Tag: Seattle Public Utilities

Still No Street Sinks, Pedersen Tone-Polices Council Colleague, No Discipline for Cop who Retaliated Against Whistleblower

1. The nearly year-old debate over street sinks for people without access to indoor plumbing boiled over at last week’s meeting of the city council’s homelessness committee, as Seattle Public Utilities director Mami Hara outlined some of the Durkan Administration’s many objections to providing cheap, accessible places for people experiencing homelessness to wash their hands.

As PubliCola has reported, the city council funded street sinks last November, with a goal of quickly installing more than 60 simple sinks at key locations around the city. Access to clean running water and soap—not just hand sanitizer, which the city is currently considering as an alternative to sinks—is essential to preventing the spread of communicable diseases such as shigella, hepatitis, and cryptosporidiosis, which have spread among Seattle’s homeless population since the COVID-19 pandemic led to the closure of most publicly accessible sinks last spring.

Six months later, there are still no sinks on Seattle’s streets. Instead, the mayor’s office, SPU, and the Department of Neighborhoods have expanded the scope of the funding to include food waste disposal, “options for accessing safe drinking water,” and new ways to “reduce illegal dumping and litter.” Last month, the city put out a request for proposals for a new “Seattle Water & Waste Innovation Pilot” with the goal of picking two or more contractors later this month.

Council member Teresa Mosqueda, who chairs the council’s budget committee, said the council’s budget directive wasn’t “to evaluate what kind of additional programs or services should be investigated … it was, how fast can we get these dollars out the door for very low-cost, already proven handwashing strategies. So I would like to ask…. where are the handwashing facilities and why is it taking so long?”

The city also needed to ensure that the sinks are “really durable and resilient against lots and lots of things that can happen to them,” SPU director Mami Hara said, and to make sure they don’t present “a tripping hazard or another hazard.”

Andres Mantilla, Durkan’s DON director, responded the city had expedited the grant application process to move more quickly than usual. Hara added that although the council might find it “counterintuitive when your’e trying to get things out quickly to consider public health requirements,” the utility has an obligation to think about people’s safety. For example, she said, people could “cross-contaminate” sinks with germs if the water isn’t “continuous, reliable, and adequate.” The city also needed to ensure that the sinks are “really durable and resilient against lots and lots of things that can happen to them,” Hara said, and to make sure they don’t present “a tripping hazard or another hazard.”

“The point isn’t to build super sinks and only be able to afford five of them; the point is to be able to get sinks out throughout the city so that folks [can] have access to running water.”—Councilmember Tammy Morales

“I understand the frustration—it’s like, ‘Let’s just put a sink out there,’ versus making sure that it’s done in a way that does not cause injury or harm to folks as well,” Hara said.

In response, Mosqueda pointed out that the city expedited temporary permits for restaurant owners to put tables on sidewalks in response to COVID, and council member Tammy Morales noted that while she was glad to hear that the executive branch now wants to open up the application process to small groups besides the Clean Hands Collective, such as mutual aid groups, “this work was intended to be out the door months ago and we are entering the fourth wave now of COVID.”

“The point isn’t to build super sinks and only be able to afford five of them; the point is to be able to get sinks out throughout the city so that folks [can] have access to running water,” Morales said.

2. Later in the same meeting, Morales addressed public commenters, saying they should direct their anger about ongoing sweeps of homeless encampments at the mayor’s office (which oversees encampment removals) rather than the council (which has adopted legislation opposing them). After following that comment with a number of calm but pointed policy questions, Morales got a dressing-down from Durkan ally Alex Pedersen, who suggested she was being rude to executive department staff.

“I just want to implore my colleagues to strive to treat our city government colleagues with respect and to not question their intentions,” Pedersen said, admonishing Morales to “take the temperature down and treat our colleagues with respect.” 

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Pedersen’s tone-policing comments prompted Mosqueda to jump in. Morales, she said, had been “respectful and in order,” and her questions were “very much appropriate for the situation that we’re in—a year into the pandemic, when the CDC has continued to say that we should not be sweeping people if we had no alternative non-congregate options available.” We’ll have more on the state of outreach and encampment removals this afternoon.

3. Two officers who filed a complaint against Navigation Team director (and former SPD lieutenant) Sina Ebinger subsequently complained that a friend of Ebinger’s followed them in her police cruiser, cut them off, and threatened them with professional retaliation after Ebinger lost her assignment on the team, a newly released Office of Police Accountability case file reveals. Continue reading “Still No Street Sinks, Pedersen Tone-Polices Council Colleague, No Discipline for Cop who Retaliated Against Whistleblower”

City Says It’s Too Risky to Turn On Drinking Fountains, First-Time Candidate Sees Fundraising Surge, Capital Gains Tax Passes

Freeway Park water fountains. Photo by Joe Mabel via Wikimedia Commons.

1. Seattle Public Utilities confirmed that the city has only turned on 10 public water fountains downtown (and is working to repair a handful of others in the area), leaving the rest of the city’s public drinking fountains out of service during a pandemic that has greatly reduced access to clean drinking water for people experiencing homelessness.

According to a joint response to questions provided by the Parks Department and SPU, King County Public Health only asked the city to turn on its downtown fountains and “did not recommend turning on the rest of the city’s drinking fountains. Currently they are providing additional guidance about the rest of the city’s drinking fountains, and we will continue to follow their guidance.”

A spokesperson for King County Public Health said that in fact, the health department did ask the city to turn on drinking fountains citywide in response to an outbreak of shigella in late 2020 (which we covered here.) However, the spokesperson said, “When we talked to SPU and SPR about turning on the drinking fountains, they expressed concerns as to how many drinking fountains were fully functioning and the logistics involved in providing routine maintenance and cleaning.”

“Therefore,” the spokesperson said, “we recommended they use a phased approach to turning on the drinking fountains, starting with the drinking fountains in downtown Seattle.

“We’ve seen success in the downtown drinking fountains having been turned on and are now exploring with SPU/SPR having them turn on drinking fountains in additional parts of the city.”

The CDC guidelines the city provided do not appear to contain any recommendation that cities turn off public drinking fountains if they can’t clean them after each use. Instead, they note that there is no evidence COVID-19 can spread through drinking water and suggest cleaning frequently touched surfaces such as drinking fountains once a day.

Public Health director Patty Hayes told the Seattle/King County Board of Health earlier this month that providing access to potable water was one of the health department’s “top priorities,” along with providing access to soap and running water for people to wash their hands, water bottles, and other items. Thirst leads people with no other options to drink water from unsanitary sources, which leads to outbreaks of communicable diseases.

The Community Advisory Group of Seattle/King County Healthcare for the Homeless has been beating the drum about drinking water since the beginning of the pandemic, when they noted in a letter to Mayor Jenny Durkan that “[w]ithout access to clean drinking water, many of our unhoused population are drinking non-potable water which can lead to other public health crises such as the proliferation of Hepatitis A and giardia.” Since then, those concerns have been borne out over and over again.

Asked why the city hasn’t turned on its public drinking fountains outside downtown, Parks and SPU wrote, “SPU and SPR have been following the CDC guidance for drinking fountains safety during the pandemic that recommends cleaning them between uses, and turning them off if this is not possible.”

The CDC guidelines at the link the city provided do not appear to contain any recommendation that cities turn off public drinking fountains if they can’t clean them after each use. Instead, they note that there is no evidence COVID-19 can spread through drinking water and suggest cleaning frequently touched surfaces such as drinking fountains once a day.

The only reference the CDC guidelines make to shutting down drinking fountains comes in a section about large public events. That section says that event planners should “[c]lean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces within the venue at least daily or between uses as much as possible—for example, door handles, sink handles, drinking fountains, grab bars, hand railings, and cash registers.” If drinking fountains, “cannot be adequately cleaned and disinfected during an event,” the guidance continues, event planners should “consider closing” them.

2. Andrew Grant Houston, a first-time candidate who wants to defund the Seattle Police Department, build 2,500 “tiny houses” for people experiencing homelessness, and institute rent control, is currently in second place in the mayoral fundraising race, after a $129,050 contribution drop last week brought the campaign’s total fundraising to $266,758, according to the state Public Disclosure Commission. The vast majority of that—$214,050, according to the city—came in the form of democracy vouchers, a form of public campaign finance in which voters receive $100 to spend on the candidate or candidates of their choice.

Financial momentum like that is unusual for a little-known candidate without connections to the city’s political establishment; it’s also exactly what the democracy voucher program was designed to promote. PubliCola asked Houston why he thought so many people were giving to his campaign. Houston told us he credits his consultant, Prism West, and a strategic plan that places the campaign on track to max out its primary-election vouchers by the end of this week. Under the city’s election law, mayoral candidates can redeem a total of $800,000 in democracy vouchers—half in the primary, half in the general.

Houston said he wasn’t surprised by the haul. “I knew it was going to happen at some point,” he said. “I am someone who is focused on not just hiring the best people, but also really being committed to understanding how we meet our goals.”

That strategy, Houston continued, has included a lot of (masked, socially distant) in-person canvassing, with a focus on several key issues. Police defunding, for example, is a polarizing issue but one that Houston says galvanizes people to give. “Being very clear about defunding the police to invest in community really resonates with people—either you’re for it or against it, and people who are in the affirmative [tend to give],” he said.

According to the PDC, Chief Seattle Club director Colleen Echohawk is the only mayoral candidate who has raised more than Houston; her latest total, according to the PDC, is $297,072.

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3. Senators passed the the state’s first-ever capital gains tax (SB 5096) on Sunday, the last day of the session, after rejecting the bill the previous Thursday. The bill would impose a 7 percent tax on capital gains above $250,000, subject to some exemptions, raising more than $400 million in its first year. The bill passed on the same narrow margin as the initial vote in March, 25-24.

Before the state can begin collecting the tax, it will have to face a near-certain legal challenge from business groups. (Republicans have said they will not file the lawsuit themselves but expect an outside organization to do so._ While Republicans want the tax stopped, they fear that if the state supreme court rules that the capital gains tax is constitutional, it will open the door for a state income tax.

“Purell on a Pole” Could Replace Planned Street Sinks, Sweeps Ramp Up, and Mayor’s Advisor Will Head Troubled Homelessness Division

1. Last year, the city council set aside $100,000 in the 2021 budget to “develop and implement a publicly-accessible sink program that utilizes the Street Sink style handwashing station model developed by the Clean Hands Collective.” The idea was to rapidly install dozens of sinks in public places around the city where people experiencing homelessness could wash their hands, a simple way to prevent the spread of communicable diseases such as hepatitis and COVID-19.

As PubliCola reported back in February, the sink program has since stalled, as several city departments that answer to Mayor Jenny Durkan have raised concerns about runoff from the sinks going into planters rather than storm drains (will children eat the soil?), whether the pipes will function in cold weather, and ADA compliance—a concern that apparently does not extend to many of the city’s existing public restrooms.

Now, after the Clean Hands Collective has gone through another round of design in collaboration with the Department of Neighborhoods and Seattle Public Utilities, the city has decided to open the whole process up for bids by any group that wants to apply. The rebranded “Seattle Water and Waste Innovation Funding Program” now includes an additional $50,000 for “waste prevention solutions focused on food and other materials.” According to the city’s handout on the two “innovation areas,” food waste prevention proposals could include things like “sharing, reusing, repairing, and repurposing.”

“The hand sanitizer idea was one of several ideas that came up during an internal brainstorm session focused on finding low cost and impactful ways to best meet the goals of the CBA: to improve access to hand hygiene resources.” —SPU spokeswoman Sabrina Register

We think it is important to provide a fair and equitable process for distributing funds and ensure the public receives the greatest benefit for its funding,” said Sabrina Register, a spokeswoman for SPU. The city is holding an informational webinar for groups interested in applying on (UPDATED) April 22; Register said eight groups have signed up so far and “We are excited to see what community groups propose!”

The additional process means it will be even longer before sinks are available for people to access running water, something that has been necessary since pandemic-related shutdowns began more than a year ago. Street sink proponents—whose initial demonstration sink, outside the ROOTS young-adult shelter in the University District, opened almost a year ago—are starting to wonder if the mayor’s office is actually interested in helping homeless people wash their hands.

“Some of these arguments are arguments against hygiene services” in general, said Real Change policy director Tiffani McCoy. “One of them was, ‘We’re worried about vandalism and feces being spread around.’ That’s an argument against any hygiene model.”

SPU spokeswoman Register said the city is “eager to partner with community to provide hygiene options for the public that meet health, safety, and accessibility requirements, and that the new application process “helps guide applicants through these public health requirements to ensure their designs are meeting community needs.”

McCoy and others familiar with the meetings between the Clean Hands Collective and the city said one suggestion from the city was something proponents referred to as “Purell on a pole”—which is exactly what it sounds like. If the problem is disposing of the water, the argument went, why not just get rid of the water?

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Being fully independent means that we cover the stories we consider most interesting and newsworthy, based on our own news judgment and feedback from readers about what matters to them, not what advertisers or corporate funders want us to write about. It also means that we need your support. So if you get something out of this site, consider giving something back by kicking in a few dollars a month, or making a one-time contribution, to help us keep doing this work. If you prefer to Venmo or write a check, our Support page includes information about those options. Thank you for your ongoing readership and support.

Although street sink proponents pointed out that people experiencing homelessness have expressly expressed a need to wash their hands under running water, not squirt them with sanitizer (nor is sanitizing a best practice when water is available), the idea refused to die and is, according to Register, “not off the table.”

“The hand sanitizer idea was one of several ideas that came up during an internal brainstorm session focused on finding low cost and impactful ways to best meet the goals of the CBA: to improve access to hand hygiene resources,” Register said.

Ironically, “theft of hand sanitizer” was one of the reasons the city was initially reluctant to provide portable toilets for people experiencing homelessness when the pandemic began.

2. The city’s Parks Department removed a small encampment in the dugout at Rainier Playfield in South Seattle Friday morning, after identifying the site as a “high priority location for engagement,” according to a joint statement from Parks and the Human Services Department provided to PubliCola Thursday. (The statement was identical to the response sent to at least one city council member who also asked about the sweep).

Kevin Mundt, a spokesman for HSD, said six people at the site received referrals into the Executive Pacific Hotel, about five miles from the site, from REACH, and “one individual voluntarily left the area.” The five men, all of them Spanish speakers, “were provided Uber rides to the hotel,” Mundt said.

It’s unclear why the city decided to prioritize Rainier Playfield specifically. On Thursday evening, the park was full of people playing tennis and football, walking dogs and strollers, and using every corner of the park. The dugout is tucked away at the edge of the park and no tents or trash were visible.

The city is also reportedly planning three more encampment removals in the coming weeks—a sign that sweeps, which had largely paused during the pandemic, are ramping up again in response to neighborhood complaints. The upcoming locations for encampment removals are: Miller Park on Capitol Hill (on or around April 13), Gilman Playground in Ballard, and the University Playground near the University District.

The city also recently removed tents at Fourth and Yesler, where, according to HSD, they were blocking access to the sidewalk. People living unsheltered downtown are reportedly being channeled into City Hall Park next to the King County Courthouse, which is so crowded now that it resembles a densely packed shantytown, with dozens of tents instead of permanent structures. The city provides three portable toilets to serve all the people living in the park.

Efforts to provide places for people experiencing homelessness to wash their hands—a basic need that has been largely unmet throughout the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic—continue to stall, as Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office and executive departments have raised objection after objection to proposals to create a street sink program that would help prevent the spread of disease.

3. Tess Colby, Mayor Jenny Durkan’s longtime advisor on homelessness, will take over as interim deputy director of the Human Services Department overseeing homelessness after the current deputy, Audrey Buehring, departs for a job in Washington, D.C. next week. Continue reading ““Purell on a Pole” Could Replace Planned Street Sinks, Sweeps Ramp Up, and Mayor’s Advisor Will Head Troubled Homelessness Division”

Found: One City Shower Trailer, Not Quite Open, In Secluded Location With Minimal Foot Traffic

UPDATE: Seattle Public Utilities got in touch to say that, at some point between Friday (when I took and posted photos of the King Street trailer) and today, “SPU evaluated the trailer’s lower level location at King Street Station and determined that the upper plaza is a better location. It has since been moved and is serving clients.” A spokeswoman for the utility also said that the trailer was open and served five clients on Friday. The trailer was not open at 3:30pm, when the photo above was taken, despite the fact that its official hours of operation are 10am to 4pm. I’ve asked SPU which hours the trailer was open and will update this post when I heard back.

As I reported last week, the city has been renting two hygiene trailers from a California-based company called VIP restrooms for the last two months without deploying them to provide showers to people experiencing homelessness. The city’s estimated cost to operate both trailers is just under $500,000 a month, which would work out to around $500 a shower if the trailers were providing 16 showers a day (the city’s estimate for a trailer operating for eight hours, once cleanings and pump-out periods are factored in), seven days a week.

The day after my story ran, the city announced the trailers would start providing showers on Friday, May 22, at King Street station and, on a “roving” basis, at the Lake City Community Center and Seattle Center. Instead of the full-time schedule the city initially proposed, the King Street trailer will be open from 10-4, Monday to Friday, and the Lake City/Seattle Center “roving” trailer will be at Seattle Center “typically on Tuesdays and Wednesdays” and at Lake City on Saturdays and Sundays, also from 10 to 4. Cutting hours by one-quarter will also reduce the number of showers the trailers, which will be operated by Seattle Public Utilities, by a similar percentage each day.

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On Friday, I walked down to King Street Station to see the trailer in operation. Initially, I thought it wasn’t there. But after some searching, I found it, fenced off and not in operation, in a parking cul-de-sac down a set of stairs from the station entrance and not visible from any street. There was no signage at the station to indicate that showers were or would be available in the area.

In an March 20 memo to Mayor Jenny Durkan about the location of the trailers, SPU director Mami Hara and deputy mayor Casey Sixkiller wrote that the city had chosen Occidental Park for the Pioneer Square trailer “based on trends of where unsheltered people congregate in the downtown core.” Now it’s in an area that gets no foot traffic. Much like the four library restrooms that the city reopened earlier this month, these trailers may see low use without concerted efforts to advertise their existence.

The City Has Been Renting Two Shower Trailers Since March. If They Open, Each Shower Could Cost $500.

Image via VIP Restrooms.

This post has been updated to reflect the fact that the city’s estimate of 16 showers per day was for each trailer, not for both trailers combined. This changes the total cost per 15-minute shower to $500 each, not $1,000, a change that has also been reflected in the headline. 

On March 10, Seattle Human Services Department director Jason Johnson sent a memo to Mayor Jenny Durkan proposing to spend $1.3 million from the city’s 2020 budget to “rent up to five” mobile shower and restroom trailers to  serve people experiencing homelessness during the COVID-19 pandemic. The city council added the money to Durkan’s proposed budget last year to buy five shower trailers outright, but the mayor’s office didn’t take action until the COVID-19 pandemic was well underway. By the time the city started looking for trailers, many other cities were doing the same.

Eventually, the city rented two three-stall units from a California company called VIP Restrooms, securing a last-minute credit limit increase to charge the first week’s rental fee of $28,700 on a city credit card. That eclipsed what King County was paying for similar, but much larger trailers, and the city’s outlay continue to rise week after week, while the trailers sat unused. As of this afternoon, both trailers remain in storage, and have not provided a single shower since the city first started paying for them back on March 26, nearly two months ago.

A series of emails shows city staffers scrambling to increase the credit limit on a city MasterCard to pay for the trailers before another city could snag them. “We are trying to both rent and procure sanitation trailers, along with every other major city,” SPU director Mami Hari wrote. “Suppliers are demanding cash/credit card/check and will not accept PO’s. The available pool diminishes each day and we have a bead on 2 trailer rentals and a couple for purchase.”

Last month, I reported that the trailers would  “likely cost the city hundreds of thousands of dollars a month,” based on an estimated cost of $36,000 per month just to rent the trailers, plus a range of potential costs to pump out wastewater and an unknown cost to hire security and staff for each unit.

The documents from SPU show that this estimate was, if anything. According to memos and spreadsheets created by the city to estimate costs for FEMA reimbursement, the monthly cost for rental, wastewater, and materials will be around $159,000, with pumpout costs at the low end of the city’s original range. Staffing the trailers, according to the city, will add another $333,000. That’s a total cost of $484,000— nearly half a million dollars a month for two rented hygiene trailers that will provide, according to the city, between 16 and 24 individual showers per day. If the showers operate every day (not a given), and provide 16 showers each per day, that works out to a cost of about $500 per shower.

 

This spreadsheet has been altered to remove unrelated costs for portable toilets. The unaltered spreadsheet, with the additional numbers in place, is available here.

Since the city has not actually used the trailers since paying for them on March 26, of course, the actual cost has been lower. But that’s the same logic that enables the city to claim that it is paying less than expected for the 155 rooms it has rented out at the Executive Pacific Hotel in downtown Seattle. As long as the rooms are empty, the city doesn’t have to pay for food. As long as no one is using the showers, the city doesn’t have to pay for water and staffing.

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During this unprecedented time of crisis, your support for truly independent journalism is more critical than ever before. The C Is for Crank is a one-person operation supported entirely by contributions from readers like you.

Your $5, $10, and $20 monthly donations allow me to do this work as my full-time job. Every supporter who maintains or increases their contribution during this difficult time helps to ensure that I can keep covering the issues that matter to you, with empathy, relentlessness, and depth.

If you don’t wish to become a monthly contributor, you can always make a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by mailing your contribution to P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104. Thank you for reading, and supporting, The C Is for Crank.

SPU’s records show that as the pandemic began shutting things down from coast to coast, the city became increasingly desperate to get their hands on showers—any showers. A series of emails on March 26 shows city staffers scrambling to increase the credit limit on a city MasterCard to pay for VIP’s trailers before another city could snag them. “We are trying to both rent and procure sanitation trailers, along with every other major city,” SPU director Mami Hari wrote in a mass email to mayoral, council, and city finance staff. “Suppliers are demanding cash/credit card/check and will not accept PO’s.  The available pool diminishes each day and we have a bead on 2 trailer rentals and a couple for purchase.”

Three hours later, the city’s charge had gone through, and the trailers were on their way to Seattle.

SPU spokeswoman Sabrina Register confirmed, “There was a shortage of available hygiene trailers for purchase because of the pandemic and we couldn’t secure any trailers without prompt payment. In order to move more quickly, we used a City-issued credit card to secure two trailers in Southern California.”

Since the city has not used the trailers since paying for them on March 26, the actual cost has been lower. But that’s the same logic that enables the city to claim that it is paying less than expected for the 155 rooms it has rented out at the Executive Pacific Hotel in downtown Seattle. As long as the rooms are empty, the city doesn’t have to pay for food. As long as no one is using the showers, the city doesn’t have to pay for water and staffing.

The city considered many potential locations for the trailers, documents obtained through a records request reveal, including Wallingford, City Hall Park, the downtown library, and Regrade Park in Belltown. (Much of the information reported here comes from documents provided by Seattle Public Utilities in response to a records request. The Human Services Department, which was initially in charge of the shower program, has not yet provided records in response to a similar request.) The city’s latest plans would place the trailers outside the Exhibition Hall at Seattle Center and in front of King Street Station in Pioneer Square. It’s unclear exactly when and whether this will happen, although recent chatter indicates that the Seattle Center site could finally open in the next week.

City maps show one shower trailer at Seattle Center’s Exhibition Hall, which is currently functioning as a shelter.

Not everyone was on board the mobile shower bandwagon,. On April 2, one day before the trailers were schedule to arrive, Hara and SPU strategic advisor Danielle Purnell sent a memo to Deputy Mayor Casey Sixkiller raising questions about whether the shower trailers were really the best option. “As SPU researched shower trailer operational plans, it was discovered that experienced mobile shower providers in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Oakland and Denver have suspended operations due to COVID-19 siting pandemic safety and transmission concerns,” the memo said. (Emphasis in original).

Instead of opening showers, the memo continued, the city could consider handing out “enhanced hygiene kits” with body wipes and sanitizer, doing more outreach about the existing showers that remain open, or offering “safe, controlled shower and hygiene services utilizing large scale locker room and shower facilities at volunteering universities, public high schools, health clubs, churches, etc.”—something advocates for people experiencing homelessness have pushed for.

The list of alternatives to mobile showers is listed from least to most expensive, with the most expensive being “seeking emergency sheltering agreements with major hotels (i.e. Westin, Hyatt, Sheraton) similar to efforts in Oakland, Chicago, UK and others.”  However, it should be noted that hotels offer a few more amenities besides showers, including a bed and a safe, secure place to stay. Mayor Durkan has rejected this option repeatedly, preferring to move people into “de-intensified” mass shelters where they sleep six feet apart but share bathrooms and common areas.

SPU also expressed concern that showers, as well as portable toilets, would be magnets for illegal activity, such as “drugs, prostitution, [and] vandalism.”

The city plans to seek FEMA reimbursement for the cost of the shower trailers as well as portable toilets that were rolled out in April. About $1.5 million in funding will come from the original budget line item for mobile showers, plus about $250,000 that was supposed to expand shower services for homeless people at community centers.

One In Five “Illegal Dumping” Reports Recategorized as Illegal Camping, Triggering Navigation Team Visits

Next time you file a report for illegal trash dumping through the city’s Find It, Fix It system, look around: If there happens to be a homeless encampment or RV nearby, the vicinity, the city is likely to recategorize your report as “unauthorized camping” and send in the Navigation Team to investigate—and potentially remove the encampment, The C Is for Crank has learned. This is true even if the items you reported were not left there by unsheltered people, a common phenomenon that Seattle Public Utilities refers to as “opportunistic dumping.”

Ordinarily, SPU responds to reports of illegal dumping by going out to a site within 10 days of the initial report and, when appropriate, removing the trash. But in about  one out of every five cases, they refer the report to the Navigation Team, which is responsible for removing unauthorized encampments, the city’s department of Finance and Administrative Services confirms.

“I reported needles on the street and rather obvious drug dealing, and attached a picture of the street which included a shabby RV,” one FiFi user, Emily Spahn, told me. “A few days later, I got an email telling me they forwarded the issue to the police department, with ‘Subject: SPD – Car camping.’ That was a surprise, since this was in an area that allows for RV parking.”

The same thing happened to another Seattle resident named Sean Roulette-Miller, who posted about the recategorization on Twitter. “I have never seen any encampment on this property so it seems like a waste of resources,” Roulette-Miller told me.

Cyndi Wilder, a spokeswoman for FAS (which oversees the Find It, Fix It program) says that whenever SPU determines that an illegally dumped item or items is “part of or near an encampment,” they “assume” that “the items in the report might be the personal belongings of unsheltered individuals. Because illegal dumping inspectors cannot remove personal belongings that may be part of or near an encampment, in these cases SPU transfers the report to the Customer Service Bureau (CSB), who then forwards the report to the Navigation Team for an encampment inspection, as the Navigation Team has the training and resources to identify and store personal belongings.”

Of all illegal dumping reports the city receives, Wilder says 19 percent are routed to the Navigation Team. “Some illegal dumping calls intersect with the Navigation Team’s work to remove unsafe encampments and break down barriers by providing storage for personal possessions.”

The Navigation Team has the authority to remove encampments that it considers “obstructions” or “hazards” without providing notice, outreach, or offers of shelter. In recent months, under Mayor Jenny Durkan, the team has begun to focus primarily on removing “obstruction” encampments, a definition justified in the team’s weekly reports by, among other criteria, “large amounts of garbage.”

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Afternoon Crank: Opportunistic Dumping, Unredacted Documents

Image via city of Seattle

1. Every week, the city provides reports showing which encampments the Navigation Team—a group of police and outreach workers that removes unauthorized encampments—plans to clear out in the next five days, including the number of encampments on the list that constitute “obstructions,” a designation that exempts their removal from the usual notice and outreach requirements. (As I reported last week, the team now spends the overwhelming majority of its time in the field removing such “obstruction” encampments.)

In those reports, one phrase appears again and again as a justification for encampment removals: “Large amounts of garbage present on site.”

The problem of garbage pileups at encampments is undeniable—anyone who walks, rides, or drives by one of the city’s highly visible tent cities has seen them—but is it fair to pin the garbage problem entirely on the homeless population? More to the point, if the city is using garbage as one of the justifications for clearing encampments without providing even 72 hours’ notice, does the city know how much of the problem is caused by homeless people dumping trash, and how much is caused by housed people dumping their unwanted stuff in places where they know they’re unlikely to be caught?

Is it really possible that each of a few hundred homeless people living in encampments accounted for more than five times as much waste per person than people living in houses and apartments?

These questions came up for me recently when I was reading the Navigation Team’s most recent quarterly report, which noted that SPU had picked up 335 tons of trash at the 71 encampments it removed in the first quarter of  2019. Those 71 encampments, according to the report, included a total of 731 unduplicated individuals. Doing the math, the report implies that each of those homeless individuals produced about 0.46 tons of trash in the 3-month period accounted for by the report. (Those 335 tons do not include trash picked up by a contractor through SPU’s pilot “purple bag” trash pickup program, which disposes of trash collected at a small number of unauthorized encampment sites.)

By comparison, Seattle Public Utilities’ 652,000 residential customers generated a total of 60,934 tons of garbage in that same period, or about 0.09 tons per person. How can that be? Is it really possible that each of a few hundred homeless people living in encampments accounted for more than five times as much waste per person than people living in houses and apartments?

Local right-wing media would have you believe that the answer is yes; a homeless person, who may literally be digging clothes and food out of other people’s trash, somehow produces more waste than you or me, with our Amazon orders and boxes of discarded takeout and boxes of books Kondo’d to the recycling bin.

But the answer is much more straightforward: Housed people (and construction contractors) use homeless encampments as their dumping grounds. “During encampment cleans, larger items including wood (used as shelter), appliances, generators, propane tanks, car parts and bikes are frequently removed in addition to the trash,” says Sabrina Register, a spokeswoman for SPU. SPU refers to this practice as “opportunistic illegal dumping,” and Register says it often includes items like “couches, rugs and mattresses” from the homes of people who choose to dump those items at encampments rather than pay SPU to pick them up. SPU doesn’t distinguish between these two figurative piles of trash; rather, the couches and countertops and mattresses and toilets all go into the same pile that the city uses to justify removing encampments with no warning, and that conservative commentators use to justify calls for ramping up crackdowns on homeless people in general.

Given how misleading the city’s “tons of garbage” measure turns out to be, perhaps it’s time for the Navigation Team to retire those numbers from its quarterly reports—or for SPU to start differentiating between old bathtubs dumped by remodeling homeowners and sleeping bags left behind by homeless people when they’re told to move along.

Support The C Is for Crank
Hey there! Just a quick reminder that this entire site, including the post you’re reading, is supported by generous contributions from readers like you, without which this site would quite literally cease to exist. If you enjoy reading The C Is for Crank and would like to keep it going, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter. For just $5, $10, or $20 a month (or whatever you can give), you can help keep this site going, and help me continue to dedicate the many hours it takes to bring you stories like this one every week. This site is my full-time job. Help keep that work sustainable by becoming a supporter now! If you don’t wish to become a monthly contributor, you can always make a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by mailing your contribution to P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

2. The city of Seattle’s Human Services Department has finally released a set of mostly unredacted documents about the scuttled plan to locate a secure parking lot for people living in their cars near Genesee Park in Southeast Seattle. I requested the documents as part of my reporting on Mayor Jenny Durkan’s decision to abandon plans for the parking lot, whose opening date was moved back repeatedly, most recently to sometime in March. The city initially released a set of heavily redacted documents, claiming that they were exempt from disclosure under a “deliberative process” exemption to the state Public Records Act; after I filed multiple challenges, including a request for review by the state attorney general’s office, HSD released less-redacted versions of the documents.

The city initially provided a set of highly redacted documents in response to a records request I filed back in April seeking information about how the mayor made the decision to reject plans for the Genesee location. The Low-Income Housing Institute had signed a contract to operate and provide security for the lot, which was initially supposed to open on February 28, but Mayor Durkan scuttled that plan after neighbors, led by Mount Baker neighborhood activist and District 3 city council candidate Pat Murakami, raised objections to the plan, which they called another example of dumping undesirable projects on Southeast Seattle.

As I noted in my story earlier this month, Durkan’s decision came after months of groundwork by HSD, which had been working on plans for a safe parking lot since at least last October, and had narrowed down potential sites to a short list that included the Genesee Park location by early January at the latest. Nonetheless, Durkan’s office said she had been briefed on the options for the very first time at the end of February, one day before the lot was initially scheduled to open—and a couple of days after the first critical news reports hit local TV airwaves.

The unredacted documents (communications plan; neighborhood flyer; outreach timeline) provide additional details about the scuttled pilot, including how long it was supposed to last (through December 2019); how the city narrowed down the list of sites (“The site identification focused on areas of the city where gentrification and housing displacement has been an issue”); and how the city will prevent “the behavioral problems” associated with RV residents (no RVs would be allowed). The materials place a great deal of emphasis on the idea that people living in their cars (as opposed to RVs) are regular, upstanding citizens who’ve simply fallen on hard times. “This program is designed for adults and students that drive to work or go to school but need a safe parking space to sleep while trying to find permanent housing,” a community flyer stressed. Similarly, the communications plan for the proposal highlights the fact that the lot would have been for people living in cars, not RVs:

According to the most recent Point in Time Count of people experiencing homelessness in King County, about 3,372 people were living in their vehicles, an increase of percent over the 2017 count. People living in vehicles represented more than half of the county’s unsheltered homeless population. Of those 3,372 people, about a third were living in cars; more than half were in RVs.

 

Afternoon Crank: I’m Shocked At the Scale of That

1. The city auditor has completed his investigation into the implementation of a new joint billing system for Seattle City Light and Seattle Public Utilities customers (memorably known as the New Customer Information System, or NCIS), and concluded that the reason the NCIS went $34 million over budget is that … the system ended up being more complicated than anyone had anticipated, and took more time and manpower to implement.

Or, as assistant city auditor Jane Dunkel put it during a briefing before the council utilities committee Tuesday, “The simple answer is that it took … ten months longer than anticipated,” and the extra cost “was in labor—city labor and consultants.” Specifically, the city spent $10.8 million more than budgeted on consultants, and $20.6 million over budget on city staffing, in the 10 extra months it took to complete the new billing system.

Mike O’Brien, a former CFO himself, seemed incredulous at those figures. “When I look at $20 million over 10 months—so, $2 million a month— if a city employee is costing us $10,000 a month, that means 200 employees were on this project,” O’Brien said. “I’m shocked at the scale of that.” Dunkel said that many of those employees had probably been reassigned from other tasks, but acknowledged that 200 employees is a lot of city workers to dedicate full-time to a single project. (The city calculates costs in full-time equivalent employees, or FTEs, so 200 full-time workers is just a proxy for the total cost.) And, Dunkel said, the city decided to “prioritize quality over timeliness.”

That brought O’Brien to his second question: Why, if project leaders knew they were slipping over budget and behind schedule, did they not inform the council sooner? (Committee chair Lisa Herbold had the same question.) Dunkel acknowledged that the trend toward being over budget and late was obvious “in retrospect,” but said the people working on the project may have thought they could make up the money and time. “Is it just well-intentioned people who are optimistic and thinking, ‘If we just keep working harder and faster, we’re going to make it’? Or is it people saying, ‘Wait a minute, we’re not going to make it and we need to let someone know that,'” Dunkel said.

“There were vacations and leaves, there was mandatory overtime—there wasn’t a point when they said, ‘Let’s stop and recalibrate.’ And part of it is that it’s hard to come back and report on that. You don’t want to do that until you’re really certain that you can’t make that date.”

You can read the auditors’ recommendations—which include requiring the city’s Chief Technology Office, Michael Matmiller, to report back to the council monthly on the status of the city’s IT projects—as well as the auditor’s presentation and a report on best practices by an outside consultant—on the city’s website.

2. On Wednesday, Mayor Ed Murray’s Human Services Department announced the location of a new, 24/7, low-barrier homeless shelter on First Hill. The shelter, which will accommodate about 100 men and women, will be located at First Presybterian Church, at 1013 8th Avenue. The city will hold one community meeting on the shelter at the church, on May 22 and 6pm, and hopes to open the shelter in June or July. If opposition to a methadone clinic in the neighborhood is any sort of guide, expect protests.

3. HSD and the mayor’s homelessness director, George Scarola, came to the council’s human services committee yesterday armed with numbers that they say demonstrate the success of the city’s new Navigation Team. The eight-member team, which includes both police and outreach workers, notifies residents of homeless encampments when the city plans to remove them from public property, and provides information on services and shelter, including other, authorized encampments. Scott Lindsay, the mayor’s special assistant on public safety, said that of 291 homeless people the team has contacted since it formed in February, 116 went into “alternative living arrangements”—about 70 to traditional shelters, and 46 to authorized encampments. “That’s more than just a referral—that’s actually a connection,” Lindsay said. “Those are people who were weeks or days or months ago living on streets unsheltered, who are now living inside or at an authorized encampment.”

But how big of a victory is that, really? People who live in camps tend to do so for many reasons: Shelters tend to be dirty and crowded, and most don’t allow people to come in with partners, possessions, or pets. Major addiction problems and mental illnesses that make it difficult to sleep in close quarters with hundreds of other people can also be issues. And sanctioned encampments fill up as fast as the city opens them—a point HSD deputy director Jason Johnson acknowledged.

Tuesday’s sweep of the encampment under the Spokane Street Viaduct, which the city said was necessary because of an RV fire at the site last week, was less successful by the city’s standards. Of 38 “total contacts,” Lindsay said, 15 “declined any form of services,” and 8 agreed to go to shelter or an authorized encampment. The rest took referrals to employment, case management, and other services, Lindsay said.

4. Chris Potter, director of operations for the Department of Finance and Administrative Services, updated council members on the city’s new delivery service, which allows people to retrieve  belongings confiscated from encampments without busing all the way down to the city’s storage facility on Airport Way. So far, Potter said, two people have asked for the belongings back, and one has gotten their “materials” returned. Pressed by council member Tim Burgess to explain why this was good news—given that the city has hundreds of bins full of unclaimed stuff taken from homeless encampments—Potter said, “Getting two calls represents a dramatic increase in the number of people who have reached out to us and said, ‘Hey, can I get my things back?'” But, he acknowledged, “It’s difficult to have a conversation with somebody whose material you’ve gotten and who hasn’t made a phone call to try to recover it from us.”

5. The Seattle Times ran a breathtakingly solipsistic, question-begging editorial this week calling on Mayor Ed Murray not to run for reelection. Their argument: Someone under such a “cloud” of “sordid” allegations can’t possibly win reelection, but could divide the electorate, leaving the city stuck with “Mayor Kshama Sawant, or some other extreme left-wing ideologue.” First of all, Kshama Sawant has repeatedly and explicitly said she does not plan to run for mayor—a minor detail the Times omits. (Obviously, people can change their minds, but this seems a somewhat crucial point.) Second, and more glaring: The Times itself is the publication that decided to publish all the sordid details about the allegations in the first place, including detailed allegations about rough sex and a mole on Murray’s genitals, so if anyone has created an environment of “sordid theater,” it’s them.

Finally, it requires a truly special sort of arrogance for a newspaper to first declare that its own story is “the biggest political scandal in Seattle in generation,” then claim that the subject of that story has been “transformed [by that story] from the bold big-city mayor into one who defers to his defense lawyer when he is invited to speak to The Seattle Times editorial board,” and then use that entirely reasonable deferral—which no one was aware of until the paper reported it, making the story about itself—as a justification for demanding his resignation.  Traditionally, a newspaper that wants a public official to step aside cites public opinion or some other outside evidence to shore up such a demand; the Times cites only itself, and its own declaration that its own reporters have uncovered the biggest scandal in generations.

As I said on Twitter:

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Utility Changes Still Don’t Answer Key Question: What If You Just Can’t Pay?

This story originally ran at the South Seattle Emerald.

spu-shutoffs

Earlier this year, the West Seattle Helpline, which provides financial assistance to people who need help paying their utility bills, learned about a troubling change the city’s two utilities, Seattle City Light (City Light) and Seattle Public Utilities (SPU), were making as part of their transition to a new joint billing and customer contact system.

The change, which past shutoff patterns indicate would disproportionately impact customers in the 98118 ZIP code (South Seattle), would have made it harder for many families with overdue bills to get up to date, and would have given them less time to do so. “These across-the-board shutoffs are doing more harm than good,” West Seattle Helpline Chris Langeler says. “It’s getting colder and we can’t have folks without water or heat as the weather gets rough.”

The new customer information system, memorably named the New Customer Information System (NCIS), consolidated the utilities’ previously separate billing systems and, among other changes, created a uniform policy for dealing with people who fail to pay their bills. If you’ve heard of the system at all, it’s probably because it was in the news earlier this year for launching months behind schedule and at least $34 million over budget.

Before the city consolidated their billing systems, SPU and City Light had slightly different policies for working with people who failed to pay their bills within a 51-day billing cycle, and, if necessary, shutting off their electricity or water. City Light gave customers just 30 days to pay their bills in full, but only required payment of 50 percent right away; SPU gave customers 60 days to pay, but required 75 percent up front to avoid shutoff. When the two agencies were consolidating their billing systems as part of the switch to NCIS, they essentially decided to adopt the worst parts of both policies, which would have required delinquent customers to repay 75 percent of their bills within 30 days, or risk shutoff and an additional shutoff fee of $164.

In response to the concerns raised by Langeler, council member Lisa Herbold brought the issue to both utilities’ attention, and after Herbold submitted a budget proposal that would have required both utilities to adopt the lower, 50 percent, threshold, the two utilities changed their joint policy to require customers to pay back half their bill within 60 days.

Last year, SPU shut off water to 3,044 customers; City Light cut off power to 4,624. Most of those customers were concentrated, officials from both utilities say, in Southeast Seattle, Delridge, and parts of far North Seattle. As a map illustrating shutoff patterns provided by SPU demonstrates, the greatest concentration of utility disconnections between 2013 and 2016 was in the 98118 ZIP code—an area that includes Columbia and Hillman Cities and parts of Rainier Beach and Beacon Hill.

“It’s not surprising where economic hardship exists,” Chris Courtney, head of credit and collections for SPU, acknowledges. Neither agency could provide specific demographic data for the households where utilities they disconnect, but Langeler notes that “people of color disproportionately bear the risk of having their water or electricity shut-off under the current policies.  That’s what we see in West Seattle and White Center, and if we had data city-wide, I’d bet we’d see the same thing: low-income families of color being hit hardest.”

Langeler says the impacts to individuals and families who lose access to power and water can be immediate and long lasting. “In addition to the very real effects for the folks who have been shut off—[difficulty] bathing, having to find water in other places, asking neighbors to fill up buckets so they can take water back home—[SPU is] not helping them get on stable footing” by shutting off their water, Langeler says. “The fear and stress that that adds can have its own detrimental health impacts. It adds in another layer of panic and it makes it harder to focus as these families are trying to get their stability back.”

The bottom line, Langeler says, is that “The folks we see who have their utilities shut off are the folks who don’t have the funds to pay.”

SPU spokesman Andy Ryan says one reason the utility cuts off people’s water—instead of, say, giving them additional time to pay their debts—is that SPU is asking questions like, “are we just going to get more people getting deeper in debt? … Our biggest concern all along has been that we not entice people to put things off. That is going to make it harder for them later.”

Danielle Purnell, a strategic advisor for SPU, says the policy change “really only impacts people who are having short-term financial hardships. [It’s meant] to help people make it through to the next bill and keep on service. It doesn’t necessarily help people who live on the ragged edge or who are having a hard time making ends meet over the long term. If you’re having a hard time paying your bills, you’re going to need to be connected to other social services; you’re going to need to look at conservation.”

One of the programs that is meant to help people on the “ragged edge” of poverty (as well as those well above that state) is the city’s utility discount program, which provides a 60 percent discount on utility bills for people making up to 250 percent of the federal poverty rate—about $30,000 for an individual or $61,000 for a family of four. (You can see the areas of high discount program enrollment, which in some cases correspond with lower disconnection rates, on the map SPU provided.)

In 2014, Mayor Ed Murray pledged to double enrollment in the program, and the utilities actually met that goal ahead of schedule, largely by auto-enrolling low-income people when they apply for other benefits.  However, many eligible ratepayers remain unenrolled (Real Change estimates that about 75,000 Seattle residents are eligible for the program), a gap City Light spokesman Scott Thomsen attributes in part to the stigma associated with accepting government benefits.

“For some of them, there’s a pride issue—they want to pay their bill just like everyone else,” Thomsen says. “For some of them, there are trust issues with the government.” And then, for some of them, “the process itself was challenging.”

Ah, yes. The process. During our meeting and phone conversations, representatives of both utilities pointed out repeatedly that the form to apply for the discount program is “now only one page.” It would be nitpicking to point out that that isn’t true, because the real issue is that applying for the program requires gathering extensive, time-consuming documentation of a customer’s income sources—from paychecks to federal welfare (TANF) benefits to social security to child support.

This process sounds basic, but it can be arduous and time-consuming to pull together, print, and submit proof of every source of income they’ve had in the past 30 days. (Previously, the city required proof of hardship for the past two months, but they’ve recently reduced that to one.). Utility officials say the process is somewhat challenging by design.

“We offer the largest discount of any utility in the country, and we also have one of the highest eligibility levels,” City Light’s Scott Thomsen says. “This is a very generous program, and with that comes the desire to make sure that the people who are getting the assistance qualify for that assistance.” Thomsen contrasts Seattle’s program to those in other cities, “where the application process is fairly simple and easy” but the dollar benefit is much lower. With better benefits, in other words, come more stringent requirements, “because you’re involving more money,” Thomsen says.

One of the things that might disqualify a person for the discount program is having too much income because of government benefits—things like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Social Security income (SSI). Even health care premium payments for Medicare and Medicaid, which are taken out of a person’s Social Security check before it ever hits their mailbox or bank account, count as gross income against the total amount that person can earn to qualify for the discount program.

Utility officials argue that anyone living on TANF or SSI checks is almost certainly poor enough to qualify for a discount—“I can’t imagine that someone who was subsisting on [assistance] would ever get close to the [cutoff] limit,” SPU’s Ryan says— but Herbold’s office and the spokesmen for both utilities say they’re exploring ways to address the issue anyway.

Why should assistance people get because they’re poor count against their ability to get other assistance they need because they’re poor? For that matter, what’s the point in cutting off utilities to a few thousand people a year, anyway? Real Change director Tim Harris argues that “if you are on TANF, you are desperately poor—if anybody needs the utility rate discount, it’s somebody on fucking TANF.” Harris believes that “what’s behind [the policy] is the understanding of utilities as a commodity like any other commodity, as opposed to being a human necessity.”

I brought this up in my meeting with officials for both utilities—if only a few thousand people fail to pay their bills every year, why not just forgive those folks’ debts and save the time and effort spent sending people out to their homes to manually disconnect their utilities? The money lost must be minuscule, so is it just … the principle of the thing?

The answer seems to be: Kind of. “Our biggest concern all along has been that we not entice people to put things off. That is going to make it harder for them,” Ryan says. “Our hesistancy has been, are we going to get more people even deeper in debt?” And, he adds: “How do you pay for it?”

Right now, that isn’t SPU’s or City Light’s problem. Instead, the burden of paying for people to keep the lights on, or the water running, falls largely on organizations like Langeler’s, which bridge the gaps when a customer can’t pay and the City of Seattle refuses to budge. Langeler praises SPU and City Light for being flexible enough to change their late-payment policies, but the city still acts harshly toward those who can’t scrape enough together to pay for basic services. That means thousands of people each year, including a huge concentration in South Seattle, will continue to find themselves in the dark.

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter of the site! For just $5, $10, or $20 a month (or whatever you can give), you can help keep this site going, and help me continue to dedicate the many hours it takes to bring you stories like this one every week. This site is funded entirely by contributions from readers, which pay for the substantial time I put into it as well as costs like transportation, equipment, travel costs, website maintenance, and other expenses associated with my reporting. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

Citing “Competitiveness,” City to Raise New SPU Director’s Pay—Even Though They’ve Already Hired Her

screen-shot-2016-09-25-at-11-12-51-pm

Last week, the council’s affordable housing and finance committee approved a proposal from the mayor’s office to raise the salary for the new director of Seattle Public Utilities to as much as $334,000, which would represent a 67 percent pay hike from what the previous director, Ray Hoffman, earned when he retired this year. The pay increase would be accomplished by creating a new pay band—a minimum and maximum salary range—and a new position, to allow the city to go beyond the current $223,000 maximum for the director position.

As they did when giving former City Light director Jorge Carrasco a salary of $210,000 in 2004, making Carrasco the highest-paid city employee—and as they did when justifying an even higher salary, $340,000, for Carrasco’s replacement, Larry Weis—the Seattle Department of Human Resources (SDHR) justified the steep pay hike by saying that its “analysis determined that the City’s current salary range is not competitive with top executive positions at comparable public water utility organizations. If Seattle wants to get the very best candidates to lead major departments, the argument goes, it has to offer a salary competitive with what candidates could get in similar positions elsewhere.

screen-shot-2016-09-25-at-9-57-16-pm

Whether you buy that logic or not (remember, Carrasco ended up leaving under a cloud of controversy in 2015), the fact is that the city doesn’t have to attract a candidate. It already hired one—Mami Hara, who was appointed by Murray in July and confirmed by the full council this past week. Hara initially applied to be director of the Office of Community Planning and Development, which pays $167,000, and was recruited by SDHR to apply at SPU instead. She accepted the position at a salary of $223,000 a year, which is at the top of the current pay band for the job.

So why, council member Lisa Herbold asked SDHR director Susan Coskey last week, was the mayor’s HR department arguing that they needed to offer more money to attract better candidates? Given that they not only had a candidate, but a candidate who had accepted the position and the salary—and would have been willing to accept a significantly lower salary as head of OCPD—the standard argument about attracting the best candidates made little sense

Coskey acknowledged that, yes, Hara had accepted the job at the lower salary. However, she argued, “had this person not been known to us, we would have had to be here to say we are trying to attract the talent.”

And Hara took the job, Coskey continued, with the understanding that the city would go through a separate process and potentially raise her salary later. “As someone who was recruiting her, [I] let her know it was not a competitive salary for this position … and I think this process was taken on faith that there were two processes” going on simultaneously, one to hire an SPU director, the other to raise the salary for that position. “The request we made was, ‘Come, and understand that we are looking at [the salary issue] and the chips will fall where the chips fall,” Coskey said.

Coskey also noted, pointedly but obliquely, that “one of the interesting things, particularly as it relates to workforce equity, is that the fact that someone takes a job doesn’t necessarily mean if it’s way out of whack, that that’s the salary that we should be paying, particularly when you look at this head of a utility compared to the other head of a utility position that we have.” Coskey was referring to the fact that women often accept lower salaries than men do, even in highly competitive positions, and to the fact that Weis’ salary is more than $110,000 higher than the salary Hara accepted.

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter of the site! For just $5, $10, or $20 a month (or whatever you can give), you can help keep this site going, and help me continue to dedicate the many hours it takes to bring you stories like this one every week. This site is run entirely on contributions from readers, which pay for my time (typically no less than 20 hours a week, but often as many as 40) as well as costs like transportation, equipment, website maintenance, and other expenses associated with my reporting. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.