Some days budget discussions aren’t so boring

Wednesday morning, the Council took up its quarterly update to the city’s budget. Normally these discussions are an excellent cure for insomnia, and the first quarter update especially so since it involves retroactive cleanup of last year’s budget, rolling over small amounts of leftover funds from the pervious year’s budget, accepting grants,  and correcting all the mistakes and oversights in last fall’s eight-week-long annual budget development marathon as well as any new projects that need to be funded (like $46,000 to reopen five wading pools at city parks this summer).  But a bit of grandstanding by Council member Sawant brought some drama to the deliberations this time.

Over the past few weeks, a number of representatives from Seattle’s Ethiopian community have made several appearances at Council meetings, pleading in the public comment sessions for the Council to approve funding for a new development project that would combine a community center and 124 units of affordable housing. This has puzzled me, because I couldn’t find any reference to such a project on any of the Council’s list of pending or newly-introduced legislation.

Wednesday morning the mystery was solved: Sawant offered an amendment to the 2017 Q1 budget update to allocate $4.3 million for the project. Even more interesting is where the money came from: she proposed taking it from the funds used to clean up or “sweep” unsanctioned homeless encampments, forcing the Mayor and his staff to decrease the number of cleanups this year.

There were six Council members present for the discussion: committee chair Burgess, Johnson, Sawant, O’Brien, Herbold, and Harrell. O’Brien offered an unenthusiastic “courtesy second” to Sawant’s amendment just so that it could be discussed.

Sawant had clearly shopped it around to her colleagues before the meeting, and knew that there was little enthusiasm for it. That didn’t prevent her from giving a full-throated pitch for her amendment anyway.

Both parts of her amendment, the project and the source of the funds, raised objections form the other Council members. There was much support and enthusiasm for the project itself, but there was concern about politicizing the process of earmarking funds for one specific community project when many others are also financially challenged and fighting for access to limited city funds. In fact, O’Brien named many organizations in similar situations: the Filipino community’s similar $800,000 project, the Landmark project in Little Saigon, the Rainier Beach Action Committee, and a group trying to fund a multi-cultural community center. In this year’s budget the Council appropriated $16 million of seed funding to start a new Equitable Development Initiative (EDI) under the Office of planning and Community Development that would fund these kinds of projects. That includes $200,000 for “capacity building” work to build the skills and expertise in these community organizations to help them successfully plan their projects and get funding from public and private sources. The belief among Sawant’s colleagues, including O’Brien, is that the EDI program (which is still in the planning process) is the appropriate avenue for these kinds of projects to get funded as it creates a “level playing field” for all applicants, and the Council should not politicize it by earmarking funds for specific organizations.

This is of course disingenuous, as some of the Council members admitted, because the 2017 budget has a long list of earmarks for Council members’ pet projects, many driven by the seven district-based Council members’ desire to deliver for their constituents.

Harrell, whose district includes the Ethiopian community, was the only Council member to support Sawant’s amendment. Herbold offered to work on an alternative amendment for Monday’s full council meeting that would earmark $50,000 of the $200,000 of EDI funds dedicated for capacity building for the Ethiopian community, though City Budget Director Ben Noble argued strongly against that approach as well. We’ll see on Monday if that gets any traction.

Sawant’s argument for her amendment was partly a screed against sweeps and partly a response to her colleagues’ insistence that favored projects should not get to “jump the line.” On the latter part, she made some eye-brow raising comparisons, claiming that the Seattle Waterfront project, Bertha, road improvements demanded by Amazon, and the proposed North Precinct police station weren’t forced to wait in line, but rather were “rushed through in the face of opposition.” Those are some pretty laughable “alternative facts.” First, Bertha was a state-funded project, not a city project. Much of the waterfront project is also funded with state SR99 viaduct replacement funds, and along with any road improvements done for Amazon (which probably happened, but I couldn’t find any specific references to them) went through years in the Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) queue waiting to get planned and funded. And then there’s the North Precinct station: conversations about replacing it date all the way back to 1998 and went nowhere for fifteen years.

Sawant’s amendment failed by a 2-4 vote, with herself and Harrell  as the only two “yes” votes. But Sawant was hardly done: she then offered another similar amendment, with a twist. The new amendment still took $4.3 million away from the encampment cleanups, but made a general reallocation to the EDI program rather than trying to specifically allocate it to the Ethiopian community’s development project.

That garnered even less enthusiasm from her colleagues. It failed to get a second — even from O’Brien — though when Burgess tried to move on, Harrell offered a “courtesy second” just so it could be discussed before being voted down. But now the conversation was solely focused on cleanups of unauthorized encampments.  Sawant expressed her frustration that the Mayor’s office can’t tell her how much the cleanups are costing, because the bulk of the costs are for personnel from all of the participating departments (SPD, SFD, SPU, SDOT, and others). She noted that the city carried out 601 cleanups in 2016, and argued that the money should be spent on the EDI instead.

O’Brien was her closest ally, and even then he wasn’t sold. He said that he too is not happy with the cleanup protocols, but can’t support broad language simply taking money away since there are parts of the cleanup work (garbage and needle pickup, for example) that he does support. Herbold echoed some of his comments, arguing that she supports cleanup of encampments that are imminent risks, but that she doesn’t believe they have a good understanding of whether the executive branch’s work is focused on that. Nevertheless, she doesn’t support a broad-brushed approach of moving large sums of money over to EDI.

Sawant amped up her rhetoric, saying that unless the city’s personnel are going to each individual person and offering them shelter options that work for each person, then it’s a sweep whether or not you can make a case that it’s dangerous.

It’s a shame that Council member Baghsaw wasn’t present, since she and her committee have spent a great deal of time picking through the details of how the encampment cleanups are performed. And in particular, FAS Director Fred Podesta and Director of Homelessness George Scarola have testified that the new Navigation Team, which is the front line for unsanctioned cleanups, is doing exactly what Sawant has demanded: they go out every morning with an updated list of available shelter, services and sanctioned encampment spaces and make meaningful offers that are tailored to each individual person’s situation and needs — and since they began doing that, the rate of acceptance of those offers has risen dramatically.  For some reason, Burgess and Harrell, who were both present for that briefing in Bagshaw’s committee, didn’t challenge Sawant on that point. Perhaps it’s because there is little independent verification that the city staff are consistently following their updated encampment cleanup protocols — and last fall there was substantial evidence that they weren’t following their own rules.

Sawant’s second amendment failed by a vote of 1-5, and thus ended the tilting at windmills. The political calculus involved here is a bit difficult to decipher. Sawant’s amendments had no chance of passing (you know she’s doing badly when neither O’Brien nor Herbold support her), so it’s not clear whether her goal was to actually get the Ethiopian community’s project funded, or to de-fund sweeps, or both. Or neither — perhaps it was simply a political stunt to either motivate her base, make her look like she’s fighting hard for the “little guy,” or try to erode support for her colleagues by forcing them to take stands that would anger her populist base. Certainly her efforts to politicize everything (she claims it’s all already political) are sapping the goodwill of her colleagues on the Council.

What’s equally interesting is how Seattle’s Ethiopian community will feel about this: whether they appreciate Sawant for advocating for them even though there was no chance of success, or whether they resent being used as a political pawn in her chess game. Perhaps it’s a bit of both: certainly Sawant put pressure on OPCD to prioritize their project in the EDI program, even it was discouraging to see funding for their project rejected in a Council committee meeting.

You can watch the discussion here (jump to 1:14:45).

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