Tag: Lisa Herbold

Council’s Budget Would Preserve JumpStart Spending Plan, Restrict Shotspotter, and Restore Safe Streets Spending


By Erica C. Barnett

Last week, Seattle City Council budget committee chair Teresa Mosqueda released a first-draft 2024 budget “balancing package” that includes dozens of amendments to Mayor Bruce Harrell’s 2024 budget proposal—reversing a plan to fund child care and human service worker wages with the JumpStart affordable-housing payroll tax; adding or restoring funding for transportation, eviction prevention, free help with tax pand other services; and placing restrictions on the Seattle Police Department’s future spending on an acoustic gunshot detection system and salary savings from unfilled positions, among many other relatively small tweaks to a budget that Harrell’s office has changed significantly since the council and mayor passed an “endorsed” 2024 budget last year.

As in previous years, the mayor’s office proposed using about $9 million in JumpStart funds—which are earmarked for affordable housing, small businesses, equitable development, and Green New Deal projects—on items that aren’t authorized uses of the tax, including pay increases for human service workers and child care providers, the relocation of a tiny house village in the University District, and startup costs for the new social housing public development authority.

Mosqueda’s budget proposal would change the way those items are funded so that they come out of the city’s general fund, which is authorized to receive up to $84 million in JumpStart revenues in a lump sum this year; by shifting these expenditures to the city’s mainline operating budget, the proposal avoids the need to change the legally binding JumpStart spending plan and avoids making these items dependent on JumpStart funding in the future. Additionally, in response to new projections showing almost $10 million more coming in from JumpStart than expected, Mosqueda’s budget increases spending on a number of JumpStart priorities—including $4.6 million for multifamily housing that the mayor’s budget cut—and contributes $2 million to the fund’s reserve.

Responding to Councilmember Sara Nelson’s comment that the appropriate use of JumpStart funds “seems to be a matter of interpretation,” Mosqueda said that there’s actually “not a lot of disagreement about what the current statute says,” and that if the council wanted to fund items that aren’t allowed under the current spending plan, “we would have had to statutorily amend JumpStart, which the [mayor’s office] also understood and realized in the transmission of their budget proposals.”

Councilmember Lisa Herbold noted that although Burgess told the council there are studies showing that acoustic gunshot locater systems better in concert with camera surveillance, the mayor’s office has not provided any evidence for this; meanwhile, she noted, a study in Philadelphia found that adding cameras to Shotspotter increased police workload without improving outcomes or even confirming more shootings.

The budget still includes funding for Shotspotter—an audio surveillance system that deputy mayor Tim Burgess told the council will be more effective when “married” to CCTV cameras in the same locations—but would now include a budget proviso barring the police department from putting it to use until the city conducts a racial equity toolkit and a Surveillance Impact Report. Ulike the mayor’s proposal, which would do one racial equity analysis and impact report up front and apply it to all future uses anywhere in the city, Mosqueda’s proviso would require SPD to look at each neighborhood individually.

Councilmember Lisa Herbold noted that although Burgess told the council there are studies showing that acoustic gunshot locater systems better in concert with camera surveillance, the mayor’s office has not provided any evidence for this; meanwhile, she noted, a study in Philadelphia found that adding cameras to Shotspotter increased police workload without improving outcomes or even confirming more shootings.

Referring to the same study as well as a review of Shotspotter in Chicago, Mosqueda said the systems have led to “more officers going to neighborhoods on high alert, potentially with guns drawn … expecting to potentially confront a dangerous situation. Given the already tragic number of shootings for our BIPOC community, especially our Black community, by police, this is a recipe for trouble.”

Other potential changes in the council’s budget proposal include:

• A proposal to retain the title “director” for the head of the Community Assisted Response and Engagement department (formerly the Community Safety and Communications Center). Harrell’s budget would change CARE department director Amy Smith’s title to “Chief” to make it equivalent to the police and fire chiefs, but opponents of this change argue that the title change is out of step with efforts to distinguish the CARE department as a civilian response team, not another arm of the police.

Discussion about this change got surprisingly heated during a budget meeting earlier this month, when Smith insisted Harrell’s title change was “brilliant” because it provides “a level-setting, across public safety to say these are of equal importance and significance” to first responders from police and fire departments. Mosqueda said she had heard “directly from first responders” that their jobs are different because they take an oath to show up in emergencies, which is distinct from the role of the civilian team that will soon begin responding, accompanied by police, to some low-priority, non-emergency calls.

• Funding ($200,000) to expand pretrial diversion programs, which allow people accused of some misdemeanors to avoid charges by attending classes or other programs on a short-term basis. Sponsor Andrew Lewis said enhancing these programs would help the city “continue to have a more just and equitable system of justice”; these light-touch programs not generally appropriate for people with serious addiction or mental health issues, so the money won’t address the influx of new potential clients pouring into  programs like LEAD because of the city’s new drug criminalization law.

• Funding to raise wages for human services workers at agencies whose contracts with the King County Regional Homelessness Authority are funded through the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), not the city. The council passed a Mosqueda-sponsored law in 2019 that requires annual inflationary adjustments to most human services contracts to boost workers’ pay and improve employee retention, but that mandate only applies to city-funded contracts. Increasing other homeless service contracts would bring workers at those agencies to parity, but would create an ongoing annual budget issue.

The proposed amendments include one from Council President Debora Juarez stipulating that of $2.4 million reserved in 2024 for paving non-arterial streets, $600,000 can only be spent paving the streets around the Seattle Storm’s planned practice center in Interbay, which former mayor Jenny Durkan pushed through on her way out the door. Under the agreement, the developers is only “responsible for repaving half the streets”—from the property line to the center of the road—leaving the city on the hook for the rest.

• A one-time, $300,000 transfer to King County’s Department of Community and Human Services to pay for what sponsor Sara Nelson described as “intensive outpatient or inpatient treatment,” including detox, for low-income people who can’t access private treatment through Medicaid. The intent, Nelson said, is to fund treatment at facilit[ies] where they are taken out of their daily lives and detoxed and given some counseling and behavioral therapy nutrition, etc.” Nelson has advocated for the city to fund traditional abstinence-based treatment in addition to opioid use disorder medications and harm reduction, and the council may be more open to the idea if the money flows through the county’s human services department—which will have discretion over how to spend the money—than the city’s.

• A proviso stipulating that of $2.4 million reserved in 2024 for paving non-arterial streets, $600,000 can only be spent paving the streets around the Seattle Storm’s planned practice center in Interbay. Former mayor Jenny Durkan pushed through a special zoning exemption to allow the 50,000-square-foot facility, which is under construction, in an industrial area; under a subsequent agreement, the developers is only “responsible for repaving half the streets”—from the property line to the center of the road—leaving the city on the hook for the rest. The proviso, sponsored by retiring Council President Debora Juarez, would lock up a quarter of next year’s non-arterial street paving fund to pay for the other half.

• About $10 million in restored funding for transportation that Harrell’s budget proposed cutting to account for shortfalls in revenue from traffic cameras, parking taxes, real estate transactions, and vehicle license fees. The balancing package would use the balances sitting in several transportation funds to restore funding for ADA curb ramps, bridge maintenance, greenways for bicyclists, and school safety projects. “We wanted to make sure to fully preserved the investments in transportation in 2024 to avoid broad cuts to Safe Streets infrastructure projects, and prevent pitting communities against each other.

The initial balancing package would also convert $300,000 of a $1 million loan city made to Community Roots Housing, the affordable housing nonprofit, into a grant. Community Roots, formerly Capitol Hill Housing, is supposed to pay back the full interest-free loan by 2025. Earlier this week, Capitol Hill Seattle reported that Community Roots is selling off a 30-unit apartment building that the nonprofit said cost too much to maintain; it’s the second time the organization has put one of its buildings on the market this year.

Council Fast-Tracks Plan to Legalize “Impact Fees” on New Apartments

Seattle’s list of projects that impact fees could fund includes projects that have already been funded and are nearing completion.

By Erica C. Barnett

In an unusual move, City Councilmembers Lisa Herbold and Alex Pedersen persuaded a majority of their council colleagues last week to fast-track an amendment to the city’s Comprehensive Plan that would set the stage for “transportation impact fees” on new housing—fees that are based on the premise that dense, urban living causes negative impacts on the city’s transportation system.

The Comprehensive Plan is the overarching framework for planning and development decisions in Seattle. The changes the council is considering would allow transportation impact fees, “identify deficiencies in the transportation system associated with new development,” and adopt a list of projects that could be funded through such fees.

Pedersen has said fees on new housing could allow the city to reduce the size of the Seattle Transportation Levy, which is paid for by property taxes—lowering taxes for homeowners while raising the cost of new apartments for renters.

The council voted to bypass the normal process for approving changes to the comp plan, skipping Councilmember Dan Strauss’ land use committee to send the proposal directly to the full council, with a single public hearing scheduled for the council’s 2pm meeting on November 7 (coincidentally, Election Day). The council would vote on the amendment itself two weeks later, on November 21—the deadline to push the changes through this year.

Unlike MHA, in which developers fund new affordable housing in exchange for greater housing density, impact fees treat new housing as a bad thing that must be offset by fees to offset its negative impact. This anti-urbanist assumption elides the fact that the hundreds of thousands of people moving to Seattle over the coming decades are going to have to live somewhere—and that if there isn’t enough housing in the city, people, including many who can no longer afford to live in Seattle, will be pushed out into car-dependent suburbs.

Strauss, who has already scheduled a public hearing in the land use committee for November 29, protested this departure from the council’s normal procedures, noting that the city spent years deliberating over changes to industrial zoning and a tree protection ordinance, and both still need work after passing earlier this year. In addition, Strauss noted that the city’s hearing examiner has yet to issue a ruling on an appeal related to the fee proposal, which developers say would have a significant negative environmental impact—namely, it would reduce the amount of new housing in the city.

“I believe it is important that we receive the hearing examiner’s decision and have the time needed … to understand the policy” and hold a public hearing before voting the changes through, Strauss said.

Proponents of the legislation, including Herbold and Council President Debora Juarez, have minimized its impact, calling it a minor “procedural vote” with no actual policy impacts. In reality, changing the city’s Comprehensive Plan to allow impact fees is a consequential decision that could ultimately reduce the amount of housing that gets built inside city limits.

Juarez, Herbold, and Pedersen are not running for reelection and will leave the council at the end of this year.

According to a staff analysis, impact fees could bring in between $200 million and $760 million over 10 years—similar to the Mandatory Housing Affordability program the city adopted in 2019, which allowed denser development in some areas while helping to fund new affordable housing. MHA, like impact fees, was controversial, and the council held “at least 20 committee meetings” before passing it, Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda noted.

Unlike MHA, in which developers fund new affordable housing in exchange for greater housing density, impact fees treat new housing as a bad thing that must be offset by fees to offset its negative impact. This anti-urbanist assumption elides the fact that the hundreds of thousands of people moving to Seattle over the coming decades are going to have to live somewhere—and that if there isn’t enough housing in the city, people, including many who can no longer afford to live in Seattle, will be pushed out into car-dependent suburbs whose negative impacts are well-documented.

Advocates on both sides of the issue will now have just two opportunities to weigh in—once at the full councl meeting on November 7, and two weeks later, when the council is scheduled to take its final vote. Although Pedersen claimed last week that the commenters who showed up to oppose impact fees were just “paid lobbyists” who were “afraid of a public hearing,” Mosqueda argued that the accelerated schedule makes it less likely that ordinary members of the public will be able to weigh in on changes that could further depress housing development in the middle of a housing downturn.

Once the council adopts the changes to the Comprehensive Plan, they can begin the process of adopting the fees themselves. That process will almost certainly have to include additional comp plan changes, since the proposal the council is considering includes a list of projects that includes some that have already received funding—like the RapidRide G line on Madison Street, set to open next year.

Council Delays Pedersen Plan to Impose New “Impact” Fees on New Apartments

Rendering for a planned building on South Jackson St. that its developer said would not have been feasible with millions of dollars in new transportation impact fees.

By Erica C. Barnett

Two city council members who have argued for years that developers who build new housing should pay large fees to compensate for their impact on the city’s transportation system may end their terms without seeing their vision realized.

Councilmembers Alex Pedersen and Lisa Herbold, who are both leaving the council at the end of this year, have proposed a change to the city’s Comprehensive Plan—the document that guides development in the city—that would dictate how transportation impact fees will be determined in the future and lay out a list of specific projects they will fund. Pedersen, who is leading the charge, wanted to hold the one required public hearing for the change last week, which would queue the changes up for later this month, but land use committee chair Dan Strauss canceled the hearing, saying last week that he wanted to wait for a ruling on a legal challenge related to the fees.

The changes to the comp plan are the second of three necessary steps required to impose the fees; the third and final step would be adopting legislation to implement the fees laid out in the plan.

Pedersen has said fees for new housing could offset the property taxes that pay for the Seattle Transportation Plan, reducing property taxes for homeowners while raising the cost of new apartments. Both property taxes and the cost to build new units ultimately get passed on to renters, but the fees would typically cost far more up front than the annual property taxes for a building, according to both developers’ testimony and PubliCola’s own comparison of actual property taxes for new developments to the fees they would pay under a fee schedule, introduced as part of the city’s defense to the developers’ challenge, which represents the maximum the city could charge for each land use type. The legislation does not include a specific fee schedule.

For example, the owners of a brand-new, 171-unit luxury apartment building called the Ballard Yards will pay about $580,000 in property taxes this year. The impact fee for that same development under the proposed fee scheme, including apartments and the first-floor retail space, would be about $2.2 million, almost four times as much. For a smaller building like the Crane, a five-year-old, 39-unit complex in Interbay, the impact fee would add $495,000 to the cost of development, compared to a little more than $100,000 in annual property taxes.

One reason Pedersen’s proposal would cost developers (and therefore renters) so much more money overall is that the fees are calculated by unit, not development—so that someone building a single-family would pay one fee, while a company building a 100-unit building would pay a separate fee for every unit.

“I’ve tracked this over the years, and every time I dig into it I leave with as many questions as I have answered,” Strauss told PubliCola. For example: “What is the potential impact on MHA? How do we marry it with our budget this year? Are these projects still the right projects?”

During last week’s land use committee meeting, public comment over the proposal was extremely divided, Strauss noted. “To see the divided room—it told me that waiting until the [Seattle] hearing examiner makes their final decision before having that official public hearing was the right choice.”

Earlier this year, the city’s Office of Planning and Community Development determined that the fees would have no significant impact on the environment under the State Environmental Policy Act, prompting a group of developers and housing advocates to file an appeal; the city’s hearing examiner held the final hearing on that appeal next week, and will announce his decision sometime in the coming weeks.

In their appeal, the developers and advocates, organized as the Seattle Mobility Coalition, said the new fees would “raise the cost of development in Seattle across the board, amounting to a tax on new housing, which will reduce housing production, increase housing costs and undermine the goals of the Mandatory Housing Affordability (“MHA”) program,” which allowed more density in certain areas in exchange for new affordable housing.

For example, Mill Creek managing director for development Meredith Holzemer said in a declaration, a 397-unit apartment complex the company is planning on South Jackson Street would cost them several million dollars in impact fees over and above the $10 million they will already pay into MHA; the extra fees, Holzemer said, “will render the project economically infeasible and it will not be constructed.”

Although the proposal would exempt housing built specifically for low-income people, that doesn’t address the situation that’s driving up the cost of housing for everyone else: Wealthy people, including newcomers who move here for high-paying tech jobs, are “bidding up” existing units that would otherwise be affordable to middle-income people, pushing up the cost of housing at every level of the market.

Basing future road usage on past behavior is always a stretch, even without a pandemic that completely upended commute patterns and reduced the amount people are driving at rush hour, possibly for the long term. To name just one very recent (and very consequential) example, the state estimated that around 130,000 people would use the Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement by 2030, and used that estimate to justify building an $18 million bypass tunnel and the surface-level waterfront highway that is now under construction.

Pedersen and Herbold were quick to point out that changing the city’s Comprehensive Plan is just a precursor to adopting impact fees—one Herbold called a “small procedural step” that “is not complex” at all. In fact, amending the comp plan is a consequential process that the council sets aside time for once a year, usually rejecting a majority of the proposed amendments that come before them. Setting up a plan and project list in the city’s primary planning document isn’t some mere gesture, but a major first step toward adopting the fees themselves.

One reason Pedersen’s proposal would cost developers (and therefore renters) so much more money overall is that the fees are calculated by unit, not development—so that someone building a single-family would pay one fee, while a company building a 100-unit building would pay a separate fee for every unit. The fee for each new apartment would be a few thousand dollars less than for single-family houses or duplex units, but the overall cost would be much higher; developers would also be encouraged to stay away from single-family areas by discounts for building in already-dense urban villages. The proposed fee structure could have the effect of keeping the city’s suburban-style land use patterns the same while placing another wall around historic single-family zones—a longtime goal for Pedersen.

How could someone living in an apartment in a dense area with easy access to transit service “cost” nearly as much, in terms of negative impacts on the city’s transportation system, as someone building a new house in one of Seattle’s car-centric suburban-style neighborhoods? According to the Pedersen-Herbold amendment—which, if adopted, would become a permanent part of the city’s overarching growth strategy—the costs are based on a couple of factors.

The first is “Seattle’s expected growth in person trips over the next 12 years”—that is, how many “trips” Seattle residents will take using the overall transportation system. This measurement of “person trips” comes partly from vehicle trip estimates from the Institute of Transportation Engineers, which uses its own “trip generation manual” to estimate the number of people using the entire transportation system during the evening rush hour, and the Puget Sound Regional Council, which estimates population growth and surveys commuters on how they get around. Using these two tools, the city estimates there will be about 85,000 new rush hour trips every day by 2024, most of them by car.

Perhaps you are sensing one issue with these estimates: Basing future road usage on past behavior is always a stretch, even without a pandemic that completely upended commute patterns and reduced the amount people are driving at rush hour, possibly for the long term. To name just one very recent (and very consequential) example, the state estimated that around 130,000 people would use the Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement by 2030, and used that estimate to justify building an $18 million bypass tunnel and the surface-level waterfront highway that is now under construction. When the drivers didn’t arrive—prior to the pandemic, about 53,000 people drove through the tunnel daily, a number that plummeted to 40,000 in 2020—the state’s plan to use tolls to help pay for the tunnel fell apart.

It’s worth noting that the ITE’s predictions have come under significant scrutiny because they overestimate the traffic generated by new development—and especially new apartment buildings—substantially. One comprehensive study found that the ITE overestimated the trips generated by new development, on average, by 55 percent; for new multifamily buildings, the ITE overestimated trips by 108 percent. The city, in other words, could be assuming twice as much “impact” from new apartments, simply in terms of how many new trips they generate, as they have in reality.

Of course, not all trips are created equal—a solo driver has more impact than a single person riding a bus or biking to work, for example. The city’s plan attempts to address this by measuring how much physical space people using different transportation modes take up on the road. A driver, by this measure, takes up 180 square feet of space, whereas a person biking to work takes up 22.5 square feet, so the driver has about 8 times as much impact on the overall transportation system as someone who walks to work.

It’s easy to see why this measure is somewhat silly. It’s obvious that someone driving a 6,000-pound, gas-guzzling Land Rover—or a 8,500-pound electric Rivian!—contributes far more to the state of Seattle’s roads (and traffic) than a cyclist, whose space needs and physical impact are negligible in the first case and basically nonexistent in the second. (Also, bike lanes typically use space that would otherwise be used by heavier, more impactful cars—so wouldn’t they have a positive impact?) If eight cyclists are the equivalent of one vehicle, then it makes sense to assume an apartment building where almost everyone walks or rides a bike has the same impact as dozens of new lawn-locked single-family houses with two or three vehicles in the driveway.

And, of course, these estimates all assume that every new person has only a negative impact on the transportation system and the environment—ignoring the many positive impacts of living in the city rather than commuting into Seattle by car from a highway-dependent suburb.

Pedersen and Herbold have tried to rush their impact fee proposal through while they’re still on the council—an acknowledgement, perhaps, that this isn’t a priority for other elected officials. None of the people running for open council seats have identified impact fees as a campaign issue, and it’s possible, perhaps likely, that if the proposal doesn’t go forward this year, it will die from lack of interest.

But there are some pretty significant reasons not to push forward with a fee proposal before the end of the year. First of all, it’s pretty clear that the proposal is a bit half-baked. The list of projects the fee would help fund was developed by then-councilmember Mike O’Brien back in 2018, and it’s showing its age. The list includes some projects that have already been fully funded—the bus-rapid transit project on Madison Street, for example—and others that may now be outdated or lower-priority. In theory, the city could enshrine the project list in its comprehensive plan and then amend it list later, but why adopt a major change to the city’s growth plan without a public discussion of the projects a new impact fee would fund?

It’s debatable, for example, whether renters who live in a new building on Capitol Hill ought to be paying directly for improvements for freight trucks driving on East Marginal Way, which is one of many road improvements on the list of projects ostensibly impacted by new housing. And, as Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda noted last week, it’s unclear whether the project list represents an equitable distribution of improvements around the city, relative to the equity impacts of adding to the cost of housing in areas that may desperately need it.

“I want to make sure that… we look closely at whether or not there is an a disproportionate impact on equity or [Race and Social Justice Initiative issues that our city closely monitors” before adopting impact fees, said Mosqueda, who submitted a list of about a dozen questions about the proposal to the council’s central staff. “I understand the comments that were made” by Pedersen and Herbold “about how [outreach for this proposal includes] every stakeholder that has informed the pedestrian, bike, and transit plans, but that does not equal to me an RSJI equity analysis for this specific proposal.”

Indeed, Pedersen has waved aside concerns about outreach and engagement on his fee proposal by repeatedly pulling up a pie chart, based on undisclosed data, showing that 75 percent of people his office surveyed supported the proposal. Here it is:

Convincing, right?

Beyond the dubious project list, Pedersen and Herbold are trying to move the new fees forward at a pace they would never have allowed a proposal like MHA, which allowed slightly more density in exchange for new fees to fund affordable housing. Herbold, in fact, pushed for more process and deliberation before passing MHA (which she ultimately supported), and Pedersen made opposition to the program a centerpiece of his campaign for office, later hiring a homeowner activist who repeatedly sued the city to stop MHA as his legislative assistant. MHA went through years of deliberation before it even came before the council, followed by months of meetings and extensive outreach to every neighborhood in the city.

In contrast, Pedersen has made it clear he hoped to pass the comprehensive plan amendment, setting up a process to quickly pass impact fees, in the course of a couple of weeks. Now that that won’t happen, it will be up to the council to decide whether to consider the plan before he and Herbold leave. If the hearing examiner comes back with a ruling quickly, and sides with the city, Pedersen will have to provide 30 days’ notice of a new public hearing, which would push the proposal well into the period when the council will be debating the 2024 budget.

If the council decides it’s too busy with the budget to add changing the comprehensive plan to their schedule, it would push the debate into next year, when there’s a distinct possibility that no one will be motivated to bring it up again. Currently, housing construction is on a downward trajectory, thanks in no small part to the city’s slow permitting process, with just 441 master use permits last year compared to 975 in 2015.

Recently, the Puget Sound Business Journal announced that developer Barrientos Ryan backed out of plans to build a 300-unit “workforce housing” development along 15th Ave. W in Interbay, citing new requirements from the city that added more than $1 million in unanticipated costs. Instead of housing, the property will now be home to 20 new pickleball courts.

In Reversal, Council Poised to Preserve Landmarked Drive-Through Walgreen’s

Joe Mabel, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

By Erica C. Barnett

Update on Tuesday, Jan. 10: The council voted to adopt Councilmember Lisa Herbold’s amendment, described in more detail below, to impose controls and incentives preventing any changes to the landmarked Walgreen’s building on Denny Way while removing the surface parking lot from the area subject to landmark protections. Herbold’s “compromise” plan also included a new amendment from Andrew Lewis that added the driveway and a few other small elements of the property to the part of the lot that won’t be subject to restrictions, increasing the non-protected part of the property to around 14,000 square feet.

Council members who voted for Herbold’s proposal cited various reasons for doing so. Lewis said he supported preserving the façade of the building (seen above) while allowing development; however, the protections the council imposed actually bar changes to the entire building unless the city’s landmarks board approves them.

Kshama Sawant railed against the council’s “Democrats” and housing developers in general, raising a straw-man argument about the fact that any potential housing on the site wouldn’t be affordable to low-income people, which no one suggested it would. And Sara Nelson, who voted against protecting the Walgreen’s just last week, justified her change of heart by saying that aligning the city’s housing goals with historic preservation would take a “long time” and would need to be done at some later date. Ultimately, the legislation passed unanimously, with Tammy Morales and Teresa Mosqueda voting against the initial Herbold amendment but supporting it once it was the only option on the table.

Original post follows:

In a reversal of a committee vote last week, the Seattle city council appears poised to preserve a drive-through Walgreen’s on the edge of South Lake Union, after Councilmember Tammy Morales (who previously opposed preservation) accepted as a “friendly amendment” a proposal by Councilmember Lisa Herbold to “protect” the one-story building and driveway, but not its parking lot. The legislation on the council’s agenda Tuesday afternoon would require Walgreen’s, or any subsequent owner, to obtain approval from the city’s landmarks board before making any visible changes to the building.

PubliCola has written extensively about the 1950 structure, which was originally a drive-through bank—a novel convenience at a time when American car culture was just ramping up. The building was one of many copies of a 1946 prototype created for Seattle-First National Bank, many of which are still standing in Seattle and across the region.

A lot of things have changed since the former bank building was landmarked in 2010. An explosion of jobs brought a need for new housing in Uptown and South Lake Union, and the council voted to upzone the area in 2017, allowing new apartment towers to serve the thousands of new people working in the burgeoning tech hub. The site where the Walgreen’s stands, for example, was rezoned to allow a 160-foot tower. Today, the building stands out as one of the only car-oriented, single-story businesses in the area.

How could it be that a parking lot that makes up less than half of the Walgreen’s site could yield more housing than the entire property? The answer is: It can’t, except on paper.

Morales, along with her colleague Andrew Lewis, appeared convinced Monday by a staff analysis that concluded a developer could actually fit more housing on the Walgreen’s block if the housing was squeezed onto the 12,000-square-foot parking lot—up to 310 units, or even more if the building included amenities like a school, which many downtown residents have been trying to site for years.

“Compared to what is possible if we completely remove the controls and incentives or if we leave the legislation as is, there are additional 30 to 60 units possible,” Morales said at the council’s weekly briefing.

“I really appreciate the the creativity of Councilmember Herbold in presenting all these incentives together to show the potential of what the maximum number of units could be,” Lewis added.

How could it be that a parking lot that makes up less than half of the Walgreen’s site could yield more housing than the entire property? The answer is: It can’t, except on paper.

Setting aside the unlikely possibility of a new school inside a skinny residential tower, getting to 310 units requires some creative math. To build that many units, a developer would have to qualify for every incentive available under city law, including one that allows a development to cover more of a lot if their building includes at least ten units of “family sized” housing with three bedrooms or more. In practice, apartment developers rarely build units that size, because they don’t pencil out—two-parent families who can afford to pay $5,000 to $12,000 a month (the going rate for the handful of available three-bedroom apartments in new buildings near South Lake Union) would usually be better off buying a place instead

Even in the analysis Herbold used to argue that a smaller building would have more apartments, a council staffer acknowledged that it “would be hard to fit [that many units] on the lot without building above the bank building”—that is, demolishing the Walgreen’s and putting up a new building in its place, perhaps preserving the façade. This alternative is basically the same as not preserving the building at all—except that it couldn’t happen without  the approval of the same landmarks board that requested protections for the building in the first place.

Another scenario would be a skinny tower on the site of the current parking lot, which, at just 11,700 square feet, would be among the smallest tower locations in the city. This would be unlikely to pencil out under any circumstances, because so much of the oddly-shaped site would be taken up by the building’s elevator shaft, but the presence of the SR 99 tunnel directly underneath the site would make building a tall, thin tower even more of an underground engineering challenge. For this scenario to pencil out, the building would almost certainly be limited (like many others in the area) to studio or micro-units, which rent for more per square foot than larger apartments—great for young tech migrants, but less ideal for producing a neighborhood with a diverse range of ages, incomes, and family types.

Even in the analysis Herbold used to argue that a smaller building would have more apartments, a council staffer acknowledged that it “would be hard to fit [that many units] on the lot without building above the bank building”—that is, demolishing the Walgreen’s and putting up a new building in its place, perhaps preserving the façade. This alternative is basically the same as not preserving the building at all—except that it couldn’t happen without the approval of the same landmarks board that requested protections for the building in the first place.

The other alternative—the one that preservationists like Historic Seattle and Herbold seem to actually support—is to allow Walgreen’s to sell off the development rights for the lot to another developer in the neighborhood, preserving the building and its drive-through lane in perpetuity while allowing development elsewhere.

The problem is that selling the development potential of the Walgreen’s site almost certainly wouldn’t lead to an equivalent number of new apartments. That’s because when property owners sell development rights, what they’re really selling is extra floor-area ratio (FAR), a measure of how much of a piece of land a building can occupy. The more FAR a developer has, the taller or wider the building, depending on the rules in that area. In the Uptown, where 160-foot building are already allowed everywhere, additional FAR will allow developers to build outward, eliminating amenities they would otherwise have to include, like open space, green streets, and setbacks between sidewalks and the building.

The council will vote on Herbold’s proposal tomorrow afternoon. So far, only Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda has publicly expressed reservations about the plan, saying she worried that Herbold’s proposal “would reduce the site to such [an extent] that it would not be feasible to build to build multifamily units on this site.”

Nelson, Pedersen Vote to Reject City Budget Because It Doesn’t Fund Everything They Want

Councilmember Alex Pedersen and Sara Nelson
Seattle City Councilmembers Alex Pedersen and Sara Nelson

By Erica C. Barnett

Seattle City Councilmembers Sara Nelson and Alex Pedersen voted against the city council’s amended 2023-2024 budget proposal at a council budget committee meeting Monday, joining socialist Kshama Sawant—who votes against the budget every year—in an ideologically split three-vote minority. The budget, which goes to the full council for a final vote tomorrow, requires a six-vote majority to pass; if even one more council member sided with Nelson, Pedersen, and Sawant, the entire budget would fail.

Nelson and Pedersen, who frequently formed a two-vote mini-bloc during the council’s budget deliberations, explained their decision in similar terms: They couldn’t vote for a budget that doesn’t fully fund Harrell’s public safety priorities. “I cannot in good conscience endorse a final budget that, I believe, fails to learn from recent public policy mistakes on public safety and fall short on public safety for a third year in a row,” Pedersen said.

That argument would hold more water if the council had proposed actually cutting SPD’s budget. Instead, the council fully funded SPD’s (and Mayor Bruce Harrell’s) entire hiring plan, and used savings from vacant SPD positions to provide the department with an additional $17 million a year to pay for, among other things, the recruitment and retention proposals Nelson and Pedersen have supported. No other department received this kind of kid-gloves treatment; in fact, many departments face dramatic cuts next year.

The council’s budget also returns the city’s parking enforcement division to SPD, another one of Harrell’s top budget priorities.

“Minor reductions [to proposed new SPD programs] are being emphasized and exaggerated. This is the harmful rhetoric that is likely to continue to negatively impact hiring and retention.”—City Councilmember Lisa Herbold

In contrast to previous years, such as 2020, it’s virtually impossible to make the argument that the council didn’t work with the mayor to craft a budget that retains most of what he wanted—a point Councilmember Lisa Herbold made when she accused her two colleagues of contributing to a “false narrative” about public safety.

“It’s normal to debate budget issues,” Herbold said. “But these false narratives don’t make us safer.”

“Ninety-nine percent of the mayor’s proposed budget is included in this balancing package,” Herbold continued. “SPD hiring is fully funded, and they’ve begun to show some promising trends. Minor reductions to the remaining 1 percent of the budget”—the elimination of new programs, such as a gunfire surveillance system and a marketing consultant—”are being emphasized and exaggerated. This is the harmful rhetoric that is likely to continue to negatively impact hiring and retention.”

Eliminating these new programs from next year’s budget helped the council close a late-breaking general-fund budget shortfall of $4.5 million, on top of the $141 million shortfall announced earlier this year.

Nelson and Pedersen also objected to the council’s decision to eliminate, or abrogate, 80 of the 240 SPD positions that are currently sitting vacant; these vacant positions, which the city will use to augment the budget and fund new SPD spending next year, receive funding every budget cycle. The council’s budget will retain funding for at least 160 of these “ghost” positions going forward, and can add more positions in the future if SPD hiring suddenly skyrockets past the department’s own rather optimistic projections. Nonetheless, both Pedersen and Nelson have characterized this as an example of “defunding” the police. 

Nelson also criticized the council for failing to fund an expansion of the city’s graffiti abatement program and for moving homeless outreach workers out of Harrell’s new Unified Care Team (which the council fully funded) and into the King County Regional Homelessness Authority.

The two council members’ votes against the budget seem even less justified when you consider the concessions the rest of the council made to fund their priorities. 

Nelson, for example, got unanimous approval for a last-minute amendment that commits the city to spend some of the proceeds from a recent settlement with opioid distributors on abstinence-based rehab, marking the city’s first foray into the kind of public health decisions that are usually made by King County’s public health department.

Nelson was elected last year, and is staking out a position on the budget every bit as absolutist as Sawant’s: If the rest of the council doesn’t support her specific priorities, she’ll vote to reject the city’s budget wholesale.

In an op/ed earlier this year, Nelson expressed her view that medication-assisted treatment, such as the use of suboxone (an opioid) to treat opiate addiction, is “not aimed at long-term recovery.” This is the opposite of scientific consensus (the federal government’s substance abuse agency, for example, has a far more expansive definition of recovery that embraces long-term medication), but in line with Nelson’s general opposition to harm reduction programs— like the Public Defender Association’s LEAD and Co-LEAD programs, which provide case management and housing to people with addiction and other behavioral health issues.

Pedersen, meanwhile, managed to wrangle $3.5 million a year for bridge maintenance out of the Seattle Transportation Benefit District tax, which is supposed to fund transit, by arguing that because buses and bikes also use bridges, funding for bridges is a transit investment. That amendment passed 5-4—a major win for Pedersen at the expense of future transit projects.

Nelson was elected last year, and is staking out a position on the budget every bit as absolutist as Sawant’s: If the rest of the council doesn’t support her specific priorities, she’ll vote to reject the city’s budget wholesale. Time will tell if she continues down this all-or-nothing path.

Pedersen, in contrast, has apparently had a dramatic change of heart. Just two years ago, Pedersen wrote in a Seattle Times op/ed that it would be irresponsible for him to vote against the 2020 budget—which included far more dramatic changes than this year’s plan—just because he didn’t like everything that was in it.

“People are yearning for functional government. If the budget does not pass, nothing gets done,” Pedersen wrote. “No budget is perfect. Our constituents have diverse and conflicting views. A budget with positives and negatives is a natural result.”

“And to my constituents who ask, ‘Why did you vote the same way as Kshama Sawant?,” Pedersen concluded,
“I didn’t. She voted No.” This year, so did Pedersen.

Harrell’s Proposal to Expand Park Ranger Program Sparks Controversy

Victor Steinbrueck Park
Victor Steinbrueck Park in downtown Seattle; photo by Wknight94; CC-by-SA 3.0 license

By Erica C. Barnett

Mayor Bruce Harrell’s proposal to restart the mostly moribund Park Ranger program by hiring 26 additional rangers to patrol Seattle’s downtown parks has run into opposition from advocates who have argued that the rangers will be “park cops” deputized to kick homeless people out of public spaces.

But some city council members say the rangers are meant to be a civilian alternative to police, and point to measures the city has taken to ensure that rangers can’t facilitate arrests or exclude people from parks except in extreme situations—specifically, a 2012 policy that restricts park rangers’ authority.

Councilmember (and parks district board chair) Andrew Lewis said that during a recent “ridealong” with one of the city’s two park rangers, “it was made really, really clear to me that they are greatly dissuaded from using their authority to trespass or exclude—their job is to tell people what the rules in a park are, and usually that’s enough.”

On Monday, Lewis will release his own parks district plan, which will include Harrell’s park ranger proposal. “But,” he added, “we want to make sure we put some fetters on what they can do,” in the form of a resolution accompanying the parks district spending plan “acknowledging the current policy and making it clear rangers will not participate in removals of encampments.”

The debate over park rangers is only the latest salvo in a battle over behavior in parks that goes back decades.

Back in 1997, the city adopted a controversial law called the Parks Exclusion Ordinance, which allowed police to ban people from parks for violating local laws—anything from skating too fast to public inebriation to “camping”— could get a person excluded from all parks in one of 12 geographic “exclusion zones.” If a person was caught in any parks in that area during their exclusion period, they would face an escalating series of exclusions; on the third offense, they would be banned from every park in the city. Thousands of people were excluded from parks under the law, usually for minor offenses; during the first year the law was in effect, 53 percent of exclusions were for public inebriation and 22 percent were for sleeping in parks overnight.

Advocates like the ACLU and the Public Defender Association opposed the program, noting that it disproportionately impacted people who were homeless or poor; it also led to some absurd results.

The park ranger program started in 2007, when the city hired six rangers to “rove downtown parks and alert police to any illegal activity,” according to a Seattle Times report. The rangers also had the ability to enforce the exclusion ordinance.

The parks exclusion ordinance remains on the books. However, in 2012, it was superseded by a new “trespass warning” policy. Under that policy, park rangers or police can issue a warning when they see someone violating park rules or a state or local law; if they’re caught violating a law or park rule again, they can be arrested and prosecuted for criminal trespassing, a misdemeanor. People can also be excluded from a park zone—they still exist!—for up to a year for committing a felony or weapons-related violation. In 2015, the PDA wrote a letter to interim parks director Christopher Williams applauded the department for using the law judiciously and asking him to take a similar approach to the ban on smoking cigarettes in parks.

Councilmember Lisa Herbold, whose onetime boss, former councilmember Nick Licata, opposed the original parks exclusion law, said current efforts to paint parks rangers as anti-homeless cops diminishes the hard work of activists who pushed for the 2012 policy change. “Advocates fighting for their clients did something important, with principled persistence, that we couldn’t accomplish legislatively…and it’s lasted for ten years,” Herbold said. “This opposition campaign is devaluing that victory.”

So far, according to the Public Defender Association, the city has abided by its commitment not to indiscriminately trespass people from parks over minor issues. In the last year, according to the parks department, the two parks rangers issued 388 informal verbal warnings, one written warning, one citation for trespass, and two exclusions, both related to people shooting guns at Discovery Park.

The city’s interpretation and use of the law can change. Codifying some version of the 2012 policy in ordinance would be the most effective way to ensure that park rangers and police use their powers judiciously.

“The City Parks Ranger program was created during a time when we’d achieved an agreement to dramatically reduce the use of criminal penalties for minor parks use issues and for camping,” PDA director Lisa Daugaard said. “Their role is rarely to exclude—and then only for immediate legitimate safety threats—and mainly to be problem-solvers and caretakers. It’s obviously important to watch how an investment like this actually plays out on the ground, but to date, rangers have not catalyzed parks bans or arrests.”

A policy is less binding than a law, and open to interpretation by the mayor and his advisors; Harrell’s top public safety advisor, former Councilmember Tim Burgess, proposed criminalizing “aggressive panhandling” as a councilmember and, more recently, backed an aborted effort to have police use an obscure law governing behavior on buses to crack down on “disorderly conduct,” such as drinking, gambling, and amplified music around a former bus stop at Third and Pine. In other words: The city’s interpretation and use of the law can change. Codifying some version of the 2012 policy in ordinance would be the most effective way to ensure that park rangers and police use their powers judiciously.

Initially at least, the 28 park rangers would only work in parks downtown, under a 2008 agreement between the city and the Seattle Police Officers Guild that prohibits them from operating elsewhere. According to Harrell spokesman Jamie Housen, “The initial focus on the park ranger program would be on downtown parks as rangers are hired, additional capacity is built, and the program is scaled up. While expanding beyond downtown is something we would like to consider after the program is reestablished— dependent on bargaining—there are plenty of parks downtown where rangers could provide needed services.”

New Councilmember Sara Nelson at Center of Debates Over Hiring Bonuses, Renter Relief, and Nonbinding Resolutions

1. At a meeting of the Seattle City Council’s public safety committee Tuesday, City Councilmember Sara Nelson continued to push for spending up to $4.5 million on hiring bonuses for new Seattle Police Department recruits and lateral hires. “We need to use every tool in our toolbox to accelerate the hiring of officers,” Nelson said. “If we don’t do this, what else are we going to do?” 

Nelson’s resolution states the council’s intent to lift a budget proviso, or restriction, the council imposed on SPD’s funding last year. That proviso stipulated that if SPD failed to meet its hiring goal of 125 new officers in 2022, they can’t spend the extra money until the council lifts the proviso and allocates the funds to a specific purpose. SPD now projects that it will hire around 98 new officers, leaving between $4.1 million and $4.5 million unspent. 

Although Nelson has proposed using the unspent money to pay bonuses to new recruits, the funds may be needed elsewhere. The city budget office has asked every city department to come up with potential cuts of between 3 and 6 percent of their budgets in anticipation of a budget gap of around $150 million next year. Unspent money from this year, including the $4.5 million left over from SPD’s 2022 hiring budget, could help fill that gap.

Just as debate on her hiring bonus resolution was wrapping up, Nelson attempted to walk on a last-minute addition to the committee agenda. The bill, which committee chair Lisa Herbold’s office confirmed she had not seen, proposed lifting the proviso on the $4.5 million to allow SPD to spend it on unspecified “staffing incentives,” including anything that “accelerates and prioritizes the hiring of police officers,” according to a draft of the bill.

Herbold attempted to cut Nelson off by closing debate, but Nelson interrupted, telling Herbold, “this should be the job of the public safety committee.” Although Herbold shut her down by moving on to the next item, the debate over hiring incentives isn’t over; in fact, Nelson has made it a cornerstone of her agenda, arguing that the only way to reduce crime and cut down on “addiction and overdoses” is to hire more police, and the best way to do that is through hiring bonuses. 

The city has consistently found that hiring incentives have no significant impact on the number of new officers SPD hires. Last month, the Seattle Department of Human Resources Department issued a memo concluding that a short-lived 2021 hiring bonus program had little impact on hiring, and an earlier report about a lengthier bonus program in 2019 found that only 18 percent of SPD applicants cited the potential bonus as one of the reasons they applied. 

Mayor Bruce Harrell has not requested funding for hiring bonuses.

A separate bill, sponsored by Herbold, would provide $650,000 out of the provisoed funds for two items the mayor’s office has requested: Reimbursement for moving expenses for new officers and a professional recruiter for the department.

Both Sara Nelson and Alex Pedersen left the online council meeting immediately before the vote—the equivalent of standing up in the middle of a council meeting and marching out of chambers

2. Less than two hours after the public safety meeting ended, Nelson raised objections to several bills on the full council’s afternoon agenda, including legislation updating the city’s renter protections to comply with state law, which she argued would hurt small landlords. (Even Alex Pedersen, who’s with Nelson on the “naturally occurring affordable housing” debate, voted for that one).

Nelson also objected to a nonbinding resolution by Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda condemning a federal pilot program critics call a first step toward privatizing Medicare. Accusing Mosqueda of “legislating by slogan,” Nelson she didn’t have enough information on how the pilot would affect “our constituents, and that’s who I represent—I don’t represent advocates or medical service providers.” 

Council members will soon take up legislation that will allow them to abstain from some resolutions that aren’t directly connected to city business, but for now, council rules require them to cast a vote. To avoid this, both Nelson and Pedersen left the online meeting immediately before the vote—the equivalent of standing up in the middle of a council meeting and marching out of chambers.

Although this action technically violates the council’s rules, violations are hard to enforce—back when council meetings happened in person, certain council members were notorious for taking bathroom breaks just before big, controversial votes. After the resolution passed 6-0 (with Kshama Sawant excused from the meeting), Councilmember Dan Strauss took a moment to thank a legislative aide who is leaving. “I’m sorry Councilmembers Nelson and Pedersen aren’t here to hear this,” Strauss said.

Council Raises Income Level for “Affordable” Housing on Church-Owned Property

Photo by Daniel Tseng on Unsplash

By Erica C. Barnett

On Monday, the city council rejected a proposal by Councilmember Lisa Herbold that would have required churches to build more deeply affordable housing in exchange for density bonuses (upzones) that could double the value of property they own. The legislation the council adopted will provide a financial incentive for religious institutions to build apartments for people and households earning up to 80 percent of the Seattle area median income—for a one-person household, about $65,000 a year.

The legislation has its roots in anti-displacement efforts. Back in 2019, the state legislature adopted legislation requiring cities to give religious institutions density bonuses—essentially, the right to build more housing—on property they own, if they agree to use it for affordable housing. Three months ago, the city council adopted, and Mayor Jenny Durkan signed, legislation stipulating that starting in July 2022, the housing that churches build on upzoned land must be, on average, affordable to people making 60 percent or less of the Seattle median income—about $49,000 for one person, or $70,000 for a family of four. 

After the legislation passed, several local churches asked Durkan and council members to change the law to increase the affordable threshold to 80 percent. At that affordability level, apartments are essentially market-rate—around $1,620 for a studio apartment, or $1,850 for a one-bedroom unit, no matter where they are located in the city. In contrast, the legislation the council and mayor approved in June required average rents of around $1,200 for a studio and $1,300 for a one-bedroom apartment.

Herbold’s amendment would have continued to allow religious institutions in neighborhoods the city has identified as having a high displacement risk, such as the Central District, Rainier Beach, North Beacon Hill, and Lake City, to build housing affordable at the higher-income threshold, while retaining the 60 percent affordability requirement in other areas.

Nearly seven in ten Black households make less than half of the Seattle median income, and only 10 percent fall between the 50 percent and 80 percent income levels. In other words, fewer than 10 percent of all Black renter households in the city will even theoretically qualify for new church-based housing at the higher income levels the council adopted.

Representatives from local churches argued that requiring deeper affordability anywhere in the city would make it difficult for them to build housing, resulting in the displacement of churches and their congregants, because housing affordable to people making lower incomes simply doesn’t “pencil out” on church property. 

“The [new] legislation, as originally developed, created a win-win scenario where these institutions—almost all of whom make significant contributions to service and justice in the city—can continue to thrive where they are in our neighborhoods and contribute to the crying lack of affordable housing,” Michael Ramos, head of the Greater Seattle Church Council, wrote in an email to Herbold’s office opposing her amendment.

“The ideal is that we have affordable housing at 60 percent area median income across the city, and we have so many policy mechanisms and funding mechanisms to do so,” said Councilmember Dan Strauss, who sponsored both bills.  “Churches need the flexibility to be able to have people [earning] up to 80 percent AMI in their buildings, so that they can either choose to have people move back into the community that have been displaced or to use that revenue to create the services that other residents are receiving to meet the needs of their community.” Continue reading “Council Raises Income Level for “Affordable” Housing on Church-Owned Property”

Council Vote Leaves Fate of Proposed SPD Cuts In the Air

Breakdown of Estimated Salary Savings Under Herbold Proposal

By Paul Kiefer

Months of debate on the City Council about how to distribute millions of dollars in unpaid Seattle Police Department salaries came to an end on Tuesday, though no one seemed satisfied with the result.

During the meeting, the committee considered a proposal to cut $2.83 million from SPD’s budget while simultaneously lifting a budget proviso on another $5 million that the council has withheld from SPD’s budget since the beginning of the year. Ultimately, the committee sent the ordinance to the full council with a ‘do not pass’ recommendation.

The committee’s discussion was part of the ongoing debate over the council’s promise to curtail overspending by SPD last December. When department leadership informed the council that SPD had overspent their budget by $5.4 million, the council expressed its intent to cut the same amount from SPD’s budget this year. The council hoped that the $5.4 million would support the participatory budgeting process this spring.

The planned cut didn’t jeopardize SPD’s plans to hire new officers, because the council had already passed a budget that provided enough money to pay the salaries of all officers SPD expected to hire or retain in 2021.

But the proposal set off alarm bells at SPD. In March, interim SPD Chief Adrian Diaz appeared before the public safety committee to argue that the department is already hamstrung by earlier budget cuts and staffing losses. Cutting an additional $5.4 million from the department’s budget, he argued, would plunge the department into a staffing crisis “beyond mitigation” by spurring more officers to leave for greener pastures.

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Later that month, in response to pressure from SPD to reconsider the cut, public safety committee chair Lisa Herbold revised the proposal: instead of cutting $5.4 million from the police department budget, the council could reduce the cut to $2.83 million. Most of the money taken from SPD’s budget would go to the participatory budgeting process; the rest would pay for civilian staff in other city departments who could support SPD, including evidence storage staff and five new mental health crisis responders. Herbold also proposed offsetting the $2.83 million cut by lifting a proviso the council passed last November that withholds $5 million in salary savings from SPD; the department’s budget also includes several million more dollars in salary savings unaffected by the proviso because of the abnormally high attrition from the department in the past year.

From Herbold’s perspective, the reduced budget cut still allowed the council to penalize SPD for spending beyond their budget in 2020 while also giving the department greater flexibility to fill budged holes as they appeared.

But Herbold’s proposal to reduce the size of the budget cut didn’t assuage SPD’s concerns. And it drew the attention of Dr. Antonio Oftelie, who leads the monitoring team appointed by a federal district court to track the progress of reforms to SPD. Oftelie’s team directed the committee to delay acting on their plans to cut SPD’s budget until department leadership answered a list of questions about the impacts of staffing losses and additional budget cuts on the department’s day-to-day responsibilities. Continue reading “Council Vote Leaves Fate of Proposed SPD Cuts In the Air”

Fractures Emerge As Council Continues Police Budget Cut Debate

By Paul Kiefer

The Seattle City Council’s debate about a proposed cut to the Seattle Police Department’s budget will drag on for at least another two weeks, but a discussion during Tuesday’s Public Safety Committee meeting shed light on the growing disagreement within the council about how the city should hold SPD accountable for overspending.

On one side, council members Tammy Morales and Kshama Sawant argued that the council is obligated to follow through on past promises—in this case, a resolution passed last December expressing the council’s intent to cut $5.4 million from SPD’s budget to account for an equivalent amount of overspending by SPD.

On the other side, Council President Lorena González, committee chair Lisa Herbold, and Councilmember Andrew Lewis made the case for a substitute proposal that would reduce the budget cut to $3 million to enable SPD to upgrade department software and hire civilian staff to fill much-needed roles in their public disclosure unit, evidence storage unit and mental health crisis response teams. (Some of these civilian positions will eventually transition into other departments, Lewis noted.) From their perspective, the changes are in the interest of the council’s most pressing police-related priorities: improving transparency, following the recommendations of city and federal oversight bodies, and expanding options for non-police crisis response.

Ultimately, the council voted to move Herbold’s substitute bill forward without making a formal recommendation that the full council adopt it, with Morales and Sawant voting “no.”

Both approaches require trade-offs. If the council cuts the full $5.4 million from SPD’s budget, the department will likely leave important roles unfilled and could draw more criticism from the monitoring team appointed by a federal district court judge to supervise reforms to SPD. If the council imposes a smaller budget cut, it will be relying on SPD to follow through with the council’s priorities—especially hiring civilian staff instead of more officers—despite the department’s record of breaking promises to the council (its use of excess overtime being one recent example).

The dispute over the $5.4 million got its start last August, when, in an effort to avoid spending extra money on protest-related overtime, the council passed a resolution saying that they wouldn’t support any increase to SPD’s budget “to offset overtime expenditures above the funds budgeted in 2020 or 2021.” Three months later, the council backpedaled, grudgingly adding $5.4 million to SPD’s to backfill for overspending on family leave, separation pay, and overtime pay for officers working at COVID testing sites.

At the time, several council members—including budget committee chair Teresa Mosqueda—argued that the department could have avoided year-end budget shortfalls if it had scaled back its protest response and prioritized spending on other unanticipated expenses.

The council wasn’t happy bailing out SPD, and on the same day, they passed the resolution expressing their intent to cut $5.4 million from the department’s budget in 2021 to account for the overspending and discourage the department from spending beyond its budget in the future. The council also placed a proviso (a spending restriction) on another $5 million in anticipated salary savings from attrition, directing SPD to spend those funds on council priorities.

By February, some council members started to think twice about the cuts, particularly as SPD pressured the council to consider the impacts of additional budget cuts on an already shrinking department—nearly 200 officers left SPD in 2020—and on SPD’s compliance with the federal court’s expectations. Meanwhile, other emerging needs appeared on the council’s radar, including a report from Seattle’s Office of the Inspector General highlighting the urgent need for more civilian staff in SPD’s overcrowded evidence storage warehouse.

The substitute bill supported by Herbold, Lewis, and González would dole out the $5 million from anticipated salary savings monthly in exchange for monthly staffing reports on hiring and attrition; according to Herbold, requiring those staffing reports would give the council a chance to intervene if it sees reasons for concern.

Morales was not enthused by the new proposal. “The department can choose to prioritize its budget however it wants, whether it’s for evidence storage or public disclosure,” she said during Tuesday’s committee meeting. “Last year, it didn’t [choose those priorities]. Instead, it chose to prioritize overspending on overtime pay.” Instead, she argued that the council should cut the full $5.4 million and expect SPD to honor the council’s priorities and avoid overspending in the future.

Sawant joined Morales, arguing that reducing the cut to SPD’s budget would not have the desired effect of “holding the line” against overspending by SPD, but would instead “move it back another year, with no guarantee that it won’t move back again and again.”

But Herbold maintained that the reduced cut would “create a dialogue with the department” about shared budget priorities that did not exist during last year’s budget discussions. “My hope is that we can still take a strong position against overtime spending that exceeds their budget,” she added.

Despite a month of discussions and presentations about the proposed budget cut, the committee was not able to vote on the measure on Tuesday. The obstacle: a list of questions sent by the federal monitoring team to SPD leadership concerning the possible impacts of a budget cut on the department’s compliance with Seattle’s consent decree—the 2012 agreement between the city and the Department of Justice giving a federal district court judge the power to oversee reforms to SPD. Until the federal judge weighs in on the implications of the proposed cut, the council can’t move forward.

Instead, in the interest of taking a small step forward, the committee voted 3-2 to adopt Herbold’s substitute bill; Morales and Sawant maintained their opposition to reducing the size of the budget cut. After the federal court issues its opinion on the proposed budget cut, the committee will be able to move to present the bill to the full council.