Although Mayor Jenny Durkan’s conciliatory statements toward the city council about their amended 2021 budget—which, you’ll recall, reduces her plan to set aside $100 million for future spending “for BIPOC communities” by 70 percent —mark an improvement from last summer’s low-water mark in mayor-council relations, two under-the-radar budget details may reveal a more lasting lack of trust between the branches.
Every year, the city council issues a number of budget provisos—restrictions on spending that require executive departments to meet certain conditions before the legislative branch will release funding for a program. For example, since 2019, the council has required the Human Services Department to release a report on various aspects of the Navigation Team’s work as a condition of releasing the team’s funds each quarter.
The number of provisos the council imposes, and the amount of funding restricted by those provisos, tends to vary from year to year, and the departments that are subject to provisos change over time depending on the areas of conflict between a particular mayor and a particular council. In 2015, under then-mayor Ed Murray, the council adopted 15 provisos, which restricted a little more than $16 million in spending in the 2016 budget.
This year, the council’s proposed budget includes 42 provisos that restrict an extraordinary, and almost certainly unprecedented, $117 million.
The bulk of those restrictions had to do with Seattle Department of Transportation; at the time, Murray was under fire for failing to dedicate enough money to bike lanes and other non-car-related infrastructure.Three years later, when Durkan was finishing her first year as mayor, the council imposed 17 provisos on about $10 million worth of spending. A review of a half-dozen city budgets going back to the Mike McGinn administration (2013: 19 provisos covering about $6 million) reveals that most years, the council’s limits on spending fall somewhere around this general range.
This year, in contrast, the council’s proposed budget includes 42 provisos that restrict an extraordinary, and almost certainly unprecedented, $117 million. The provisos place conditions on everything from the $30 million that remains in Durkan’s Equitable Communities Fund to more than $30 million that the council plans to spend on participatory budgeting. One proviso, citing typical hiring rates by the Seattle Police Department, holds back $5 million from the police budget unless the chief can prove it’s necessary. on salaries without council approval; another four dictate the geographical distribution of a few hundred thousand dollars for homeless outreach.
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In theory, placing a proviso on a spending item doesn’t necessarily mean that the council believes the mayor will ignore their adopted budget; provisos can simply indicate the council’s desire to stay involved in policy decisions made by departments, or to keep tabs on the city’s investments before sending more money out the door. They can also express a general frustration with the mayor for not providing information the council has requested. For example, in 2018, then-council member Mike O’Brien proposed, and the council adopted, a proviso restricting funds for the South Lake Union and First Hill streetcars until the mayor coughed up an overdue report on the streetcars’ performance.
This year’s outsize funding restrictions could also be a product of the city’s still-nascent efforts to divert funding from the Seattle Police Department and into community-based organizations that promote public safety; since the city still doesn’t know what the participatory budgeting process will recommend, for example, it may make sense to restrict that funding until the process is complete.
However, some council members have made no secret of the fact that they don’t trust Durkan to spend the money they allocate in the budget as directed. When the council was first trying to dismantle the Navigation Team last summer, for example, they used a budget proviso to remove police officers from the team—citing, among other things, the fact that Durkan had recently used $1.4 million intended for non-congregate shelter on rental assistance; failed to spend money the council allocated for mobile showers; and refused to approve an expansion of the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program. Continue reading “The C Is for Crank: Buried in the Budget, Signs of Ongoing Council-Mayor Mistrust”→
In voting this afternoon to merge its homelessness efforts with those of King County and its suburban cities this afternoon, the city of Seattle has signed off on a heavily and hastily amended plan that even its most ardent proponents acknowledge is not “transformational.” The new regional homelessness authority will have no additional spending authority, be run by elected officials rather than subject matter experts, and will give significant power to suburban cities who will receive funding from Seattle and King County but will not contribute financially to the authority. Council members who supported the compromise—some of them on the way out the door—extolled its virtues in this afternoon’s council meeting.
“Right now, getting 39 cities together and one county is our first step” toward fixing the problem of homelessness, retiring council member Sally Bagshaw said. “This is not a perfect [agreement]. Nobody thinks that we have gotten this 100 percent right. But we do have opportunities… to make the necessary modifications” in the future, through future discussions about the authority’s bylaws and a document called the “master agreement.”
Lorena Gonzalez, who cast the lone “no” vote, said she couldn’t support the legislation because it still had “significant flaws”—and because Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office had been unable to get even one member of the King County Council to sign off on a letter committing to addressing the issues she has raised over the past two weeks. “Politics have already taken hold in this structure, and that is saddening to me,” Gonzalez said.
Seattle will contribute the most actual funding to the new authority—about $73 million, plus $2 million in startup costs. King County will put in contributions worth $55 million, including the use of currently vacant office space in the Yesler Building in Pioneer Square.
Despite efforts by some city council members (notably incoming council president Lorena Gonzalez) to slow down the process and take some time to assess the many last-minute amendments contributed by King County Council members (notably council president Rod Dembowski), the council ended up adopting the county council’s “compromise” proposal without any changes, alongside a companion ordinance that lays out the city’s “intent” for the authority. Those intentions include a desire that all programs funded by the authority be “evidence based,” that changes to budgets and policy plans require a minimum of eight votes of the 12-member governing board, and that the new “sub-regional plans” created by the regional legislation also be “evidence-based.” The
Although the ordinance suggests that the city’s “intent” is that the new authority will meet a number of “expectations,” the city council does not have the actual authority to require the regional agency to do anything—one reason the word “require” does not appear in the city council’s legislation. Although the council’s ordinance includes some strong language about practices that “shall be” adopted by the regional authority, Seattle’s only real hammer if the authority chooses to ignore the council’s nonbinding wishes is to withhold funding from the agency—a power Gonzalez described as “the nuclear option” last week, in part because exercising it would mean withholding funding from service providers and, by extension, their homeless clients.
Tess Colby—the chief homelessness advisor to Mayor Jenny Durkan, pointed out that the “guiding principles” in the regional legislation also say that the authority “shall adopt an evidence-based, housing first orientation.” This “orientation” language, Colby told me last week, “clearly establishes the approach to work that the authority must adhere to” in adopting policies through its five-year plan.
However, the legislation also says that it’s important to “value distinctions in local context, needs and priorities through effective Sub-Regional Planning Activity,” an explicit nod to the fact that suburban cities may want to use Seattle and King County’s money to fund shelters that mandate sobriety, or to pay for housing subject to restrictive local rules. Colby told me that the “evidence-based… orientation” requirement would also influence which programs get funded through a competitive process—but she also noted that shelters that require sobriety, for example, are supported by some evidence.
The upshot is that suburban cities that adopt more conservative policies that don’t align with the kind of housing-first principles Seattle generally supports could receive Seattle tax dollars for these programs—and that if Seattle objects, its only recourse is to use its budgeting power to pull funding from the authority.
• Creates a new governing board (formerly called the “steering committee”), made up of nine elected officials (three from Seattle, three from King County, and three from suburban cities), plus three people “representing those with Lived Experience” of homelessness, one of whom must be from outside Seattle). The board will have the authority to hire and fire the CEO of the authority, amend its five-year policy plan, and amend its budget.
In the original version of the proposal—crafted largely by a firm called National Innovation Service, which has received almost $675,000 from King County—this board would have had just seven members, and would have been basically advisory. Major decisions would have been up to a board of subject-matter experts—a structure intentionally designed to insulate the new agency from political pressure.
• Creates a new “implementation board” (formerly called the “governing board) of 13 people, including four appointed by the city, four by the county, two by the Sound Cities Association, and three by a new advisory committee. This board will send a recommended five-year plan and budget to the governing board for amendment or adoption. In the original proposal, suburban cities did not get seats on this board, and the board would have had significantly more authority over the budget and policies of the authority.
• Bans the new authority from raising revenue or issuing debt to pay for homelessness programs. When the county and Seattle launched the regional planning process through a series of meetings called OneTable, one of the primary goals was to come up with a new revenue source to boost funding for homelessness. The original version of the plan announced in September did not include new revenue, but the agreement proposed at the time didn’t explicitly bar the agency from ever raising money, as this one does.
Bagshaw, echoing a line in the ordinance expressing the city’s intent that the governing board make no changes without at least an eight-vote majority, said she was confident that given the importance of the issues before the new authority, all 12 members of the governing board would show up to deliberate and vote. “It is our intention that we have 12 members that are on the governing committee that are dedicated to moving forward,” Bagshaw said. “We need to have people attend these meetings and vote.” A few minutes later, the council voted to create the new agency with no amendments to the county council’s proposal. Just six of nine members were present.
1. On Friday, as I first reported on Twitter, Mayor Durkan vetoed council legislation that creates a dedicated fund for excess revenues from the sweetened beverage tax, and stipulates that this money can only be used for new or expanded programs benefiting the low-income communities most heavily impacted by the tax.
In her veto letter, Durkan reiterated her claim that by stipulating what the tax can be spent on, the council is “cutting” funding for previously existing programs that Durkan funded last year by using revenues from the tax to supplant general-fund dollars that had previously paid for the programs and re-allocating those general fund dollars for other purposes. “I agree that the Sweetened Beverage Tax is regressive and should be used only for the purposes set forth in the adopting ordinance, and to further expand important City investments for our most vulnerable population,” Durkan wrote. “Every one of the programs funded in the adopted and endorsed budget met these requirements. Council has now changed its mind and only wants to fund new programs.”
In fact, the council’s legislation will “require that all SBT revenues be used to expand existing programs or create new programs that align with the spending guidance” (emphasis added).
“I think the veto is really more about a statement against this mayor wanting to see her executive power curbed, as opposed to the substance of the issue.” – Council member Lorena Gonzalez
At its briefing meeting this morning, the council made plans to override the mayor’s veto this coming Monday. (Overriding a mayoral veto requires a 6-vote council majority; the legislation passed 7-1, with Abel Pacheco voting “no” and Debora Juarez absent). Because the council is about to go on its annual recess, next Monday’s meeting is the only opportunity the council will have to veto the bill within the 30-day window specified under city law.
Council president Bruce Harrell, one of seven council members who voted for the soda-tax legislation, called Durkan’s veto “just a complete waste of time,” adding, “I’m not sure of the substantive reasons to do this, other than to make us revote a vote that was not even a narrow vote.” Council member Lorena Gonzalez added, “I’m disturbed by some of the rhetoric coming out of the mayor’s office, but also her agencies,” about the impact of the legislation. “I think the veto is really more about a statement against this mayor wanting to see her executive power curbed, as opposed to the substance of the issue. … It’s clear that the sugary beverage tax has always been intended … to ensure that the dollars were going to be spect in exactly the manner that we have now indicated that they should be spent.” Continue reading “Afternoon Crank: Mayor Vetoes Soda Tax Bill, Council Plans to Override, and Streetcar Faces New Hurdles”→
After another epic committee meeting—lengthened, this time, not by public comment but by a barrage of amendments intended to chip away at modest density increases on the edges of urban villages—the city council moved one big step closer yesterday to finalizing the remaining citywide portion of the Mandatory Housing Affordability plan, which has been in the works for the past four years. (MHA has already been implemented in several neighborhoods, including downtown, South Lake Union, and parts of the University District).
The plan, on the whole, is modest. It allows developers to build taller, denser buildings inside multifamily and commercial areas and urban villages, and expands some urban villages (areas where, under the neighborhood plans first adopted in the 1990s, density is intensely concentrated as a way of “protecting” single-family areas) to include about 6 percent of the land currently zoned exclusively for single-family use. One reason the plan is modest is that the upzones are small, generally increasing density by one zoning step (from Neighborhood Commercial-65, for example, to NC-75, a height increase of 10 feet) in exchange for various affordability contributions. The second reason is that by continuing to concentrate density along arterial slivers instead of legalizing condos, townhouses, duplexes, and small apartment buildings in the two-thirds of Seattle’s residential area that’s preserved exclusively for detached single-family houses, the changes can’t be anything but modest: 6 percent of 65 percent is still just a sliver.
Most of the amendments the council passed yesterday—generally with opposition from the two at-large council members, Lorena Gonzalez and Teresa Mosqueda, and District 5 (North Seattle) member Debora Juarez—were aimed at decreasing the size of even that tiny concession.
For example: All of the amendments proposed by District 6 representative Mike O’Brien in the Crown Hill neighborhood, as well as his proposal to create a new, entirely speculative protection for a strip of houses in Fremont’s tech center that some people feel might have historic potential, were downzones from the MHA proposal. O’Brien, who was unable to attend yesterday’s meeting, has said that the proposals to shrink MHA in Crown Hill and Fremont came at the behest of “the community,” and that they were all offset by increased density along 15th Ave. NW, making them a win-win for density proponents and the Crown Hill community. (Lisa Herbold, in District 1, made a similar argument for her own proposal to downzone parts of the Morgan Junction neighborhood from the MHA proposal, saying that “I feel really strongly that the work, not just that I’ve done with the community, but that community leaders have done with other folks that have engaged with this effort, should be honored.”)
O’Brien’s Crown Hill downzones all passed, along with corresponding upzones that will further concentrate density (to put a human point on it, apartment buildings occupied by renters) on the noisy, dirty quasi-highway that is 15th Ave. NW, where it intersects with NW 85th St.:
Council member Teresa Mosqueda—who told me before the vote that the revelation that 56 affordable units would be lost if all the downzones passed increased her resolve to vote against all of them—pointed out the environmental justice implications of banning renters in the heart of a neighborhood and restricting them to large buildings on busy arterials: “When we look at neighborhood changes that would squish the zoning changes to an area along 15th, which we know to be a high traffic area with noise and pollution… it doesn’t feel like an equitable way to best serve our community. … I think it’s important that we take the opportunity to create not just access to housing along 15th, but really talk about how we equitably spread housing throughout the neighborhood.”
District 5 council member Debora Juarez added, “Of course [residents of a neighborhood] can organize, and of course they’re going to find a way to opt out or reduce their responsibility or their role or how they would like to see their neighborhoods grow. I know what happens when you do that, because then the burden shifts to those neighborhoods that we are trying to protect particularly from displacement.” Although District 3 council member Kshama Sawant countered that the people in Crown Hill are largely “working-class homeowners” at high risk for displacement, citywide council member Lorena Gonzalez quickly put that notion to rest, pointing out that the city’s own analysis found that Crown Hill is a neighborhood with high access to opportunity and a low displacement risk.
O’Brien’s amendments passed 5-3.
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Other amendments that came up yesterday:
Although several of District 4 council member Rob Johnson’s amendments to reduce density in the Roosevelt and Ravenna-Cowen neighborhoods passed, a proposal to preserve a single-family designation for a single block of houses in Roosevelt failed, sparking some pointed comments from both Mosqueda and Gonzalez about the need to build housing near transit corridors and future light rail stations like the one four blocks from the block Johnson proposed keeping single-family. “We have to, as a city, either be committed to the urban village growth model or not, and to me this is an example where we need to be committed to that urban village growth strategy,” Gonzalez said.
• A proposal by O’Brien to reduce the proposed zoning along N 36th Street near the Fremont Troll statue by two full stops (from Low-Rise 3, which allows apartments, to Low-Rise 1, which allows townhouses), lost on a unanimous vote. Council members pointed out that not only is the street O’Brien wanted to downzone within spitting distance of high-tech companies like Google and Tableau, making it a prime location for new housing, the houses on it do not have any historic designation, which was one of O’Brien’s primary justifications for the amendment. “This is quite literally a dense area,” an exasperated Mosqueda said.
• A suite of Herbold amendments to reduces some of the proposed upzones near the West Seattle Junction, and the site of the future Link Light Rail station, from low-rise (1 through 3, depending on the lot) to residential small lot all passed. Herbold justified the downzones from the MHA proposal by noting that Sound Transit hasn’t finalized its alignment through West Seattle yet, and expressing her “commitment” to come back and adopt some kind of upzone in the area once they do. As she has before, Herbold suggested that not upzoning would be a cost-saving measure, because Sound Transit will have to purchase some land in the area for station construction, and land zoned for higher density typically costs more. When Juarez, whose district includes two future light rail stations (at Northgate and N. 130th St.), noted that her district clamored for more density around the stations, not less, Herbold said that Sound Transit currently has “three different options, and they’re spread across about 10 different blocks.” Mosqueda chimed in, saying that her “argument would be that it’s precisely because we have a new [light rail] line… that we should be doing everything we can now to raise the bar, so that when a decision is made [any new density] would be in addition to that baseline.
The committee declined to reduce a proposed height increase in southwest Delridge, in an area that, Herbold said, “provides a very wonderful view of Mount Rainier… in a low-income neighborhood in an area that doesn’t see a lot of city investment.” Both Gonzalez and Mosqueda pointed out that the downzone from MHA that Herbold was requesting wouldn’t actually reduce heights at all—the only difference would be how much low-rise housing property owners could build on private property—and District 7 council member Sally Bagshaw said she had been swayed by Mosqueda’s argument that the point of MHA is “build back in the opportunity for people to live in areas that they were excluded form living in.” However, Bagshaw added, she had already committed to supporting the amendment, which ultimately failed on a 4-4 vote.
• Two other Herbold amendments—one sweeping, the other potentially precedent-setting—are worth noting. The first, which supporters referred to as “the claw-back provision,” would nullify all the MHA upzones if a court overturns MHA’s affordability requirements at any point in the future. Mosqueda argued forcefully against the provision, saying, “I am not interested in sending a message that we would have some sort of moratorium [on development]. I think that could have adverse impacts on our ability to build affordable housing.” Johnson, who said that he “philosophically agreed” with Mosqueda, argued nonetheless that the amendment was “purely intent language”; it would only go into effect if a court overturned MHA’s affordability requirements in the future. That amendment passed.
The second, an amendment that triggers a new neighborhood planning process whenever “more than 25 percent of the [Morgan Junction] urban village could be affected by proposed zoning changes,” impacts a small area but could set a precedent for throwing MHA zoning changes (or other future zoning changes) back to community groups whenever they start to appreciably change the way an area looks and feels (which is, some might argue, the entire point of zoning changes). “I’m not hearing a rational basis for the establishment of a 25 percent benchmark,” Gonzalez said. “I’m worried about the establishment of a benchmark … based on a feeling or a sense that that that seems to be the right place to engage in the conversation. I’m not sure that’s wise policy. I’m not really sure how we even quantify what 25 percent” means.
That amendment passed 6-2, with Juarez and Mosqueda voting against.
The full MHA package passed the committee unanimously, with O’Brien absent. It now heads to the full council for a vote on March 18.
Telling a group of supporters that included housing, social justice, and environmental advocates, that he was “going to try to smile,” city council member Mike O’Brien announced Wednesday that he would not run for reelection after 10 years on the council. The announcement, which he made in his office at city hall, capped off months of speculation about whether the embattled environmental-activist-turned-veteran-politician would bow out to avoid what was sure to be a bruising reelection campaign. O’Brien is the fourth of the seven council incumbents whose seats are on the 2019 ballot who has said he will not seek reelection; the others are Bruce Harrell (District 2), Rob Johnson (District 4), and Sally Bagshaw (District 7).
O’Brien, elected in 2009 on the same ballot as his fellow Sierra Club leader and onetime colleague, former mayor Mike McGinn, started his time on the council as a climate change-focused environmental champion and ended as an earnest (if not always effective) advocate for people with few friends in city hall—people experiencing homelessness, opponents of the proposed new youth jail, and people living with addiction and mental illness who, as O’Brien put it in a three-page document outlining his accomplishments, engage in “criminal activity that stems from unmet behavioral needs or poverty.”
A poll last year, conducted by O’Brien’s consultant WinPower Strategies, reportedly showed that the incumbent was unpopular in his district, which elected him by a 23-percent margin in 2015. (O’Brien was initially elected citywide, but his seat became a district position when the city switched to district elections for 7 of the 9 council members in 2015.) Dissatisfaction with O’Brien’s leadership was on full display last May, when a meeting to discuss a proposed employee hours tax on large businesses, which O’Brien supported, devolved into a profane, one-sided shouting match. (O’Brien, who is known for showing up at meetings that he knows will be stacked with angry opponents, reportedly almost left.) It may be that O’Brien’s district, which has experienced many of the same challenges as other parts of the city such as visible encampments, open drug use, and rising property crime, had really had enough. Or it could be that O’Brien might have found more support in his district than is evident at public-comment sessions and on forums like Facebook and NextDoor, but didn’t care to spend the next months finding out.
“There are a lot of people that are scared, that are frustrated, and that shows up as fear and hate sometimes in a way that’s kind of ugly, but the base emotions are real,” O’Brien said. “People are nervous about our future is like. I really wish that politics in Seattle weren’t so divisive… because we do need to find ways to come together.”
One reason O’Brien waited as long as he did to announce he wasn’t running, according to several sources close to him, was that he wanted to see if another candidate he could support came forward. So far, it appears that none have. “We need great leadership going forward,” O’Brien said . “I’ll admit that I have some nervousness about the uncertainty of what that leadership looks like.” But, he added, “I feel like I need to step back and trust that the system is going to work.”