, which duplicates the light rail route. Instead of being redistributed throughout North Seattle to feed commuters to the new light rail line, as Dembowski proposed, those hours are likely to go to South King County, where King County Metro’s equity analysis shows the need is greatest.

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Dembowski argued that Metro’s usual practice is to reallocate service freed up by light rail into nearby neighborhoods, to make light rail more accessible. “We’re doing this all around the county,” he said. While this has been the practice in the past, it is not required—and Metro’s new Mobility Framework, created in collaboration with community groups over the past year, calls for new or reallocated service hours to go into communities where the need is greatest, regardless of where they originated.

“Every time there’s service changes, if we start to put our thumb on the scale or try and use the budget as a tool to try to slip through something that carves out hours, it undercuts established policies and it also undercuts our commitment to equity,” council member Dave Upthegrove, who represents South King County, says. “It goes around our established processes and guidelines, and that’s a dangerous road to go down.”

The debate, which centered on the question of what constitutes equitable transit service during a time of sweeping budget cuts, concerned a small slice of Metro’s overall budget. But it was also a preview for the battles that will play out over the next year, as Metro adopts new service guidelines that will benefit the county’s most underserved communities while diverting funds from areas that are, on average, wealthier and whiter.

“Every time there’s service changes, if we start to put our thumb on the scale or try and use the budget as a tool to try to slip through something that carves out hours, it undercuts established policies and it also undercuts our commitment to equity.”—King County council member Dave Upthegrove

Last year, before a global pandemic forced massive cuts to bus service and decimated transit agency revenues, King County Metro adopted a new “mobility framework” to guide future transit service decisions with an eye toward equity and economic and racial justice. The framework, developed by Metro in collaboration with an Equity Cabinet made up of 23 community leaders from across the county, was a precursor for revised Metro service guidelines, which will replace existing guidelines that emphasize ridership and geographic distribution, including in “areas where low-income and minority populations are concentrated.” Among other changes, the new framework recommends concentrating new (and reallocated) service in areas with high density, a high proportion of low-income people, people of color, people with disabilities, and those with limited English skills. 

Community members who turned out to speak against Dembowski’s proposal talked about the challenges they face as bus riders in South King County. Najhan Bell, a student and retail worker, described a grueling daily routine: Up at 9 to catch a 10:15 bus that will take her, via two transfers, to her noon-to-9 shift at IKEA in Renton; leave work at 9 to do the same grueling commute in reverse; and land home at midnight to study for a few hours before getting up to do it all again. Bell said that if Metro was going to uphold its commitment to equity, it “must continue to put efforts into increasing service in areas in South King County so that people like me don’t have to spend most of their day waiting on a bus.”

The members of the Equity Cabinet, along with Transportation Choices Coalition, Disability Rights Washington, and other advocacy groups, wrote a joint letter to the council on Tuesday opposing Dembowski’s amendment.

Continue reading “King County Council Debates Bus Service Priorities and the Meaning of “Equity””

By Opting Out, Suburban Cities Could Blow an $8 Million Annual Hole in Homeless Housing Plan

Image via King County.

By Erica C. Barnett

At least half a dozen cities have chosen to opt out of a proposed countywide “Health Through Housing” sales tax increase that would provide permanent supportive housing for an estimated 2,000 chronically homeless people.

The cities, which include Renton, Issaquah, Kent, and Covington, will use authority granted by the legislature this year to impose their own 0.1 percent sales tax for affordable housing, a category that includes not just housing for very low-income people but “workforce housing” for people making up to 60 percent of the Seattle-area median income.

The council’s committee of the whole voted 8-1 on Tuesday to approve the countywide tax measure, which would impose an additional 0.1 percent sales tax on purchases throughout King County, on Tuesday, and the full council will vote on the tax proposal next week. Assuming it passes, the county will have to come up with a plan to spend the money.

But how much money will there be? The county originally estimated that the tax would bring in a little under $68 million in 2021; bonding against half that revenue stream, the maximum allowed under state law, could give the county around $400 million to purchase sites and turn them into affordable housing. The cities that have opted out of the tax so far have taken more than $8 million off the table. That brings the county’s annual revenues down to just under $60 million.

Leo Flor, the director of the county’s Department of Community and Human Services, says the county needs between $27 million and $30 million a year (that is, half of $54 to $60 milliion) to purchase bonds worth $400 million. The county could hit that threshold, if retail sales don’t slip below forecasts and if no more cities pull out of the taxing district. “We’re still moving forward,” Flor said Thursday, but “every dollar counts. Even at the full size [with every city opting in], 2,000 people is less than half of the people experiencing chronic homelessness in King County right now.”

Issaquah’s tax, Flor notes, will expire if the city signs a memorandum of agreement with the county to allocate the revenues raised within Issaquah to projects in that city. If revenues prove too low to fund a $400 million housing measure, the county could opt to build less housing.

No matter how much money the county brings in, the plan will require a change in state law to allow the county to purchase distressed properties, such as hotels and nursing homes, and convert them into permanent supportive housing. 

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Morning Fizz: Homeless Tax Preemption and Election Speculation

Homeless advocates see a hotel in Renton that was converted into a temporary shelter as a major success story. Some local politicians see it differently.

Today’s Fizz:

1. This week, cities across King County will be voting on measures that could reduce the size of a proposed countywide sales tax for very low-income housing by millions. On Monday night, Renton, Tukwila, and Issaquah were among first few cities to decide whether they wanted to pass their own 0.1 percent sales tax, as authorized by the state legislature earlier this year, to pay for housing inside the city for people making up to 60 percent of the area median income. Renton’s council voted “yes” unanimously; Issaquah’s approved it on a 4-3 vote; and Tukwila’s rejected the proposal on a 5-2 vote.

I first reported on the proposals last week. Since then, items to supplant the countywide sales tax, which the King County Council will likely vote on next week, have appeared on city council agendas across, primarily South King County—from Maple Valley to Federal Way to Kent. Every city that opts out of the tax—that is, every city that opts to pass a local version of the tax, with proceeds the city can keep to itself—takes some money away from the potential size of the countywide proposal.

On Monday night, proponents of local taxes argued that suburban cities deserved local autonomy to decide what to build in their communities, and specifically cited an emergency shelter for chronically homeless people in Renton—a hotel that has been touted by advocates and service providers as a major success story because it has enabled people to stabilize and begin to deal with underlying conditions that contribute to their homelessness—as an example of what the county would impose on cities if they didn’t act first, and fast.  “By passing this” local tax, Renton council member Valerie O’Halloran said, “we are retaining 100% of the say of how our money is spent within our community.”

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Opponents of going it alone argued that the whole point of being part of a regional solution to homelessness was to think regionally, because homelessness doesn’t end at any single city’s borders. Tukwila council member De’Sean Quinn pointed out that the countywide proposal, which could raise up to $400 million to purchase existing buildings and convert them to supportive housing for chronically homeless people, is a big pot of money that allows the county bond for an even bigger pot of money; collecting smaller amounts on a local-only basis, he argued, would inevitably lead to slower and smaller developments.

The King County Council will vote on the countywide tax next week.

2. Speaking of the county council, rumor is that longtime Republican council member Pete von Reichbauer (who represents much of South King County) does not plan to run for reelection. Possible contenders for the position include former Democratic state representative Kristine Reeves, Federal Way city council member Lydia Assefa-Dawson, Auburn mayor Nancy Backus, and current Republican state rep Drew Stokesbary. Continue reading “Morning Fizz: Homeless Tax Preemption and Election Speculation”

Suburban Cities’ Tax Plans Could Supplant, Reduce County Executive’s Homeless Housing Tax

By Erica C. Barnett

Several cities in South King County, including Renton, Tukwila, Auburn, and Kent, are poised to adopt a local 0.1-cent sales tax for affordable housing, using authority the state legislature granted to city and county councils earlier this year. If the taxes pass, they would effectively supplant those cities’ contribution to a countywide sales tax proposed by King County Executive Dow Constantine, which would pay for permanent supportive housing for chronically homeless people in all parts of the county. Renton and Tukwila will consider their local taxes on Monday; the other cities are reportedly deciding whether and when to propose local taxes of their own.

Constantine’s office has said his proposal would provide up to $400 million in bond revenue to purchase motels, nursing homes, and other disused or derelict facilities and convert them into permanent supportive housing with services for chronically homeless people. The more cities opt out of the county tax, the less revenue there will be for Constantine’s proposal.

Alison Eisinger, the director of the Seattle King County Coalition on Homelessness, is worried. “My hope would be that the suburban cities that are eager, apparently, to use this revenue source to address the genuine homelessness and health crises that are hitting South King County hard, would be committed to the truly regional response to homelessness” that the county has adopted, she said. The county is in the process of standing up a new regional homelessness authority that includes substantial input from, but no direct financial contribution by, suburban cities.

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The authority itself is banned by law from raising money. However, under legislation adopted during this year’s state legislative session, city and county councils can pass a sales tax increase of up to 0.1 percent. The catch, from the county’s perspective, is that the legislation allows cities to essentially override county taxing authority by passing their own taxes first.

The legislation also does not require the proceeds of such a tax to go toward housing for very low-income or homeless people; instead, they can use it to fund housing for people making as much as 60 percent of area median income, which for the Seattle metropolitan area is more than $94,000. This is a very different type of housing, serving a much less service-reliant population, than Constantine’s proposal.

Eisinger said that by using the sales tax authority to fund higher-income housing, suburban cities ran the risk of ignoring the needs of homeless people in their own cities. “I hope this isn’t an effort by elected officials in suburban cities to pretend that they don’t need … housing that meets the needs of the people who are chronically homeless in their community by instead trying to address other housing needs with these resources,” she said.

Renton and Kent have clashed with Constantine and the county government as a whole over the relocation of hundreds of formerly homeless people into hotels in their cities during the COVID-19 pandemic. In Renton, officials have taken regulatory and legal action to try to force the closure of a shelter the Downtown Emergency Service Center opened at a downtown Red Lion earlier this year. In Kent, elected leaders protested the county’s purchase of a motel for use as an isolation and quarantine site for people unable to isolate at home, warning that the presence of so many homeless people in one place would lead to a surge in crime.

“If a handful of cities want to do some housing on their own, that’s not the end of the world.”—King County Council member Dave Upthegrove

If enough cities pass their own local taxes, they could collectively reduce potential revenues from Constantine’s regional proposal by millions. According to a presentation posted on the Renton City Council’s website, a local, Renton-only tax would raise about $2.8 million a year for projects in the city; according to Tukwila’s briefing materials, that city could see an additional $2.2 million a year for housing.

Elected officials from Renton, Auburn, Kent, and Tukwila did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

King County Council member Dave Upthegrove, who represents parts of Tukwila, Renton, Kent, and other cities in South King County, said he supports Constantine’s proposal because it provides housing for people with the greatest needs—those with low or no income who need supportive services.

At the same time, he said, “I’m trying not to panic” about the idea that some South County cities might decide to go their own way. “If a handful of cities want to do some housing on their own, that’s not the end of the world,” he said. “Maybe we don’t bond for 400 million—maybe we end up doing $320 million and a few of the cities go out on their own. It doesn’t have to mean that this proposal doesn’t work.”

“”Regionalism remains our best chance for success.”—Deputy King County Executive Rachel Smith

Upthegrove notes that cities already control zoning and permitting rules, which gives them multiple avenues to ban housing for formerly homeless people. “Part of me says that if this really isn’t want the local government wants, and that local government controls zoning and permitting, then what’s the likelihood of getting them zone and permit this housing in their city?”

County council member Claudia Balducci, who represents the Eastside, says the real headline may be that local suburban governments are willing to increase taxes to build more affordable housing, even if it isn’t for chronically homeless people. “I think we could really build not just good projects through this, but also create better relationships and more confidence in working together regionally,” Balducci said. “If we play our cards right, having cities put skin in the game could be a really good long-term positive thing.”

King County deputy executive Rachel Smith, responding to PubliCola by email, was significantly less sanguine than either county council member about the prospects for unity-through-localism. “The Executive’s plan includes concrete, data-informed, evidence-based, clear outcomes, including reducing racial-ethnic disproportionality,” Smith said.

“Regional officials, business leaders, advocates, service providers, and people with lived experience have repeatedly stated that homelessness is a regional problem that demands regional solutions,” Smith continued. “Regionalism remains our best chance for success.”

In Narrow Vote, County Council Ousts Police Accountability Director

 

By Paul Kiefer, with reporting by Erica C. Barnett

On Tuesday afternoon, the Metropolitan King County Council voted by a narrow margin against renewing Office of Law Enforcement Oversight Director Deborah Jacobs’ contract, which expired in June. (Jacobs was serving as de-facto head for the past two months). In her place, the council appointed OLEO’s current Deputy Director, Adrienne Wat, to serve as interim director.

Council Chair Claudia Balducci first proposed not renewing Jacobs’ contract two weeks ago. Her surprise announcement came a month after the council received the findings of an independent investigation into allegations by OLEO staff that Jacobs made a series of inappropriate or discriminatory remarks to them during her four-year term as director. For example, one staffer complained that Jacobs had commented (sarcastically, she says) that she could only see a white man as deputy director of OLEO, and, on a separate occasion, that she could not invite OLEO staff to a Roe v. Wade celebration because it was for women only.

OLEO community engagement manager Jenna Franklin praised Jacobs for hiring “people who are different and more diverse than her—that’s what a leader like that should do.” But she notes that “the ability to work with sensitivity in collaboration with diverse staff and communities is essential for public servants.” King County’s Equity and Social Justice rules state that “elected leaders and directors are ultimately responsible for ESJ,” Franklin notes, “including in regard to workplace and workforce.”

“In this case, she has acknowledged missteps and that impacts to staff did occur.  Missteps shouldn’t be the sum total of a person, a system, or those [they] represent.”

“There’s a narrative that I push the boundaries and that’s probably true, because I have tried to fulfill the public’s expectation for strong oversight, and I’ve faced endless roadblocks in doing so. They have used that narrative as a basis to try to discredit my work.”—Deborah Jacobs

In today’s hearing, Balducci explained that her push to not reappoint Jacobs was driven by  concerns about the OLEO work environment; an investigation into Jacobs substantiated five of the eight complaints against her. One of those sustained complaints stemmed from an incident in which Jacobs apparently commented that an employee’s weight and race made it easier for him to build rapport with sheriff’s deputies; the man, who has struggled with weight-related self-image problems, said he felt uncomfortable speaking to Jacobs directly about her comment.

“We are supposed to be about accountability and equity and fairness,” Balducci said in an interview before the vote. “I don’t think we really can accept less than achieving accountability and equity and fairness in our own workplace. If we are going to be about investigating and calling out a lack of equity in one place it makes [the need to have equity and accountability within OLEO] even more compelling.”

The vote not to reappoint Jacobs was closer than the August 18 vote of the council’s Employment and Administrative Committee to recommend removing Jacobs. (That committee includes all nine members of the council.) In the earlier vote, the council voted 7-2 to not reappoint Jacobs; on Tuesday, the full council reached the same conclusion with a 5-4 vote. Council members Dave Upthegrove and Rod Dembowski voted against the ouster both times; council members Jeanne Kohl-Welles and Jim McDermott changed votes.

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The most vocal opposition to Jacobs’ ouster on Tuesday came from Dembowski and Upthegrove, Both expressed concern that Balducci and other colleagues are being too harsh and that replacing her is not in the best interest of police accountability in the county. “The assets that I’ve seen [Jacobs] bring to this office,” Upthegrove said, “particularly as it pertains to community engagement and the tenacity with which she’s represented our interests, and what we’ve seen to be a passionate commitment to racial and gender equity, leads me to believe that the mistakes she made aren’t enough to lead me to this conclusion.” He also said removing Jacobs was an example of a double standard: “I can’t help but thing of members of law enforcement who continue to have their jobs today in the face of mistakes and judgement calls that—in my mind—are much more serious.”

Dembowski echoed those concerns, adding that he saw the council’s approach to replacing Jacobs as legally dubious. “I’ve been very troubled by this process,” he said during the council meeting. “It’s generated a $2 million claim,” in the form of a tort Jacobs filed in Pierce County two weeks ago alleging sex and gender discrimination by the county. “I think that we mixed discipline from the report with reappointment, and I think they should have been kept separate.”

Local police accountability watchdogs also expressed their concerns about the council’s move to oust Jacobs, whom they see as a brave and determined force for greater oversight of the King County Sheriff’s Office. Annalesa Thomas, a co-founder of the police accountability group Next Steps Washington and the mother of Leonard Thomas (killed in 2013 by Fife Police while unarmed and holding his son) appeared during Tuesday’s public comment period to voice her support for Jacobs; in an interview before the vote, Thomas said Jacobs “has brought to the forefront many of the issues that family members [of police shooting victims] raise. She didn’t go along to get along.”

“We are supposed to be about accountability and equity and fairness. I don’t think we really can accept less than achieving accountability and equity and fairness in our own workplace.”—King County Council member Claudia Balducci

For her part, Jacobs acknowledges that she was sometimes reckless in her comments to coworkers and hoped for a chance to make amends, but she is also convinced that the council’s decision was driven by politics and a lack of support for accountability itself. “It’s been an unjust process and I wouldn’t wish this treatment on anyone else,” she said in an interview. “It’s going to be really hard for anyone to survive because it’s a hostile climate, there is little support, and mistakes are seized upon.”

Jacobs also says her record as a fierce defender of accountability—and the resulting tensions between her and the KCSO—has left her constantly defending herself since she took the position in 2016. “They [KCSO] don’t trust me,” she explained. “There’s a narrative that I push the boundaries and that’s probably true, because I have tried to fulfill the public’s expectation for strong oversight, and I’ve faced endless roadblocks in doing so. They have used that narrative as a basis to try to discredit my work.”

Balducci denied that her proposal against Jacobs was intended to assuage the KCSO. “I cannot state in strong enough terms how important it is to me that we have a strong, courageous, diligent leader of our Office of Law Enforcement Oversight. Those things are not bad. Those are good things,” she said. “There is a kind of inherent tension and even conflict that can exist in the role itself, and you need somebody who isn’t intimidated by that and who need to go forward with what needs to be done.” Continue reading “In Narrow Vote, County Council Ousts Police Accountability Director”