Tag: tammy morales

What is Participatory Budgeting, and How Could It Shape the City’s Approach to Public Safety?

Annotation 2020-08-23 110400

By Paul Kiefer

When Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan announced her decision to veto the City Council’s midyear budget rebalancing package on Friday, she specifically called out an ordinance appropriating $3 million for the council to contract with community-based groups to create a “roadmap for future equitable participatory budget processes related to public safety” by gathering public input to shape the city’s public safety budget priorities.

Council member Tammy Morales, the sponsor of that ordinance, has said that the research would be the first step toward “participatory budgeting,” a process some cities use to guide public spending, often by allowing residents to vote on how to spend a designated pot of money (a federal grant, for instance).

The mayor’s office, the council, and the most prominent police abolitionist groups have all expressed various levels of support for participatory budgeting. If the city ends up using participatory budgeting to guide a significant portion of next year’s public safety budget next year, then Seattle will become the testing ground for participatory budgeting on an unprecedented scale. But whether those three parties see eye to eye about what participatory budgeting would entail—and how much weight public input would carry—remain open questions.

King County Equity Now and Decriminalize Seattle

King County Equity Now and Decriminalize Seattle, two of the most prominent voices in the push to cut the Seattle Police Department budget and invest in alternative public safety programs, were the first to call for the city to launch a participatory budgeting process to redirect the city’s public safety budget toward alternatives to policing and investment in BIPOC communities. The bill Durkan vetoed emerged out of those two groups’ demands.

In partnership with a nonprofit called The Participatory Budgeting Project, the two groups developed a detailed outline for how the city could lay the groundwork for a participatory budgeting process, called the’ “Blueprint for Police Divestment/Community Re-Investment.” That blueprint describes a $3 million “community-led research process to generate true public safety informed by community needs” which is the model for the research described in the vetoed bill.

The council would direct the money to a nonprofit, which would subcontract the work out to other groups—presumably, though not necessarily, KCEN and Decriminalize Seattle. The two groups estimate that roughly $1 million of the $3 million would go toward hiring staffers, including researchers, many of whom they hope will be young people from BIPOC communities. The rest would go to recruit and compensate people in BIPOC communities to participate in the survey and for data collection and reporting, plus $500,000 for unspecified “cash assistance and direct support for community members” to “address economic and other urgent needs.”

In essence, those expenses would serve two purposes.  The first would be to provide jobs—in the form of researcher positions—and financial support to community members who participate in the research process. In their blueprint, KCEN and Decriminalize Seattle write that “community members should not be expected to come up with solutions on a volunteer basis.”

“In part because of the City’s long track record of supporting harmful policies and procedures, many community members do not trust the City to lead an effective research process. The pattern of collecting data and recommendations and then doing little to nothing with the results must end.” —King County Equity Now and Decriminalize Seattle Blueprint for Police Divestment/Community Re-Investment

The second would be to prepare for a large-scale, accessible participatory budgeting process that would influence the 2021 city budget, starting with surveys and interviews of city residents (with a focus on BIPOC communities) about their public safety concerns and thoughts on how the process should be run: for instance, whether a steering committee should develop community proposals, and if so, who should be on that steering committee. Based on the findings of those surveys and interviews, the nonprofit contractor would then sort out the details of the participatory budgeting process: how the public could give input (in the form of budget proposals, for instance), how that input would be turned into budget items, and who would be responsible for reviewing and developing citizens’ proposals.

Technically, none of the $3 million would fund a full-scale participatory budgeting process; the closest the city would see before next year would be a small test run. However, according to King County Equity Now Research Director Shaun Glaze, the two organizations want to see a full participatory budget process come to fruition before budget discussions next year. More specifically, Glaze says her organization hopes that the participatory budgeting process will help determine how the city spends half of SPD’s 2021 budget— a figure in the range of $200 million, which would be an unprecedented use of the process both in Seattle and nationwide.

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The City Council

The legislation the council passed says the contractor should produce a “community participatory budgeting process,” but it is silent on exactly what that process should look like.

When I asked Morales to clarify how the council planned to spend the $3 million, she pointed to the King County Equity Now and Decriminalize Seattle blueprint as the model; the council also adopted $3 million figure itself from that blueprint. However, that blueprint doesn’t provide any details about how the participatory budgeting process would function, nor does either organization intend to have full control over the process themselves.

Participatory budgeting is nothing new in Seattle. After a push by former council member Nick Licata, the city’s first experiment with participatory budgeting began in 2015 with the Youth Voice, Youth Choice program. In 2017, the council renamed the program Your Voice, Your Choice, and opened it to input from all city residents. Like most participatory budgeting programs, Your Voice, Your Choice allows city residents to submit ideas for neighborhood-level capital projects.

The Your Voice, Your Choice program differs substantially from the research process proposed in the ordinance, not least because Your Voice, Your Choice is run by the city. Although KCEN and Decriminalize Seattle have said explicitly that they are not interested in controlling how the entire process plays out, they argue that the research portion of the participatory budgeting process for public safety should not be under direct city control.

The two groups explain why in their blueprint, writing, “in part because of the City’s long track record of supporting harmful policies and procedures, many community members do not trust the City to lead an effective research process. The pattern of collecting data and recommendations and then doing little to nothing with the results must end.”

The startup costs for the community-safety research process mark a significant shift in how Seattle uses participatory budgeting. The city spends roughly $2.2 million on the entire Your Voice, Your Choice program, of which $2 million funds the actual projects. In contrast, the council’s ordinance would spend $3 million on preliminary research alone.

Mayor Durkan

Near the end of Friday’s press conference, Durkan responded directly to a recent demand from King County Equity Now and Decriminalize Seattle that the city use participatory budgeting to allocate $100 million that she has pledged to invest in BIPOC communities next year. In short, she said she wouldn’t be doing that, but that she supports the idea of participatory budgeting in theory.

“I’ve been very clear from the beginning that the community—and I mean community being larger than just one organization—will be at the table helping us decide what they need and how we get there,” Durkan said. “King County Equity Now wants to be the deciders in that.” (KCEN has denied this.) “We want those voices at the table, but we will have a broader process.”

“We need to have trusted community partners going into communities to bring information and proposals back,” Durkan continued, “whether it’s a task force or a joint group [created by the council and the mayor].” Continue reading “What is Participatory Budgeting, and How Could It Shape the City’s Approach to Public Safety?”

“This Was Never Personal. It Was Always About Changing Systems.” Council Members Stand Behind “Corrected” Statements on Police Chief Departure

Tammy Morales and Teresa Mosqueda; image via City of Seattle

By Erica C. Barnett

Reporters covering the reactions to Seattle police chief Carmen Best’s resignation yesterday received two different versions of a joint statement from council members Lorena González, Teresa Mosqueda, and Tammy Morales. The first pushed back explicitly on Best’s claim that the council cut SPD’s budget, and the salaries of the department’s command staff, for personal and “retaliatory” reasons. The second, less than half the length of the original, thanked Best for her service and reiterated the council’s commitment to systemic changes in the city’s approach to public safety.

The original statement, which the council’s communications office “recalled” and replaced minutes after sending it, contextualized the cuts as part of a larger effort to address “accountability and systemic racism in Seattle’s Police Department [and repair] the harm done by this City to Black and Brown communities.” It also emphasized that both Best and the three Latina council members were all women of color, who “face the impossible task of reforming and improving institutions never designed to serve our communities.”

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“As women of color in public service, it can feel impossible to do this work in very visible positions of power. We cannot lead by tearing each other down, despite whatever policy disagreements we may have,” the initial statement said.

Although the hasty recall and overhaul of the original statement might imply that the three council members regretted their original comments, all three confirmed to The C Is for Crank that they still stood by what they said in the initial press release.

“This was never personal; it was always about changing systems,” Mosqueda said Wednesday afternoon. “It’s unfortunate that she saw [cuts to the police department] as personal in nature. This was never, ever an adversarial comment made about the chief. This was always about the system.”

González, who said “gave [the chief] my commitment that I would never tear her down because as a woman of color I understood what a difficult position she was in,” said she didn’t regret her vote to cut the command staff’s salaries, a decision Best has explicitly called “vindictive and punitive.”

“When we were looking at the budget and attempting to respond to the calls of community to take action, to invest in solutions that produce racial justice outcomes,  the reality is that everything is on the table,” González said, “and the SPD executives’ salaries were clearly out of line with the salaries of other executive teams in the city.”

And Morales, who represents Southeast Seattle, said that although she’s “sad to see Chief Best go” because she “brings a unique perspective and lived experience that would have been valuable to the work we’re going to try to do,” the city has been trying to address police accountability and violence since long “before Chief Best was the chief.

“It wasn’t about her—it was about the institution she was a part of, and this is an institution that’s rooted in racism,” Morales said. “Chief Best is loved by her staff and her department, but they are all still part of that system, and that’s what we’re trying to change … the institution and the harm that it’s done. Speaking as the representative from District 2″—the most diverse, and Blackest, district in the city—”that’s what I came into this office to do.”

Council May Take Cops Off Navigation Team; Durkan Distances Herself from Police Response to Protests

Outside Seattle’s East Police Precinct.

Before the murder of George Floyd sparked nationwide protests and calls to defund police departments, homeless advocates were calling on the city of Seattle to depolice the Navigation Team, the controversial group of police and civilian city staffers that removes encampments from public spaces. During a recent encampment removal in the International District, protesters lined up on both ends of a block guarded by dozens of police, live-streaming from just outside the barricades as homeless encampment residents shuffled slowly through.

Now, those advocates may get their wish, as city council member Tammy Morales cues up legislation that would remove cops from the team and refocus its efforts on outreach and services, not law enforcement. The legislation, which is still in draft form, would remove funding for any police presence on the Navigation Team. This would be a major policy and financial shift, since the city currently spends $2.6 million a year providing full-time police officers for the team, but it no longer seems as radical as it did even two weeks ago, when Police Chief Carmen Best insisted that encampments were so inherently dangerous that they required an armed response.

The Navigation Team, formed in 2017 under former mayor Ed Murray, was originally supposed to navigate people living in encampments to safer shelter, housing, and other services. To reflect this, the city adopted rules requiring the team to provide advance notice and offers of appropriate shelter to every person living in an encampment before removing it.  Under Durkan, however, the team has shifted its focus, using a loophole  in the rules that allows the immediate removal of any encampment that constitutes an “obstruction” to public use of a space. Because the term “obstruction” is ill-defined, Durkan’s Navigation Team has interpreted it to include any encampment in any part of a public park or other public space, a definition that encompasses most encampments.

Every year she has been in office, Durkan has expanded the number of police officers on the team. The council is currently doing an “inquest” of the police department’s budget in light of calls to defund the police and an estimated 2020 revenue shortfall of more than $300 million.

Via @MayorJenny

Durkan has paid lip service to the idea that police are not appropriate in every circumstance, but has not expanded those thoughts to apply specifically to her own police department. Similarly, her comments about the protests happening in her own city, against her own police department and administration, have mostly been vague and nationally focused, a strategy that has enabled her to grab nationwide headlines for anti-Trump sound bites while refusing to respond directly to protesters’ detailed demands at home.

On Friday, the mayor finally joined a protest for Black lives, nearly two weeks after other mayors across the country began doing so. The massive march, tens of thousands of people strong, was completely silent, which means that it was also the only march so far in which Durkan would not hear protesters shouting demands—chief among them that she defund the police department and invest in communities that have been victims of disinvestment and police violence.

The public knows about the mayor’s presence at at least some portion of the march because her social-media team posted photos of Durkan and police chief Carmen Best walking through the rain on Twitter. The text read: “Today at the @BLMSeattleKC silent march, community walks to abolish the school to prison pipeline, end biased policing, and undo centuries of systemic racism in our country. The march may be silent, but the message is loud and clear: #blacklivesmatter.” 

Durkan has consistently attempted to reframe protesters’ demands as primarily national or statewide, not local. But the movement to defund the police—which received a staggering $409 million in last year’s city budget—is moving forward anyway. Last week, the city council held the first meeting in a month-long “inquest” into the police budget, and Durkan held off on sending down her midyear budget revisions in order to make changes that may or may not be responsive to protesters’ demands.

The massive march, tens of thousands of people strong, was completely silent, which means that it was also the only march so far in which Durkan would not hear protesters shouting demands—chief among them that she defund the police department and invest in communities that have been victims of disinvestment and police violence.

Earlier this week, Seattle police made their way back into the East Precinct, which has been unoccupied since Durkan apparently ordered the police to open up the street to protesters and remove all “sensitive items” from the building. Since then an area of a few square blocks around the precinct—known as the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone—has been the site of a 24/7 protest/block party, featuring free food and water stands, community gardens, and a campground in Cal Anderson Park.

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Durkan has tried to make the best of the situation, which came about because police set up barricades around the precinct in early June and defended them with force, targeting protesters night after night with tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets, and other weapons. Publicly, she has said the protesters have a right to protest, and joked (rather dismissively) that the area around the precinct could turn into the site of a new “summer of love.”

In contrast, Best has said she was “angry” at the decision to take down the barricades and stop guarding the precinct, telling officers in a “leaked” video (which was posted publicly on the department’s Youtube page half an hour before the first reports about it appeared on local news) that in their absence, “armed guards” had posted up outside the precinct and were demanding money and identification from anyone who wanted to enter.

Best later walked these comments back, admitting that she had heard about them “anecdotally” and from social media—quite a turnaround for a chief who, just one week earlier, had asserted, “Social media is social media. It’s not news.”

At a press conference last week, there was an awkward moment when a reporter asked Best and Durkan whether they had confidence in each other. Best paused for a moment before responding, “Yes, I do. I’m standing here right next to her.” Durkan said that neither she nor the chief planned to resign and made a joke about having a “Thelma and Louise moment” with the chief—an odd reference, given that the two characters drove off a cliff because they were being chased by cops.

Despite this demurral, the fault lines between the chief and the mayor—who is up for reelection next year—have continued to grow. It’s worth remembering that Durkan did not want to hire Best in the first place, and did so only after community outcry over her decision to eliminate the only local candidate, and the only black woman on the list of contenders, from consideration. Whether the reason for the schism between the mayor and her police chief is based on real policy disagreements or political considerations, it’s increasingly obvious to anyone paying attention. And whether Durkan is angling for reelection or a federal appointment under Biden, it’s increasingly clear that she wants to distance herself from a police chief who continues to insist that her police force has nothing to examine or apologize for.

Council Looks Inside the “Black Box” of the Seattle Police Department Budget

Anyone needing evidence that demands to “defund the police” by redirecting half their budget into community organizations have gained traction should watch yesterday’s City Council budget meeting (conducted via Zoom and available online), where council members began the process of what budget chair Teresa Mosqueda has called an “inquest” into the Seattle Police Department’s budget. The forensic look at a budget that council members called a “black box” comes at a time when the mayor and council were already looking for about $300 million in cuts, thanks to a recessionary revenue shortfall that has blown a hole in this year’s budget, and will almost certainly produce an austerity budget in 2021.

Wednesday’s meeting was mostly a deep dive into that budget, which totaled $409 million in 2020. Much of the information came from prior to the police actions against protesters over the last few weeks, which involved what will likely be massive overtime costs, since officers were working 12-hour shifts, as well as unknown costs for the huge number of tear gas canisters, “blast ball” grenades, rubber bullets, pepper spray, and other weapons deployed against protesters.

Still, the look into the police budget was illuminating. Some highlights:

• The overwhelming majority—75 percent—of the police budget pays for personnel, and most of those are sworn officers. Despite a hiring freeze in every other city department, SPD has hired a net total of 23 new officers this year (that is, the force grew by 23 after accounting for attrition). This hiring is currently on hold due to a lack of funding (and despite an upsurge in interest because of the recession), but council central staffer Greg Doss said it could pick up again in the fall—unless, of course, the city council reaches agreement to slow or stop police hiring before then.

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• Sworn officers make dramatically more than their civilian counterparts at SPD, including those in positions the city council and Mayor Jenny Durkan have said are critical to police reform, such as community service officers. An average patrol officer, for example, earns a total compensation of around $150,780, not counting overtime. About 25 percent of that compensation consists of benefits, so a patrol officer’s annual salary is around $113,000. For a sergeant, that goes up to around $133,500.

In contrast, a parking enforcement officer with a total compensation of $96,850 actually takes home just over $50,000 a year, because benefits make up a full 48 percent of civilian SPD staffers’ salaries.

These six-figure salaries—which are significantly higher in practice for officers who, like the ones tear-gassing protesters on Capitol Hill last week, make extra money from working overtime—are worth considering in light of claims that it’s impossible to recruit officers from within Seattle city limits because they don’t make enough money to live here.

 

• More than a third of the budget for sworn officers goes to 911 response, a fact that Doss called “a statement of policy that the department is making.” Last year, Durkan announced the creation of a new emergency service called “Health One” to respond to non-emergency calls involving issues such as mental health and substance abuse. The program has never been expanded beyond downtown, however.

A common criticism of using armed officers to respond to 911 calls is that many of these calls are made because someone is in distress, not because there is a crime in progress. Many people call 911 in situations that demand trained mental health professionals or social workers, not armed officers with the authority to use deadly force against civilians.

• Overtime, mostly for sworn officers, costs the city about $30 million a year, although this year’s budget for policing protests could blow the lid off that number. In a typical year, about a third of that goes to providing security at events, including sports events. The city spends another $2.25 million a year on overtime for emphasis patrols in neighborhoods, an amount that has nearly doubled in the last year as Durkan has added more of these patrols. And security for the mayor herself costs another $393,000 a year.

• In a preview of upcoming presentations on what the police department’s overwhelming response to, and use of force against, protesters will cost the city, the police department provided a cost breakdown for every weapon and piece of protective equipment they use when responding to protests. Kevlar helmets? $531.02. Batons? $71.12 a pop. Those crazy-looking forearm plates that make cops tricked out in riot gear look like wannabe superheroes? A fairly affordable $22.99. “It seems that each officer goes out to each demonstration in about $900 in protective gear,” council member Tammy Morales observed.

The presentation, which you can read for yourself here, provides a baseline for the department budget and a framework for the council to start digging into how much SPD spent on the recent protests, from armored vehicles to overtime to weapons like tear gas, rubber bullets, and flash grenades. Next week, Mosqueda said, council will look at how other cities have moved toward community-based public safety models, followed by additional meetings on the 24th and July 1.

Two More Encampment Removals as Council Prepares to Consider New Restrictions on Sweeps

This post originally appeared at the South Seattle Emerald.

People wheeling suitcases, lugging hand baskets, and pushing grocery carts trailed slowly out of a large homeless encampment on South Weller Street Thursday morning, passing through police barricades and a crowd of onlookers as the city’s Navigation Team removed an encampment that, as recently as last weekend, included nearly 70 tents. About 30 police were on hand to escort an estimated 36 residents away from the area.

The sweep was the second in two days by the Navigation Team, which is led by the Human Services Department. The team has touted its success at getting people to accept referrals to shelter from the two sites, plus another one at the Ballard Commons that was swept two weeks ago, through advance outreach and during the actual encampment removal. 

Officially, sweeps are no longer happening. According to a March order by the city, “all encampment removal operations have been suspended” during the COVID-19 outbreak unless the encampment constitutes an “emergency” and there are appropriate shelter beds available for every person living there.

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In reality, sweeps are still happening, and opponents believe they are ramping up. The city has acknowledged removing four encampments during the pandemic—the one in Ballard, one at South King Street on Wednesday, and two, including today’s, outside the Navigation Center. The justifications for these removals have varied widely, and not all of them fall under the criteria the city gave as examples of “extreme circumstances” in the March announcement. At a city council meeting on Monday, council member Lisa Herbold, the council’s longtime Navigation Team watchdog, said that “there seems to be continued divergence between what [people at HSD] say the policy is and what it is that the Navigation Team is actually doing.

In a blog post, the Human Services Department said it referred 88 people to shelter from the two locations between April 1 and today. As of last weekend, the two sites combined had around 80 tents, and dozens of people were walking around, so it’s unclear whether people who received referrals simply returned to the encampment. Team director Tara Beck, who was on site at both removals, said the team has offered shelter to every person living at the encampments.

Beck, who was on site at both removals, said the team has offered shelter to every person living at the encampments.

“I can guarantee that everyone here, we’ve explored shelter with them, and if they wanted shelter, we’ve explored transportation barriers,” Beck said. “Our job is to offer, and the person’s job is to accept. We do our part and we have to trust that the person is doing theirs. If they’re choosing to walk away, they were not interested in the services that we were able to offer.” Beck said the city is not providing actual transportation to shelter right now because of the need for social distancing in vehicles operated by city staff; instead, she said, they can call an Uber to transport people to shelter.

But several people I spoke to at both encampments said that they were not offered shelter, or, if they were, that it did not fit with their needs. One man who was helping a friend move his stuff across the street during Wednesday’s sweep at South King Street, who identified himself as “Smiley” Dixon, said he had been living outdoors for three years and had never been offered shelter. His friend, Jacob Davis, said that the Navigation Team had “come through to let us know that they’re going to remove us,” but that “no one offered us anything.” 

When I talked to Davis and Dixon, they were standing on South Jackson Street, exactly one block away from the encampment where Davis had been staying. Davis called the team’s claim to have offered shelter to every person “a bald-faced lie”—not that he would go “anywhere near” a mass shelter during the COVID-19 pandemic. “I don’t want to get the virus,” he said.

Guidance from the Centers for Disease Control says that cities should not remove encampments during the COVID-19 pandemic unless every person is offered “individual housing” such as a hotel room, rather than mass shelter, where disease can spread easily from person to person. King County has been following this guidance by moving people from existing shelters into hotel rooms, a strategy King County Executive Dow Constantine has credited for the fact that every person moved from the Downtown Emergency Service Center’s downtown Seattle shelter into a Red Lion hotel in Renton had tested negative for the virus. 

“That clearly would not have been the case if they had been left in the close quarters of a congregate shelter,” Constantine said during the first meeting of the Regional Homelessness Authority governing board on Thursday.

In contrast, the city is only offering shelter beds, not hotels or housing. “The first thing we did, based on CDC guidance, was to de-intensify our shelters and set up hundreds of of new beds throughout our city,” Durkan said at the RHA board meeting, referring to community centers and other facilities that have opened up so that shelters can place se existing (not new) beds further apart.

Davis said he had been moved by the Navigation Team or police “more than 100 times” in four years, and “I’ve never been offered housing.” Dixon added: “I would go to any hotel.”  Continue reading “Two More Encampment Removals as Council Prepares to Consider New Restrictions on Sweeps”

Sawant’s “Tax Amazon” Meeting May Be a Solo Affair

Council member Kshama Sawant’s rule-violating council committee meeting/online rally Thursday evening is looking more and more like it will be a solo affair: Tammy Morales, the co-sponsor of Sawant’s “Tax Amazon” legislation, will not attend.

Sawant decided to take up the legislation in her Sustainability and Renters’ Rights Committee in violation of council rules that say legislation can only be heard in the committee to which it was referred. (In this case, that’s the budget committee). She’s holding an online meeting on Thursday, which attorneys for the city and state say is a violation of Gov. Jay Inslee’s order barring online meetings on non-COVID matters. And her meeting will not have a quorum, which is a third violation: Council rules adopted this year require a minimum of three committee members to hold any committee meeting.

On Monday, Sawant rejected all these arguments, telling colleagues during the council’s weekly briefing that she considered them “legally unsupportable” and in violation of “common sense.”

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Sawant’s proposal would increase payroll taxes on the top-grossing 800 businesses in the city, raising an estimated $500 million a year for low-income housing. By borrowing from existing funds that are dedicated to other purposes, it would have also provided $200 million up front to pay for COVID-19 stimulus checks to low-income people. 

Although an emergency declaration by Gov. Jay Inslee’s bars online meetings on non-COVID matters, Sawant argued that her bill qualified as a response to the pandemic, because of the up-front payments and the fact that housing is an ongoing emergency. The city attorney and state attorney general disagreed, as did council president Lorena González, who took it off the council agenda until the governor lifts the order, budget committee chair Teresa Mosqueda, former assistant city attorney-turned-council member Andrew Lewis, and renters’ rights committee member Debora Juarez.

Morales’ office did not provide a reason for her decision not to participate in the hearing in Sawant’s committee, although the city attorney’s office has reportedly advised council members that participating in meetings that violate Inslee’s order could open them up to personal legal liability. Lewis and Mosqueda have both said publicly that they will not attend, and Juarez confirmed today that she won’t be there, either. Pedersen did not immediately respond to an email asking whether he will join the meeting, but even if he did—a long shot, since he opposes the underlying legislation—the committee would not have a quorum.

Sawant could decide to limit the legislation to the part that responds directly to the COVID emergency—the $200 million fund for immediate direct payments to low-income people, which would be funded by borrowing from the city against future tax proceeds. However, that would not allow for an ongoing tax after the crisis is over, which is the main point of the “tax Amazon” legislation.

There are two other plausible endgames. First, the council could take it up through the normal process once the governor lifts his order. Sawant is busy burning bridges left and right, accusing colleagues who are allies on this issue, like Mosqueda and Lisa Herbold, of worshiping at the altar of “big business,” so that possibility is dimming. Second, tax supporters could put the proposal up to a citywide vote. That would require them to gather signatures in person—or, as Kevin Schofield has pointed out, rewrite the city charter to allow online signatures, a move that would itself require a public vote.

Council Vote Allows Stalled Housing Projects to Move Forward Without Usual Lengthy Review

Not Seattle.

After more weeks of debate than any other piece of emergency legislation to come out of the COVID crisis so far, the Seattle City Council voted this morning to ease the requirement that certain developments go through the lengthy full design review process, allowing dozens of buildings that were already in the process pipeline to continue moving forward. The legislation died last week for lack of seven votes (the requirement for emergency legislation) but was brought back this afternoon with a new amendment from council member Tammy Morales, who initially voted against the bill on the li grounds that it would expedite gentrification in historic districts like the Chinatown/International District and the Central District.

Public comment, which returned last week, was split between people who insisted that streamlining design review, even for a few months, would lead to the wholesale destruction of neighborhoods and the decimation of urban forests, and those who argued that building housing was critical to the city’s recovery. Several speakers who opposed the bill said that the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections “can’t be trusted” and suggested that city land-use bureaucrats were hellbent on scraping single-family lots of trees and vegetation to build dense, “unaffordable buildings” in the middle of their single-family neighborhoods.

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Last week, Morales proposed an amendment that would have eliminated a provision allowing city staff, rather than historic district and landmark review boards, to approve changes in historic districts. That amendment failed, and Morales voted against the legislation, along with Lisa Herbold and Alex Pedersen. This time, she came back with a more narrowly tailored amendment specifically prohibiting any online meetings of the city’s International [District] Special Review District on the grounds that the community includes many people without access to technology and translation services. That amendment passed, and Morales voted for the final bill, calling her vote “my first and last concession in the name of easing process or relieving administrative burdens if it means that it will accelerate disaster gentrification.”

Council member Andrew Lewis proposed an amendment, which failed to pass, that would have halted work on three projects that are participating in the city’s Living Building pilot program by requiring them to continue through the full design review process. “Living buildings” get some extra height and density in exchange for being built to high environmental standards, but like other buildings that receive height bonuses, they tend to be controversial among traditional neighborhood groups. Lewis said he had heard concerns from “the community” that allowing these projects to shift to administrative design review, which doesn’t require in-person meetings but does allow public feedback, would lead to inferior buildings. The amendment failed despite an assist from Herbold, who encouraged Lewis to reiterate his reasons for believing that projects shouldn’t shift from full design review to a less process-y process midstream.

“This will be my first and last concession in the name of easing process or relieving administrative burdens if it means that it will accelerate disaster gentrification.” — Council member Tammy Morales

And what about Herbold, who voted against the bill last week after her own amendment, which would have eliminated a provision that exempts affordable housing from design review for six months, failed? City rules prohibited her from bringing up the same amendment again (as they did with Morales’ unsuccessful changes), and she voted against the bill a second time, arguing that the affordable-housing exemption violates Gov. Jay Inslee’s order restricting cities from considering legislation that is unrelated to the COVID emergency. Council president Lorena Gonzalez, who said she had consulted on this question extensively with the city clerk and city attorney’s office, disagreed, and the legislation passed 7-2.

The upshot of all this is actually more significant than the last few weeks’ arcane finagling suggest. Dozens of projects, including affordable housing projects, have been on hold since Inslee’s order halted in-person public meetings, putting a critical economic sector in a holding pattern until the city decided what to do. Now, and for the next six months, these projects can get back underway. As Queen Anne Community Council board member Justin Allegro put it during public comment, “We don’t want to look back and regret that we missed out on huousing opportunities now just because we weren’t willing to trust our city employee experts to make design review decisions for the next few months.”

Gaming Out the Latest “Amazon Tax” At the Start of an Unprecedented Recession

Let’s start out by stating the obvious: Barring a miracle, the “Amazon Tax” proposed by Seattle council members Kshama Sawant and Tammy Morales will not become law in its current form. The bill, which the council will continue discussing into next month, would slap a 1.3 percent payroll tax on companies with more than $7 million in payroll expenses, raising more than $500 million a year from about 800 Seattle companies.

Sawant and Morales decided to designate the bill as an “emergency,” which makes it invulnerable to a future voter referendum; the tradeoff is that they need 7 votes for approval, plus the support of Mayor Jenny Durkan, since the city charter requires mayoral approval of all emergency legislation. In other words, even if Morales and Sawant got five other council members on board—unlikely, if comments at Wednesday’s budget committee from council members who are ordinarily sympathetic to tax-the-rich arguments are any indication—the mayor could simply let the proposal die without a formal veto. Durkan fought Sawant’s last effort to “tax Amazon,” a $275-per-employee tax on employees of companies with gross receipts of more than $20 million, and is implacably opposed to this one as well.

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There is also some question whether the proposal complies with an emergency order issued by Gov. Jay Inslee in March, and extended this week, barring public agencies from adopting or discussing legislation unless it’s “routine” or “necessary to respond to the COVID-19 outbreak and the current public health emergency.”

Despite all that, it’s still worth taking a look at the legislation, which dwarfs the “head tax” the council passed in 2018, then overturned, by a factor of more than ten. What would happen if, against all apparent odds, the bill were to pass in its current form?

In its first year, 2020, the legislation would fund cash payments of $2,000 over four months to 100,000 low-income Seattle residents to respond to the COVID crisis. (This is the part of the bill most obviously compliant with Inslee’s order). Because revenues from the tax wouldn’t be available until 2021, the bill would fund these checks by taking a short-term loan from six city funds that, according to a companion bill, have “sufficient cash” to contribute up to $50 million each. Those funds would be paid back in 2021, plus $5 million interest.

From then on, assuming all the assumptions that went into the proposal remain correct, the tax would pump more than $500 million a year into funding for “social housing” for people making between 0 and 100 percent of the Seattle median income, operational support for permanent supportive housing, and funding to implement the Green New Deal, which includes strategies like weatherization and converting buildings from gas to electric heat. The amount of funding from the tax would be less, of course, if the number of businesses spending more than $7 million annually on payroll declined because of the recession.

Even if the legislation is safe from any future referendum, it would still be subject to lawsuits, and there’s no guarantee that litigation over the tax would be resolved quickly, or in the city’s favor.

The $200 million “interfund loan” would come from six voter-approved levies and taxing districts, including the Move Seattle levy; the Families and Education Levy; the Seattle Parks District; and the Library Levy. Some of these funds do have “sufficient cash” to give up $50 million in the short term, but it’s worth taking a look at why that is, and how this might impact their ability to fund promised projects.

The Low Income Housing Fund, which receives money from the Housing Levy and payments from developers through the Mandatory Housing Affordability program, has more than $146 million on hand because property taxes have continued to flow in to fund future projects that are not yet off the ground. That money is in the city’s “bank,” but it’s already spoken for. Other funds, such as the Library Levy Fund, the Move Seattle Fund, and the Parks District Fund, have significantly less than $50 million lying around. The Parks District fund, in fact, is actually in the red; the 2020 budget makes up a $6 million shortfall with an interfund loan, to be repaid as more revenues come in. Some of these funds simply aren’t that big to begin with—the library levy, for example, is supposed to raise just over $200 million, total, over seven years,

None of that might matter if the $200 million could be repaid in just one year as proposed. But even if the legislation is safe from any future referendum, it would still be subject to lawsuits, and there’s no guarantee that litigation over the tax would be resolved quickly, or in the city’s favor. If funding from the tax didn’t come through quickly, or ever, it’s unclear how the $200 million would be repaid. If, say, the Library Levy found itself short $50 million, that could significantly impact the library’s ability to provide services promised to voters—especially as the recession eats into the city’s tax base.

There are also other interests competing for that money. As city budget director Ben Noble noted in his grim revenue forecast presentation Wednesday, the city may have to dip into some of the dedicated levy funds to pay for basic services—using the parks levy to fund basic maintenance instead of new capital projects, for example. “If the base levels of funding for which the levies were intended to be additive are no longer feasible, the question is whether it would make sense to use the levy funds for operational purposes,” Noble told the council Wednesday. Continue reading “Gaming Out the Latest “Amazon Tax” At the Start of an Unprecedented Recession”

Morales Proposes Eliminating Most Encampment Sweeps, Mayor’s Office Says Huge New “Shelter Tent” Is Coming, and More

Two of the beds the city is counting as “temporary housing” for homeless people, at an isolation/quarantine facility for COVID patients

1. City council member Tammy Morales plans to introduce a budget proviso that would restrict the Navigation Team’s ability to remove encampments that are not true hazards or obstructions. The proposal, a proviso on the adopted 2020 budget, would bar the city from spending money on sweeps except in a few specific circumstances.

The city has suspended most encampment removals during the COVID epidemic, but several homeless advocates expressed concern this week that the city plans to aggressively sweep encampments as soon as the crisis is over. Prior to the pandemic, the team, made up of police officers, outreach workers, and a cleanup crew, was removing most encampments without notice or mandatory outreach, thanks to a loophole in the city’s encampment rules. Although these rules, known as Multi-Departmental Administrative Rules, or MDARs, require the team to provide 72 hours’ notice and an offer of shelter to every encampment resident, the Navigation Team has gotten around this requirement by designating the overwhelming majority of encampments as “obstructions,” which allows them to remove encampments with no notice or outreach.

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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.

Morales’ proposal would allow the Navigation Team to remove encampments only under a narrow set of circumstances. For example, if an encampment obstructed the entrance to a building; presented an immediate fire hazard; or was located inside a children’s play area, it could be removed without warning. A draft of the bill lists six situations when a removal would be justified.

Morales says the Navigation Team “is using this obstruction language as an excuse, really, to remove people, and so we are trying to limit the funds that can be used to remove encampments. … [Withholding funds] is the only leverage we seem to have. People have been calling on the executive branch since longer than Jenny Durkan’s been there to stop this process, and that message doesn’t seem to be getting through.”

2. During a presentation about the challenges the city faces in opening parks restrooms and standing up portable toilets for people experiencing homelessness during the COVID crisis, deputy mayor Casey Sixkiller repeated what has become one of the mayor’s favorite talking points: “We recently announced our partnership with the county in creating 1,900 new spaces” for people experiencing homelessness, he said. Sixkiller’s comments came shortly after street outreach workers and advocates described the situation on the ground, where thousands of homeless people without access to shelter or public restrooms lack places to use the restroom or wash their hands. Sixkiller said the new beds were part of the city’s efforts to “[move] people inside so hygiene can be accessed there.”

When council members pointed out that this number is not correct—the 1,900 spaces are mostly hospital and isolation/quarantine beds for people who are sick, and the 700 “new” shelter spaces are existing spaces that have been relocated during the crisis—Sixkiller called their objections “semantic.”

When council members pointed out that this number is not correct—the 1,900 spaces, which the mayor’s office has also described as “temporary housing,” are mostly hospital and isolation/quarantine beds for people who are sick, and the 700 “new” shelter spaces are existing spaces that have been relocated during the crisis—Sixkiller called their objections “semantic.” “The reality is that there are 1,900 beds coming online,” he said. King County’s website is the most accurate guide to these 1,893 beds, some of which may not yet be online; they include about 700 existing shelter spaces that have been relocating to achieve social distancing, plus more than 1,000 hospital beds for people in isolation, quarantine, or recovery.

3. SIxkiller also said the city planned to open a “shelter tent for 180 individuals” in partnership with the Salvation Army. Homeless advocates who were participating in, and watching, the meeting said that this was the first they had heard of such a tent, and it was unclear whether the new tent would be for redistribution or an entirely new shelter. (I’ve asked the city for additional details about the tent). Up and down the West Coast, cities are beginning to move away from congregate shelters, which put people in close proximity, with people sleeping head to foot on mats or cots six feet apart and sharing air and mass restroom facilities. California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced this week that the state would pay for 15,000 motel rooms for people experiencing homelessness, and the city of Los Angeles plans to pay for 15,000 more.

A common objection to putting homeless people in hotel or motel rooms is that they need high levels of “staffing” to supervise them, a claim that advocates say is not true for most homeless people, who are capable of caring for themselves but lack the money to pay sky-high rents. Another objection, which came up at a county briefing on shelter and behavioral health on Wednesday, is that hotels aren’t interested. Some homeless advocates, including Seattle University law professor and Homeless Rights Advocacy Project director Sara Rankin, have suggested that the city or county should put out a request for qualifications to hotels and see who bites. “Right now [the Downtown Emergency Service Center] is trying to reach out to hotel and motel facilities themselves, which shouldn’t be DESC’s problem. That should be something that the city is streamlining,” Rankin says.

Temporary Sobering Center Opens, Private Security Firm Paid $30,000 a Week to Patrol Two Shelters, Sawant Loses Battle Over the Narrative, and More

New portable toilets and hand-washing station at Ballard Commons park.

1. Recovery Cafe, an organization that helps homeless and formerly homeless people recover from trauma and addiction, has  found a new purpose during the COVID epidemic: Serving as a temporary sobering center for people experiencing homelessness who have significant drug or alcohol issues who have no safe place to “sleep it off.” The organization’s building in SoDo, which has been closed since mid-March, reopened with 20 beds last night, and will expand to 40 beds, and 24/7 operations, later this month. Pioneer Human Services will operate the center.

Sherry Hamilton, a spokeswoman for the county’s Department of Human and Community Services, emphasized that new location will not be a permanent replacement for the SoDo facility that closed last year and has only partially been replaced, by a temporary, nighttime-only facility with limited medical services in a county-owned building at Fourth and Jefferson. Opening up space in that location will allow the county to “further deintensify” the shelter it runs in the same building, Hamilton says.

A proposed replacement in Georgetown was shot down after neighbors sued, and the county still has not located a site for a permanent new facility.

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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.

Sobering centers are meant to reduce pressure on local emergency rooms—a role that’s more critical now than at any time in recent history. Hamilton says that once the Recovery Cafe space ramps up, the operator, Pioneer Human Services, will be able to “engage them in services” in a way that isn’t possible when people have to leave at 7am. “The hard part about it being night-only is that they come in, they’re inebriated, they wake up in the morning, and they leave,” Hamilton says. “You haven’t had the time to work with them and engage them in buprenorphine [a medication that treats opiate addiction] or detox and treatment.”

The Seattle region is experiencing a shortage of available behavioral health care workers equipped to treat people with severe mental health and substance use disorders in shelters and COVID isolation, quarantine, and recovery units. I’ll be posting an update on what the county is doing to staff these facilities with behavioral health care workers (and ensure that people engaged in medication-assisted treatment can access their methadone or buprenorphine) later this week.

The city is paying Spokane-based Phoenix Security about $30,000 a week to have a guard at both shelters around the clock. The shelters each serve 50 clients who have been temporarily relocated from existing shelters during the COVID-19 pandemic.

2. I’ve been hammering away for weeks at the fact that the city does not have sufficient restrooms and handwashing facilities for the thousands of homeless people who live on its streets. As I’ve documented in story after story (and on a crowdsourced map I created last month), many of the restrooms that Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office initially claimed are open are actually closed, including restrooms in parks, at community centers, and at playgrounds in every corner of the city. 

This may be finally be changing, however. Durkan’s office reportedly directed the Parks department to open most of the dozens of restrooms that had been locked by yesterday, April 6. Over the weekend, I visited a few parks restrooms in my neighborhood and found that one that had been closed the last time I visited was open, although a “closed” sign was still taped to the door and the restroom itself was filthy and covered with standing water. Readers reported that several other restrooms on the map that had been marked as “closed” were now open.

The mayor’s office is also working to create an interactive map with the locations of restrooms that are currently open. It’s unclear how this will differ from the interactive map the city rolled out in 2018, which showed a much smaller number of restrooms than the 128 the mayor’s office initially claimed were open.

The council’s special committee on homelessness will hold a special, previously unannounced meeting this Wednesday at 10am. The only item on the agenda: “Presentation on the City’s efforts to provide additional hygiene facilities.”

3. Two restrooms on the city’s map that are not currently open are the ones at Garfield Community Center and Miller Community Center, which are serving as “de-intensification” sites for 100 existing shelter beds. Both sites are staffed by Parks Department employees and are patrolled around the clock by private security officers. The city is paying Spokane-based Phoenix Security about $30,000 a week to have a guard at each building 24/7, or $90 an hour. Each shelter serves 50 clients who have been temporarily relocated from other shelters during the pandemic. 

According to Parks spokeswoman Rachel Schulkin, “staffing for these centers is a mixture of shelter staff and recreation staff—with many working in a shelter setting for the first time. Providing security at these facilities through a trained and prepared contractor, supports our ability to stand up a shelter in relatively short order and through reassignment of City employees.”

“I’m sort of bristling at this concept that the only way that we will pass a strong, progressive revenue bill is if it’s heard in the committee of Council Member Sawant.” -Seattle City Council member Lisa Herbold

4. City council members squabbled Monday over two efforts by council member Kshama Sawant to control the narrative in the council’s virtual chambers—a harder task than usual, now that she is unable to organize physical “Pack City Hall!” rallies at city hall. First, Sawant tried and failed to introduce a proposal that would allow people to give virtual public testimony on any subject related to the COVID-19 epidemic, a sharp departure from standing council rules that require public commenters to speak to items on the agenda.

After that effort failed—”we need to have some semblance of order when it comes to council business,” council president Lorena Gonzalez said—Sawant tried to introduce her “Tax Amazon” legislation, which would now provide direct monthly payments to 100,000 Seattle residents, into the sustainability and renters’ rights committee, which she chairs and which her co-sponsor Tammy Morales co-chairs. Bills about taxation typically go through the council’s finance committee, which, unlike the smaller standing committees, includes all nine council members.

“If we really support the movement that has been fighting for this, I believe that it should be a committee that is chaired by me and Council Member Morales or a select committee that is being chaired by me,” Sawant said. “The only entity that is being undercut by all this is the movement itself.” Sawant then questioned Gonzalez’ motivation in wanting the bill to go through the finance committee.

Lisa Herbold, a Sawant ally on some issues, responded that the council had passed both the previous head tax and the 2017 high earners’ income tax through the finance committee, under former council members Sally Bagshaw and Tim Burgess, respectively. “I’m sort of bristling at this concept that the only way that we will pass a strong, progressive revenue bill is if it’s heard in the committee of Council Member Sawant,” she said. “Particularly in this crisis, I don’t think it’s helpful to promote that divisive approach to how the council does its business.”

Sawant’s proposal died for lack of a second, and Morales made a proposal to move the tax plan into the finance committee, which passed.