1. After voting against the 2023-2024 city budget yesterday, City Councilmembers Sara Nelson and Alex Pedersen issued lengthy statements explaining their rationale. In general, both argued that the council should have approved Mayor Bruce Harrell’s budget without significant changes, and should not have eliminated 80 of the 240 vacant police positions for which SPD would otherwise receive funding year after year.
The council funded Harrell’s entire police hiring plan, including large financial incentives for new and transferring officers, and moved parking enforcement officers back to SPD, another top priority for Harrell and the police department.
Still, Nelson and Pedersen described the budget (which Harrell praised) as an affront that will endanger resident and drive qualified police applicants away “With SPD down about 30% of its deployable force and fatal shootings up 35% since 2020, these are far from normal times, and we need to change the narrative that contributed to their staffing shortage,” Nelson said.
Those numbers require some context: There were 36 fatal shootings in Seattle in the first ten months of 2022, compared to 24 for the same period in 2020—at 33 percent increase. But those disturbing numbers of part of a national trend that is actually worse in rural (and Republican) areas, making it a stretch to suggest that shootings are up because of police staffing problems. Similarly, it’s far-fetched to suggest that a largely symbolic (and fairly obscure) council vote to stop funding some long-vacant positions is driving potential job applicants away.
“At best, Nelson and Pedersen are exhibiting sheer incompetence, but unfortunately it appears it’s a wilfull attempt to spread misinformation to prop up their individual political goals. They are being dishonest and actively harmful.”—Council budget chair Teresa Mosqueda
On Wednesday, council budget committee chair Teresa Mosqueda responded to the overheated rhetoric from Nelson and Pedersen, telling PubliCola: “At best, Nelson and Pedersen are exhibiting sheer incompetence, but unfortunately it appears it’s a wilfull attempt to spread misinformation to prop up their individual political goals. They are being dishonest and actively harmful.”
Although Nelson was just elected to her citywide position last year, Pedersen (who represents Northeast Seattle’s District 4) is up for reelection in 2023. One candidate has already announced, and PubliCola has heard about at least one more potential opponent—an urbanist who will challenge Pedersen from the pro-housing left.
2. One program that did not receive full funding from the council this year—the Public Defender Association’s Co-LEAD program, which provides case management and hotel-based shelter to people experiencing homelessness—may end up having to shift their focus away from Seattle neighborhoods to encampments near state highways, PDA co-director Lisa Daugaard said.
That’s because without $5.3 million in annual city funding to keep the program going, the PDA may end up moving Co-LEAD to the King County Regional Homelessness Authority, which has access to state funds to address encampments in state-owned rights-of-way, such as embankments and overpasses.
“[Focusing on state highways] will take us further away from the focus on public safety in Seattle neighborhoods and the public safety concepts that both the Harrell Administration and the City Council have strongly espoused.—Public Defender Association co-director Lisa Daugaard
The PDA made a similar change to its JustCARE program, which previously focused on large encampments inside the city of Seattle, earlier this year. The program moves encampment residents to hotels and enrolls them in intensive case management, enabling the Washington State Department of Transportation to remove encampments in state rights-of-way—a top goal of Gov. Jay Inslee during the last legislative session—without simply displacing them.
“I think the most likely solution is that more of Co-LEAD may shift over to RHA, if indeed RHA is successful in advocating for the state to double down on the approach that we and other partners have brought to the state transportation right-of-way work,” Daugaard said. “But that will take us further away from the focus on public safety in Seattle neighborhoods… [and] the public safety concepts that both the Harrell Administration and the City Council have strongly espoused.”
JustCARE and Co-LEAD both emerged during the pandemic, with support from emergency federal funding, to address the proliferation of large, sometimes dangerous encampments in places like City Hall Park in Pioneer Square. The council’s budget does provide funding for LEAD, the PDA’s original diversion program, which provides case management to people involved in the criminal legal system, such as homeless people facing charges for misdemeanor crimes.
Twelve days after a late-breaking revenue forecast punched new holes in the city of Seattle’s biennial budget, city council budget committee chair Teresa Mosqueda released a two-year “balancing package” that amends Mayor Bruce Harrell’s October budget proposal by eliminating proposed new programs and initiatives, allowing revenues from the JumpStart payroll tax to fund programs that would not ordinarily qualify for JumpStart spending, and reducing the number of vacant police positions the city will continue to hold open next year from 200 to 120.
Mosqueda’s plan would eliminate proposed new funding for Shotspotter (or another gunshot detection system); reduce the proposed increase in police recruiting efforts; reduce the amount of new funding SPD will receive for new guns and ammunition; and reduce the amount of new spending on SPD’s Develop Our People leadership academy, a management training program for sergeants.
Harrell’s budget assumes that the 120 vacant positions Mosqueda’s proposal leaves untouched won’t be filled, and “reinvests” those on-paper savings back into other police programs. Mosqueda’s budget proposal doesn’t touch this “reinvestment” and still funds the vast majority of Harrell’s police hiring and recruitment plan, which still includes large bonuses for new recruits and enough money to hire a net 30 new officers over the next two years—an ambitious plan that would represent a rapid reversal of police hiring trends over the last several years.
At Monday’s initial council meeting to discuss the proposal, Councilmember Alex Pedersen said any proposal to cut vacant positions from SPD’s budget amounted to “revisiting the debate in 2020 and 2021” about “defunding” the police department. “I see in the [budget] proviso that it takes away the police department’s flexibility to use savings to address overtime needs, despite the fact that they have a severe staffing shortage,” Pedersen said.
Mosqueda anticipated the objection that eliminating funding for positions that will never be filled amounts to a “cut” in the police department. “We are not touching the 120 [police positions] and we are not touching the hiring plan,” Mosqueda told PubliCola Sunday. But “we know we are never going to fill [the remaining 80], so we are going to put those dollars back into the general fund.”
Councilmember Alex Pedersen said any proposal to cut vacant positions from SPD’s budget amounted to “revisiting the debate in 2020 and 2021” about “defunding” the police department.
Then, Mosqueda said, she looked at the items Harrell proposed funding with the money from the remaining 120 positions, and asked “what is above and beyond on that list. It was things like [the gunshot detection system] Shotspotter— gone. They wanted a PR firm that was in charge of the [police] recruiting plan. That’s gone. They wanted a website redesign investment. That’s gone. Anything that was not essential for the policy that was passed—gone.”
Eliminating Shotspotter, SPD’s marketing plan, and a new $1.2 million-a-year anti-graffiti program would save about $3 million a year. Cutting and delaying capital projects funded by the city’s Real Estate Excise Tax, which stands to take a $64 million hit over the next three years, would save millions more. Another source of unanticipated funding—about $5 million a year—will come from the money the city planned to spend expanding an existing shelter in SoDo, a project King County Executive Dow Constantine abandoned earlier this year.
And then, of course, there is the JumpStart payroll tax, which the council originally earmarked for housing, Green New Deal programs, equitable development, and small businesses. Harrell’s budget would have empowered the mayor to use JumpStart for non-JumpStart purposes in perpetuity, by overturning a law, passed just last year, that only allows JumpStart spending for general government purposes if the city’s general fund falls below $1.5 billion.
Although Mosqueda’s budget provides a two-year exemption to this rule, she says she’s confident the council won’t have to do the same thing after 2024,, because by then a revamped progressive revenue task force will have come up with new funding sources to make the annual budget less susceptible to economic downturns.
The balancing package also shifts some funds around so that JumpStart will mostly go to its intended purposes; for example, instead of using the payroll tax to 14 new city employees to staff Sound Transit’s light rail expansion plan, as Harrell proposed, Mosqueda’s proposal would use money from the Seattle Transportation Benefit District, funded mostly with vehicle license fees, to pay for those positions.
Although Mosqueda made some concessions on JumpStart, her budget also funds full inflationary wage increases for human service workers, rather than the sub-inflationary 4 percent increase Harrell proposed. Harrell’s plan would have required the council to overturn a 2019 law requiring cost of living adjustments that keep up with inflation; as Harrell, then council president, said in a speech supporting the measure at the time, the point of the law was to ensure that wages keep up with inflation during “hard times,” not just when things are going well.
The balancing package also keeps the city’s parking enforcement officers at the Seattle Department of Transportation, rather than transferring them back to the Seattle Police Department, as Harrell proposed. This plan, like Mosqueda’s proposal to stop funding 80 vacant police positions that cannot be filled, could end up a target for disingenuous accusations that the council is “defunding the police.”
PubliCola has heard that Councilmember Sara Nelson plans to resurrect Harrell’s original proposal to open up JumpStart spending permanently, including legislation originally sent down by Harrell’s office that would pin the threshold for JumpStart to go to non-JumpStart purposes to the rate of inflation, rather than a fixed $1.5 billion amount.
The balancing package also keeps the city’s parking enforcement officers at the Seattle Department of Transportation, rather than transferring them back to the Seattle Police Department, as Harrell proposed, and sets up a process for determining where parking enforcement will ultimately live at the city by next April.
“We’re asking them for a little bit of time to take the temperature down, have a conversation, and ask them what they need,” Mosqueda told PubliCola. “And then we’ll figure out which department has that structure. Is it SPD? Is it [the Community Safety and Communications Center? Is it a totally different department?” This plan, like Mosqueda’s proposal to stop funding 80 vacant police positions that cannot be filled, could end up a target for disingenuous accusations that the council is “defunding the police.”
The new budget proposal also includes funding to hire up to 90 parking enforcement officers and pay for supplies and new uniforms for the parking enforcement unit, which had to cut costs when the city moved parking enforcement to SDOT. The move increased administrative costs for the department by about $5 million due to a quirk in how way general fund spending is allocated on administration; Mosqueda said neither SDOT nor then-mayor Jenny Durkan were honest with the council about the extra costs.
Other highlights of the balancing package, which the council will discuss in detail over the coming week:
• Instead of funding the mayor’s “Seattle Jobs Center,” which Harrell described in his first State of the City address as a portal “connecting workers and employers to new opportunities, workforce development, and apprenticeships,” the balancing proposal would use JumpStart revenues to fund the MLK Labor Council’s existing online “hiring hall,” while requesting a report from the city’s Office of Economic Development on what a city-run jobs site would look like.
Looking at Harrell’s budget proposal, which does not include any new details about the jobs center, “we were like, ‘what’s the plan here? What’s this going to look like? Have you consulted with labor partners?'” Mosqueda said. “And there wasn’t a lot of there there.”
• The proposal eliminates cash spending on large projects that would be funded by the Real Estate Excise Tax (REET) and proposes funding them instead with long-term debt, which increases the cost of projects but allows the city to fund them over time, rather than paying for entire big-ticket items up front. These include the redevelopment of Memorial Stadium, at Seattle Center, in collaboration with Seattle Public Schools, and the purchase of a building on the downtown waterfront for a new, 10,000-square-foot tribal interpretive center for the Muckleshoot Tribe.
• The balancing package would preserve most of the funding Harrell’s budget added for the new Unified Care Team, a group of city staffers from several departments that cleans up around and removes encampments. As we reported, Harrell’s budget adds 61 permanent positions to this team, the majority of them in the Seattle Department of Transportation and the Parks Department—the two departments primarily responsible for encampment sweeps.
However, the package would take most of the funding Harrell proposed spending to expand the HOPE Team, a group of city staffers that does outreach at encampments, and reallocate that money to the King County Regional Homelessness Authority to pay for contracted outreach providers, such as REACH. The plan would still add one new “system navigator” to the UCT, so that there will be one outreach worker for each of five areas of the city where the UCT will operate. The proposal also outlines clear, distinct roles for the city’s own system navigators and KCRHA’s outreach teams.
The formal request poses a list of 23 questions and sub-questions about “emphasis patrols” and the city attorney’s “high utilizers” list, such as “Does SPD have a theory of change for emphasis patrols?” and “How much has the City spent on jail beds for those arrested via emphasis patrols on the high utilizers list?
• As we reported on Monday, the regional homelessness authority approached the council in October, five months after submitting its annual budget request, to ask for more than $9 million in new funding to pay for ongoing programs that were originally funded with one-time federal dollars during the COVID pandemic. The balancing package provides $3.9 million—the sane amount KCRHA said it needs to continue federally funded rapid rehousing programs—and says KCRHA will use $5.4 million from its own 2022 “underspend” to fund these programs.
• The proposal includes $4 million in 2023 alone for the LEAD and CoLEAD programs, which provide case management, services, and, in the case of CoLEAD, hotel-based lodging for people who are involved in the criminal legal system, including people experiencing homelessness. The Public Defender Association, which runs both programs, has said it will need to make dramatic cuts to either or both in the absence of full funding for both. Harrell’s budget provided just $2.5 million over two years for CoLEAD, stipulating that the money was supposed to be spent moving CoLEAD clients from hotels into tiny house villages; the balancing package increases the city’s total contribution to both programs but says the PDA must come up with “other ongoing funding sources” after next year. Continue reading “Council Budget “Balancing Package” Cuts Vacant SPD Positions, Restores Human Service Worker Raises”→
Here’s how charging documents describe Trey Alexander, a 40-something Black man who was recently charged with organized retail crime for stealing liquor from a Target store in downtown Seattle: A “career criminal” and “chronic shoplifter” whose offenses over the past 15 years have included theft, drug possession, and criminal trespass. (Trey Alexander isn’t his real name; we’re calling him that to protect his anonymity.)
In a statement seeking felony charges against Alexander in March, SPD officer Zsolt Dornay wrote that Alexander had stolen “at least $2,398 worth of alcohol” over several weeks in late 2020 and early 2021. Previous efforts to rehabilitate Alexander had been unsuccessful, Dornay wrote: While under the supervision of the state Department Corrections (DOC), Alexander “failed to comply with [mandatory conditions] on at least twenty-two (22) occasions.” Before moving to Seattle in the mid-2000s, Alexander had “done two prison stretches” in another state—emphasis in the original.
Most of this is a matter of public record, taken from a report Dornay wrote for the court in March. (If you recognize Dornay’s name, it might be because he has a history of violent and unprofessional behavior, including one case that led to a civil rights lawsuit and a payout of $160,000). And there’s a lot that Dornay’s narrative leaves out—details that contradict the picture of a remorseless criminal.
For instance: Nearly every time he was arrested, Alexander gave the address of a homeless shelter as his home address—usually 77 South Washington, the Compass Center shelter in Pioneer Square. In reality, he lived in a tent. With no job, prospects, or ties to a supportive community, he drank heavily and didn’t have a lot of reasons to stop; when he “failed to comply” with program requirements, what that meant is that he continued to drink in spite of the consequences, which is a fundamental part of the definition of addiction. In the months before and after the prosecutor filed charges against him, the city had swept his encampment at least four times—most recently in April, when they threw away the cell phone that connected him to his case manager, whose job includes making sure he shows up in court.
“They throw people away.”—Brandie Flood, director of community justice, REACH
Even with all these challenges, Alexander was making progress. In mid-2021, a few months after his final arrest, he enrolled in the LEAD program, which provides case management and helps clients navigate the criminal legal system. Since then, he has not reoffended, and he finally got approved for housing earlier this year. But he also failed to show up for his arraignment in drug court, twice; now, he’s facing a warrant and the potential of five years in prison, plus a fine of up to $10,000.
“You’re trying to be functional, and you’re doing well, and then this comes up… and you’re not getting any credit for the progress you’ve made,” said Brandie Flood, the director of community justice at REACH, which provides case management for LEAD clients like Alexander. “It’s a real setback.”
In recent months, Seattle and King County officials, including City Attorney Ann Davison and Mayor Bruce Harrell, have promised to crack down on “prolific offenders” who they argue are contributing a sense of danger and “disorder” in downtown Seattle. Elected officials, pollsters, and news media often conflate these crimes with homelessness, implying that homeless people are inherently dangerous or that arresting people for shoplifting and street level-drug sales will reduce visible homelessness in Seattle’s parks and streets. In March, Harrell announced “Operation New Day,” a series of emphasis patrols focused on criminal activity at Third and Pine downtown and at 12th and Jackson in the International District. Days later, Davison announced she would pursue harsher punishments for people, like Alexander, who have been arrested repeatedly for low-level crimes.
Alexander isn’t on Davison’s official “high utilizers” list, which includes people who have been accused of 12 or more misdemeanors in the past five years. (Prior to his two felony charges, Alexander was accused of 10 misdemeanors in the past five years). But his offenses fall under another category city and county officials have also vowed to target: Organized retail theft. The name is a misnomer. Although it implies crime rings trafficking in stolen goods, “organized retail theft” also includes lone individuals, like Alexander, who steal items worth a total of $750 or more over a period of six months. A single theft of a high-ticket item can be charged as “organized retail theft”; so can stealing dozens of bottles over a several weeks.
Ordinarily, shoplifting is handled by the Seattle Municipal Court, which has the option of moving cases to community court, a therapeutic option that provides access to services without requiring defendants to admit to a crime. (Davison got the court to make this option unavailable to those on her “high utilizers” list earlier this month, and advocates anticipate this will be just one of multiple steps to exclude certain offenders from less-punitive options.) Once a case is elevated to a felony, it goes across the street to the King County Courthouse, where the primary alternative to “mainstream” prosecution is drug court—a program that requires participants to get sober, attend treatment and recovery meetings, submit to frequent drug tests, and pay restitution, all while staying out of trouble for the duration of the program, which lasts a minimum of 10 months.
Despite his “failure to comply” with similar programs 22 times in the past, the prosecuting attorney’s office referred Alexander to drug court. Anita Khandelwal, the director of the King County Department of Public Defense, says drug court works well for people with deep community ties, an outside support system, and stable housing; it is designed to fail people who are homeless, still drinking or using heavily, and don’t have a supportive community to help them stay sober.
“In criminal court, it’s likely he’ll walk away with a conviction, incarceration, and another record of failing a court-based program,” Khandelwal said. “What we’re doing with this individual is more of the stuff that has already not worked for him.”
Leesa Manion, the chief of staff to King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg and a candidate for the position, argues that drug court “was designed precisely for individuals like [Alexander]—people who need help, people who are acting out because of this substance use disorder and need structure to be successful. I don’t think we should judge Mr. [Alexander] because he has not been successful in the past.” Manion said that, if elected, she would continue to send cases like Alexander’s to drug court.
” In criminal court, it’s likely he’ll walk away with a conviction, incarceration, and another record of failing a court-based program. What we’re doing with this individual is more of the stuff that has already not worked for him.”—King County Department of Public Defense director Anita Khandelwal
While waiting for Alexander to show up for his first arraignment date last month, I watched dozens of drug court participants face King County Superior Court Judge Mary Roberts, whose tough-love approach combined supportive comments about defendants’ progress with admonishments (and, in one case, jail time) to those who weren’t meeting the conditions outlined in the drug court handbook. “I’m glad that you’re taking responsibility for your actions,” Roberts told a man who was caught taking cough syrup that contained alcohol, but added, “You knew what the consequences would be.” Continue reading “How Seattle’s Crackdown on Crime Ensnared a Homeless Man and Made His Struggle With Addiction Worse”→
City attorney Pete Holmes is running for reelection, he told PubliCola Monday, in a wide-ranging conversation that covered the federal consent decree, the state of downtown Seattle, and last year’s historic protests. If he’s reelected, Holmes said, he will have served alongside six mayors, about 30 council members, and “six or seven police chiefs,” and “we’ll be negotiating my third or fourth police contract.” Coming out of the pandemic, he said, “I can’t think of a time that it’s been more necessary to have steady and strong leadership.” If Holmes didn’t run again, in other words, who would take his place? Scott Lindsay?
That’s a scenario that makes many Seattle progressives shudder, and why you can expect to see most of them supporting him this year. (State attorney Bob Ferguson is an early endorser).
Holmes, who was first elected in 2009, has been an easy conservative punching bag, beginning in his first term, when he dismissed all pending marijuana cases and campaigned for Initiative 502, which legalized and regulated marijuana statewide. More recently, Seattle’s right-wing pundits have excoriated him for declining to prosecute some low-level misdemeanors, including property damage during protests and so-called “survival” crimes, saying he’s part of the permissive culture that lets “prolific offenders” run roughshod over the city.
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But Holmes has frustrated some progressives, too, by seeking to end federal oversight of the police department, continuing to promote court-based solutions to public health problems such as addiction and mental illness, and what some see as his failure to aggressively pursue supervised drug consumption sites, which a King County task force recommended five years ago.
Holmes defended his record on police accountability, saying that the city has made impressive progress toward compliance with the consent decree, even if the exact path toward freedom from federal oversight remains unclear. “The final word [on the consent decree] is, does Judge Robart agree that we have gotten there? I think the good news is that he has recognized that we’ve achieved an amazing amount.” But, he added, “We’ve got to get to the bottom of what happened this summer, and the new [court] monitor [Antonio Oftelie] has got a plan that will hopefully address it this year.”
PubliCola asked Holmes about his approach to people who commit misdemeanor crimes (the only kind the city prosecutes) that are rooted in poverty, addiction or mental illness. Last year, Holmes helped reboot the city’s community court, which provides alternatives to conviction or jail for people convicted of certain low-level crimes. Given that diversion alternatives already exist, though, why put people through the criminal legal system at all? Continue reading “City Attorney Pete Holmes Will Seek Fourth Term”→
As we say a not-so-fond farewell to 2020, we’re taking a look back at some of the work we did over the year, starting with the most popular stories of the year, measured on a month-by-month basis. Tomorrow and Thursday, we’ll have some updates on stories we covered earlier in the year, including a police shooting, access to public restrooms during the pandemic, and a group of people forced into homelessness when the city declared the hotel where they lived uninhabitable.
The year began with a story that would have reverberations for the next 12 months, when Mayor Jenny Durkan decided to withhold funding from the nationally recognized LEAD arrest-diversion program, which provides case management and other services to people engaged in crimes of poverty. (LEAD, which at the time stood for Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, is now short for Let Everyone Advance with Dignity.)
After the city council passed a budget that would have allowed the program to expand and reduce caseloads, Durkan balked, holding back the council’s adds until a consultant could write a report on whether LEAD was producing results. Ultimately, LEAD’s plans for 2020 were upended by the pandemic, but the story touched on themes that would recur all year: Social-service programs as an alternative to policing and incarceration; the battle between the council and Durkan over the city’s budget priorities; and Durkan’s reluctance to fund LEAD, which did not abate during the pandemic.
The Navigation Team, a group of police and social workers that removed encampments and offered shelter beds to their displaced residents continued to be a flashpoint for most of the year. (The team was formally disbanded after an ugly budget battle; its non-police members now make up a still ill-defined group called called the HOPE Team.)
In this story, we broke the news that the SPD lead for the encampment-removal team directed a city contractor hired to remove trash from encampments to pick up some bulky garbage at her home, because it was “on the way” to their next stop. The fact that the Navigation Team included a large number of SPD officers made it especially controversial among advocates for people experiencing homelessness. In the year before the pandemic, the team removed more encampments without notice than ever before, on the grounds that homeless people’s tents were “obstructions” that prevented others from enjoying the city’s greenbelts, planting strips, and parks.
In March, as the gravity and severity of the pandemic was just starting to set in, PubliCola shifted our coverage to the impact COVID-19 was having on the city, including people experiencing homelessness. Our most popular post that month featured a report from a crowded in-person press conference (!!) at which Gov. Jay Inslee banned gatherings of more than 250 people (we!!!). At the time, March 11, regional governments did not yet have access to federal relief funds or a solid plan for isolating and quarantining people without homes who were unable to “shelter in place.” A story we ran four days later, about an Inslee directive banning gatherings of 50 people or more, was headlined “Advice for Keeping Grandma Alive Depends on Whether Grandma is Homeless.”
The city of Seattle’s reluctance to simply put homeless people in hotels became one of PubliCola’s major recurring stories of 2020. (Although several homeless service organizations have rented rooms for their clients, the city won’t rent its first hotel units for people living unsheltered until early next year).
This story (and its many followups) was about a downtown hotel that the city rented out, at a cost of around $3 million, to serve as temporary housing for “first responders” such as police officers and firefighters to isolate or quarantine. Almost no first responders took the city up on its offer, so Seattle eventually opened the rooms up to nurses and other medical personnel, who also failed to show up in significant numbers. The city never offered the rooms to people experiencing homelessness, preferring to pay for empty rooms than make them available to people living on sidewalks and in growing tent encampments that eventually took over several downtown parks.
Both of the region’s major transit agencies, Sound Transit and King County Metro, removed fares and instituted social distancing on trains and buses this year, but the two providers took vastly different approaches to both fare enforcement and fares themselves. While Metro revised its policies, taking tickets out of the criminal justice system and adopting what a spokesman called a “harm-reduction” attitude to fare enforcement, Sound Transit doubled down, reinstating fares a little more than two months after the pandemic began. Even now, the agency has not committed to decriminalizing fare nonpayment, committing only to a yearlong experiment to see if it’s possible to ease up on enforcement without cutting into fare revenue. Continue reading “PubliCola’s Most Popular Posts of 2020”→
Tomorrow, the Seattle city council will take its most definitive action yet to eliminate the Navigation Team—a group of police, litter removal workers, and outreach staff that removes encampments from public places—by voting on a mid-year package of budget cuts that eliminates funding for the program. But the ultimate fate of the team will lie with Mayor Jenny Durkan and Police Chief Carmen Best, who have the final say over departmental spending.
The two votes attempt to cut the team, which costs the city around $8.4 million a year, using two different types of budget actions. The first vote would prohibit SPD from spending money allocating 14 of its officers to the Navigation Team, using a spending restriction called a proviso to remove police from the team. The second would cut funding for the rest of the team, which includes staffers from the Human Services and Parks departments, and direct the mayor to reallocate that funding to contractors that do outreach and engagement to people experiencing homelessness, such as the nonprofit group REACH. REACH was originally part of the Navigation Team, but stopped participating alongside police as the team shifted its emphasis to encampment removals.
“The Navigation Team exists for the purpose of forcing people to move without giving them somewhere better to go,” Alison Eisinger, the longtime director of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, said after last week’s vote.Shelters and tiny house villages were routinely full before the pandemic, when the team performed multiple sweeps every week, and since then, the city has added fewer than 100 new shelter beds.
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“The number one thing that determines whether or not somebody who is homeless and without shelter gets off the streets is whether or not there is an accessible, appropriate, available better alternative—and the person who can connect them to that alternative is a person who has some kind of trust relationship with them,” Eisinger said.
Although the team was originally envisioned as collaboration between police and human service providers that would combine the stick of enforcement with the carrot of shelter and services—the “navigation” part of the equation—its role shifted under Mayor Jenny Durkan, and in recent years it has focused primarily on removing “obstruction” encampments from parks and other public spaces, a type of action that does not require any prior notice or offer of services or a better place to go.
Durkan has resisted every effort to cut the Navigation Team, which has nearly doubled in size since it was created in 2017. In 2018, Durkan even characterized a move by the council efforts to merely slow down the expansion of the team as a devastating “cut.”
Given that history, council members and advocates are worried that Durkan will simply ignore their budget directives. Although the budget proviso says SPD can’t spend the money it had allocated this year for the Navigation Team, it acknowledges that any effort to lay off the officers on the team will create labor issues—a problem Paul wrote about in detail on Friday.
“This action will dramatically restrict the City’s ability to address unauthorized encampments on City property and will significantly impact the City’s ability to ensure that Seattle is safe, healthy, clean, and accessible for all residents, both unhoused and housed.”—Human Services Director Jason Johnson
Additionally, the chief could ignore the council’s directive to reassign the 14 officers and look for savings elsewhere in the department, or move the officers off the Navigation Team without actually cutting the size of the police force. Hammering out those issues could delay any cuts to the sworn portion of the team.
A bigger barrier for those hoping to eliminate the Navigation Team is that unless the council uses a proviso to explicitly restrict spending, city law does not require the mayor to obey the council’s budget directives. Historically, this hasn’t been a problem, because the council and mayor have had an understanding that, with some exceptions, the mayor will spend the budget in the manner the council directs. But Durkan has repeatedly ignored the council’s directions when she has disagreed with them, leaving open the possibility that she will do so with the Navigation Team as well.
For example, Durkan recently used $1.4 million intended for non-congregate shelter on rental assistance; failed to spend money the council allocated for mobile showers; and has refused to approve an expansion of the LEAD program that could have temporarily housed dozens of people and provided them with case management and a path out of the criminal justice system. The open warfare between the mayor and council could well lead to a situation where the council issues a forceful directive to defund the Navigation Team—and the mayor shrugs.
“There’s no reason to believe that the city will not pick up garbage without having the Navigation Team in existence. It did it before and it can do it again.”—City Council member Tammy Morales
REACH director Chloe Gale, who testified before last week’s vote that the Navigation Team “conduct[s] expedient, politically motivated transactions that result in continuous displacement and trauma,” says Durkan “has a lot of opportunities to not implement this, and she also can set things up to fail by not having responses where you need to have responses in the community.”
In a scathing letter to the council last week, HSD director Jason Johnson suggested that without the Navigation Team—specifically, the four “field coordinators” from HSD and Parks— the city would be unable to respond to the more than 16,000 calls for service it receives about encampments each year.
“This action will dramatically restrict the City’s ability to address unauthorized encampments on City property and will significantly impact the City’s ability to ensure that Seattle is safe, healthy, clean, and accessible for all residents, both unhoused and housed,” Johnson wrote. “The Council’s actions effectively returns the City’s response to unsheltered homelessness to a pre-2017 model where service providers alone were the City’s response to encampments. This model was a failure, demonstrated by the proliferation of large, unsafe and unhealthy encampments that spread across Seattle.”
Council member Tammy Morales, who sponsored the amendment to defund the Navigation Team, countered last week that the council has heard from outreach workers that litter pickup and removing tents that are blocking entire sidewalks “is really important, but they would like someone else to be doing it so they can focus on outreach and engagement.” Eisinger adds: “There’s no reason to believe that the city will not pick up garbage without having the Navigation Team in existence. It did it before and it can do it again.”
Eliminating the Navigation Team would not prevent the police from removing encampments without prior notice—a fact Gale says still needs to be addressed, whatever happens to the official team. Police are still authorized to remove encampments that constitute “obstructions” with little or no notice, and will retain the ability to do so even if the Navigation Team goes away. Police were taught to “define an obstruction or hazard [as] all right-of-way and every piece of park property,” Gale says—a definition that has allowed the Navigation Team, as well as regular SPD officers, to remove encampments without any notice or offers of shelter or services.
Council budget chair Teresa Mosqueda says Johnson is wrong when he says the council has no plan to respond to encampments without the Navigation Team. “There is a plan, and it’s not just a plan it’s a program that’s already in place,” she says. “We have partners like REACH and LEAD who are already doing this work and are already showing better outcomes at getting folks into housing options and shelter options. It’s a matter of directing funding out of the Navigation Team and into REACH and LEAD and other organizations that have already built trust” with people experiencing homelessness, she says.
Johnson’s letter explicitly calls out REACH, specifically, as a “data-less model” that “cannot produce the same level of data, detail, or examples of success” as the Navigation Team. “This is another example of a budgeting process that is untethered from operational impact, designed to achieve a near-sighted and expedite political outcome— with little regard to City employees or the people the Navigation Team serves.”
Eisinger counters that existing providers could be very effective if they were actually funded sufficiently, empowered, and provided access to shelter and housing options. (Currently, the Navigation Team has exclusive access to many of the enhanced shelter beds that people prefer, including the entire Navigation Center). “I think what’s going on now is a much longer, larger, long-overdue conversation about where to prioritize public dollars,” Eisinger says.Eight point four million dollars a year could go a log way towards increasing quality, culturally appropriate, community-based, non-congregate, accessible shelter and affordable housing.
I’m reserving judgment on the sex abuse allegations against Mayor Ed Murray until all facts are out, because I don’t know a whole lot more than anybody else who’s reading the Times report and watching the statements that come out of the mayor’s office, but I will say this: the victim-blaming strategy Murray’s team has taken so far isn’t a good look. Moreover, it seems sure to backfire. A person’s criminal history (which was related to both addiction and homelessness) has no bearing on whether an accuser is telling the truth. Likewise, the amount of time that has elapsed between an alleged incident and when the alleged victim reports that incident to authorities has no bearing on its veracity, and suggesting a political motivation or saying “why did he wait so long to come forward?” is inexcusable (and, incidentally, also detracts from Murray’s defense). I would like to think that, in the post-Cosby era, we were beyond requiring accusers to be “perfect victims” and questioning their motives when they come forward, but if the statements made by Murray’s attorney Robert Sulkin in his defense yesterday are any indication, apparently we are not.
It’s unclear how Murray plans to proceed (so far, he has said through his attorney that he will vigorously defend himself against the charges) but if he continues to seek reelection, contributions are bound to dry up and candidates who had been holding back because of Murray’s apparent invincibility won’t hold back any more. If Murray resigns before the end of his term, the city charter mandates that the city council president take his place; currently, that’s Bruce Harrell, who ran for mayor (against Murray and incumbent Mike McGinn). If Harrell declined to serve as mayor, the council would elect a mayor to serve out Murray’s term from among its members.
2. James Toomey, a private security guard who worked for a company hired by Magnolia homeowners to protect their property last year, was already on probation when he pepper-sprayed Andrew Harris, a homeless man who had been sleeping in his car. Toomey was put on probation after being charged with assault for pepper-spraying two teenagers and slamming one of the teens’ head on the ground in Tacoma in 2014. In that case, as in the Harris case, Toomey justified his aggressive actions by saying the teens were “doing drugs.” In the Harris case, Toomey also claimed he was “in complete fear for my life” from the homeless Harris, who was attempting to record Toomey with his cell phone when the security guard hit him with pepper spray. “I was scared for my life. I have four kids and a wife,” Toomey said later by way of explanation.
Turns out that wasn’t the only time Toomey had claimed to be afraid for his life from an unarmed pepper-spraying victim. Earlier this month, Pierce County prosecuting attorney Pedro Chou unsuccessfully attempted to convince a judge to revoke Toomey’s parole in the 2014 head-slamming and pepper-spraying incident by introducing a security video from 2011, as a way of demonstrating a pattern of violent behavior by Toomey that would, along with the incident in which he pepper-sprayed Harris, justify revoking his parole and punishing him for the 2014 assaults. (Toomey has convictions on his record for felony forgery and violating a no-contact order in a case related to domestic violence charges by his ex-wife and required to take anger-management and domestic-violence classes.)
In the video, Toomey can be seen gesticulating and yelling at a woman who is trying to enter the Latitude 84 nightclub in Tacoma. The woman is turned away by Toomey (who later reports that she pulled out her ID “in a very threatening way”), and argues with him briefly before walking away and yelling at him from several yards away. A moment later, the woman begins walking toward Toomey again and is restrained by a bouncer, who pushes her woman against the wall and holds her arms; at that point, Toomey can be seen approaching and pepper spraying the restrained woman in the face several times.
In the police report and in his recorded testimony, Toomey struck a familiar refrain: He was afraid the woman planned to hurt or kill him. In the report, Toomey describes the woman, who is black and considerably smaller than Toomey, as almost superhumanly strong and powerful, claiming that she was trying to “smash through” the bouncer who stood between her and Toomey to get at him. In addition, “she kept on making verbal threats, saying stuff like, ‘I’m going to have my homies do this and do that,'” Toomey said. “You see how powerful she was.”
In his statement to police, Toomey writes, “Thank you so much for filling these charges against them, it is hard enough to run a security company as it is, and it makes are job a little less stressful knowing that these type of people are in jail and have to face charges for their criminal actions!” (The prosecuting attorney’s office never pursued charges against the woman, but they did consider charging Toomey, according to Harris’ attorney, Mike Maxwell).
Toomey remains on probation. (The judge in Pierce County was unconvinced that Toomey had demonstrated a pattern of unjustified attacks, and seemed very disturbed by Harris’ use of profanity during his statement.) Harris, meanwhile, continues to pursue his civil case against Toomey and Central Protection, the company that employed him. Harris, who is seeking about $300,000, remains homeless; he says he is working two jobs and hopes to have an apartment soon.
3. Two interesting items from Wednesday night’s meeting of the North Precinct Advisory Council, where the three North End city council members—Debora Juarez, Rob Johnson, and Mike O’Brien—spoke briefly and took questions, mostly about the delayed North Precinct police station replacement, from a roomful of North Seattle residents and business owners. (O’Brien walked in late after racing up to North Seattle College from the Ballard Library, where his monthly “office hours” with constituents were dominated by a group of Green Lake Community Center and Evans Pool users who wanted his assurance that he wouldn’t support “privatizing” the pool and community center.)
First, O’Brien said he expected that the city would begin taking concrete actions to bring the once-controversial, now-wildly-popular Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program, a pre-arrest diversion program for low-level offenders that started in Belltown, citywide.
Second, council member Deborah Juarez announced that she would be introducing an amendment to police accountability legislation that would require that seven members of 15-member Community Police Commission be appointed by districts. At the council’s public safety committee meeting Thursday morning, Juarez announced rather abruptly that she had gotten pushback to her idea of district representation by CPC members, who suggested that district appointments “would limit the available pool of applicants to those living in the districts … when there might be an ideal candidate living elsewhere. The translation for me,” Juarez continued, “is that there is an assumption—an unfair assumption and a bias—that there will be no qualified applicants [in each district.] … That’s a false narrative.”
Enrique Gonzalez, a CPC member who was at the previous night’s meeting in North Seattle, countered that the current system doesn’t prohibit the CPC from having members from all across the city, but that there may be times when it makes sense for some communities with acute public safety and police accountability concerns (say, South Seattle) might need more representation on the police-oversight board than other areas with fewer concerns (say, North Seattle).
The city council’s proposed revisions to Mayor Ed Murray’s 2017-2018 budget include the restoration of funding for Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program expansion, money for lockers so people can store their belongings at overnight shelters, and longer hours at a daytime shelters so that at least some homeless people who use shelters aren’t forced to wander the streets during the day.
The council considered 104 proposed additions and cuts to Murray’s budget yesterday; together, they would cost the city an extra $16.4 million in 2017 and 3.9 million in 2018.
LEAD funding came into question last week, when council members wanted to know why the mayor’s budget eliminated spending for LEAD expansion into the East Precinct, which includes Capitol Hill. LEAD, a pre-arrest diversion program aimed at reducing recidivism among low-level drug and prostitution offenders, started in Belltown but has since expanded throughout central Seattle; supporters hope to see it expand to neighborhoods citywide in the next few years. The $150,000 in one-time funding is supposed to be covered by new revenues from a special King County sales tax for mental illness and drug dependency (the MIDD tax); however, as I reported last week, the county has already allocated much of its new LEAD funding for other purposes (like filling a budget shortfall by paying a county prosecutor out of MIDD funds), and plans to expand LEAD in other parts of King County, not the city of Seattle, using those tax dollars. That leaves LEAD potentially underfunded, and will likely put the burden of expanding the program in Seattle on the city, not the county.
Which brings us back to that $150,000. Although the mayor’s office says the funding is guaranteed, the council wants to take no chances, and put the money back in the budget. “I think it’s really, really important that we continue funding this very effective program,” council member Kshama Sawant said yesterday. Council member Mike O’Brien, noting that the council has heard that “the funding from the county wasn’t going to be available in the way we thought,” seconded Sawant’s statement. He added: “I am still interested in discussing how, over the next year or two, we can expand LEAD to cover the whole city. I’m interested in exploring what those next steps might be over the next few days and see if there’s any budget implications in the near term.”
Residents of Highland Park, in council member Lisa Herbold’s district, and Ballard, in O’Brien’s, have requested LEAD expansion in their neighborhoods.
Other changes in the council’s human services budget include:
• $105,000 for a social worker to staff the Downtown Public Health Center, the likely location for a low-barrier “bupe-first” pilot treatment project for people with opiate use disorder. The idea behind “bupe-first” is to get opiate addicts on buprenorphine (brand name: Suboxone), a drug that suppresses the physical need to use more harmful drugs like heroin; the same site will also offer needle exchange, case management, and followup services.
• A directive to the Human Services Department to come up with cost estimates for implementing the recommendations of the Heroin and Prescription Opiate Addiction Task Force, which include screening students for risk factors for drug abuse, expanding access to buprenorphine, and establishing supervised drug consumption sites.
• About $350,000 a year for the Lazarus Day Center, which serves people over 50, to expand its hours and daytime services.
• $545,000 to add 4.5 new positions for 2017 to implement the mayor’s “bridging the gap” plan to address homeless encampments, by setting up four new sanctioned encampments, expanding outreach to people living in unsanctioned camps, and improved needle and trash cleanup (including between 11 and 17 new sharps containers for the entire city).
The next scheduled budget committee is Wednesday, November 9, at 9:30am.
Last Wednesday, in a meeting about the mayor’s proposed budget for the Human Services Department, city council members raised alarms about what looked like a $150,000 cut to Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion–a successful pre-arrest diversion program aimed at reducing recidivism among low-level drug and nuisance crime offenders. LEAD started in Belltown, but has been so successful that it has been extended throughout downtown and the Seattle Police Department’s East Precinct, which includes Capitol Hill; the $150,000 was one-time funding for that expansion. Neighborhoods across the city, from Ballard to far Southwest Seattle, are now clamoring for LEAD expansion into their neighborhoods.
Mayor Ed Murray’s proposed budget this year included $830,000 for LEAD funding, but did not renew the $150,000 expenditure for the East Precinct. The question council members raised, essentially, was whether that cut would be compensated by new funding from the county’s sales tax for mental health and addiction services, known as the Mental Illness and Drug Dependency II (MIDD II) tax, or whether the reduction would threaten the East Precinct expansion in 2017 and beyond. Previously, LEAD was funded through a combination of various county funding sources, private funds, and city dollars–now, its funding from the county will all come from MIDD sales tax revenues*.
Council member Lisa Herbold, a longtime ally of the Public Defender Association, which runs LEAD, said last week, “I believe the idea was that the MIDD II would fund that expansion, but apparently that’s not really how it’s working out. What I’m hearing is that moving the $150,000 will impact LEAD’s ability to even do their current work, much less expand to the East Precinct, and I understand there’s also interest in other areas of the city for LEAD expansion,” such as the Highland Park neighborhood in Herbold’s district. Other council members, including Rob Johnson, Mike O’Brien, and Lorena Gonzalez, piled on. “I’m really uncomfortable with betting on MIDD II funding to keep it going,” Johnson said. “I believe we should be propping up this existing program and expanding.”
The $150,000 reduction received some press coverage characterizing the reduction as a “cut,” which isn’t technically true: The mayor’s office points out that the plan was always to fund the East Precinct expansion of LEAD, and additional expansions in other Seattle neighborhoods, through the MIDD tax, starting in 2017. Scott Lindsay, the mayor’s public-safety advisor, says that “the city advocated for the significant MIDD II funding for LEAD, and as a voting member of the MIDD II oversight body, we are not cutting this program.”
However, that isn’t entirely up to the city: The city may provide 42 percent of MIDD II’s tax base, but the city of Seattle holds just one of 28 positions on MIDD’s oversight board. Other cities in South and East King County are interested in LEAD, and they are also represented on the oversight body.
And LEAD has bigger challenges on its hands than backfilling the $150,000. Public Defender Association director Lisa Daugaard says that much of the county’s MIDD funding for LEAD–which totals $1.5 million in 2017 and $2 million in 2018–has already been allocated to pay for things that have historically been paid for out of the county’s general fund, including a King County prosecutor, clerical support staff, and a new staffer in the county’s behavioral health and recovery division. Currently, LEAD’s total budget is about $2.3 million, which would just be covered by the total funding from the city ($830,000) and county ($1.5 million) in 2017. That funding does increase in 2018, but the extra half-million will be needed to fund items LEAD has identified as necessities to continue even existing operations, such as a dedicated city attorney, which could leave little or nothing to pay for expansion to other Seattle neighborhoods.
“By the time you allocate all these essential functions out of MIDD II, there’s very little room for growth,” Daugaard says. “The spirit is willing, but the capacity is not presently there. The city and the central budget office, in good faith, had every expectation that substantial expansion would be funded by MIDD II investments, but then a series of events took place” and the money became spoken for. (This past year, LEAD also lost about $800,000 in funding that had been provided by a private foundation, Daugaard says.)
Tim Burgess, chair of the city council’s budget committee, says it’s still unclear “how much of the MIDD money is going to supplant other county funding sources and how much will truly be new revenue. And we don’t know that, and we won’t know that, until the county makes their final decisions on their budget” in November, around the time when the city council will adopt its own budget. With that uncertainty in mind, Burgess says, many council members are telling him they want to make sure LEAD is fully funded regardless of what the county council decides, by continuing to fund the $150,000.
That’s certainly Herbold’s position. She says that “if we want LEAD to expand in Seattle, we cannot cut the funding intended for expansion. The theory from [the mayor’s office] was that the $150,000 was unnecessary because LEAD would have expansion funding in MIDD II–but that’s not actually how it’s working out.”
Herbold also says she expects that the county will want to spend any “extra” funding available for LEAD on expansion outside Seattle; indeed, the MIDD’s service improvement plan, released earlier this year, calls for gradual expansion “to other communities throughout King County” between 2017 and 2022.
“The expansion that the county is contemplating is explicitly for non-Seattle King County cities,” Herbold says. That means that if the city wants to expand to areas like Highland Park (last year, the members of the Highland Park Action Committee wrote a letter to the mayor requesting LEAD expansion into their neighborhood), it may have to come up with the money itself. Daugaard says the PDA’s original expansion plan for LEAD, which would have extended the program into “all the communities that had expressed willingness to use LEAD,” would cost about $5 million a year.
Daugaard says she thinks the PDA could expand LEAD citywide by the end of 2018, but that would require funding beyond what’s in the current city budget and what the county is likely to allocate to Seattle in its MIDD II budget.
County budget officials did not respond to requests for additional details about MIDD funding.
* As a side note, it’s important to remember that sales tax revenues decline during economic downturns, so we can expect that MIDD revenues will be less robust than they are when the economy goes through its next down cycle.
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