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Seattle City Council approves Regional Homeless Authority

Councilmember Lorena Gonzalez. (AP file Photo/Ted S. Warren)

The Seattle City Council has approved a regional homeless authority, the last step in making the agreement with King County a reality.

Can a regional agency actually help Seattle’s homeless problem?

King County Councilmember Jeanne Kohl-Welles released a statement shortly after the vote Monday afternoon. In part:

“Today marks a new chapter in how we as a region respond to homelessness by ending our fractured approach and replacing it with a consolidated regional authority that will provide cost efficiencies and cost effectiveness in responding to our homelessness crisis.”

She added that no news taxpayer funds will be expended for the legislation. Rather it’s to make sure tax money is being spent wisely.

Final approval of the Regional Homeless Authority is the culmination of more than a year of work by city, county, and other stakeholders following an initial announcement by Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan and King County Executive Dow Constantine in December of 2018 about their intent to create the new agency.

In September, the two leaders along with other elected officials, finally revealed a specific proposal — the new Regional Homeless Authority — that would initially merge Seattle and King County’s emergency homeless response systems.

That announcement was met with concern from some on both councils, including County Councilmember Reagan Dunn, who publicly criticized the plan before it was even officially announced and offered an alternative of his own.

The Regional Policy Committee (RPC), King County Council, and Seattle City Council continued to meet over the next several months, and seemed as though the regional authority was not going to be approved before 2020 when new councils would be in place.

Among the issues, suburban cities were concerned they were not going to have enough of a voice in the regional authority. There also accountability concerns over the original plan giving most of the power over the agency to non-elected subject-experts on homelessness.

Then, over the Thanksgiving break, Kohl-Welles, a RPC member,  did some last minute negotiating. She came up with a compromise that shifted most of the authority to elected officials on the governing board of the new agency, and away from the implementation board of experts, while also giving, and gave suburban cities more of a voice.

It also ditched plans to have the regional agency created as a Public Development Authority (PDA), instead creating the agency under a city-county partnership known as an Interlocal Agreement (ILA) that, unlike the PDA, does not include a path to eventually gaining taxing authority to raise revenue for the homeless effort.

That new plan got the OK from the RPC, and then last week, King County Council approved the revised plan, while noting it wasn’t perfect.

“What we’re doing currently isn’t getting us where we want to be. It’s really not working,” said County Councilmember Claudia Balducci before voting in favor of the measure.

“With today’s action, we are one step closer to setting up an authority that truly has the capacity to bring transformational change to the way we serve and respond to those in our community experiencing homelessness,” said compromise broker Kohl-Welles.

From there, it was up to the Seattle City Council, which approved the plan in committee Thursday without making any changes. Any edits would have required the entire voting and negotiation process start over again.

However, the city council committee also approved an ordinance detailing a list of things the city expects to eventually be included in the plan.

“There are a handful of areas — of the dozens and dozens of policy decisions that have already been made by the RPC and by the King County Council, I’m literally focusing on three,” said Councilmember Lorena Gonzales.

Seattle, County homeless response paralyzed by bureaucracy

With Seattle putting up nearly 60 percent of the homeless authority’s $132 million annual budget, Gonzales and others on the council want to be sure the policies it creates are evidenced-based, such as Housing First models. She also wants to ensure at least eight of the 12 governing board members have to vote to make policy and budget changes, and that the city council gets annual performance reports from the new authority.

Gonzales abstained from the committee vote on the plan last week, saying that she hoped to get written assurances from the mayor and county council before Monday’s vote that those issues would be meaningfully addressed, and see them implemented as the new authority is created.

If those expectations are not met within a year, the ordinance the committee passed says the city can withhold the $73 million a year in funding it has agreed to provide the new authority.

“I would describe that as a nuclear option of this city council suddenly deciding because these issues aren’t resolved that we are going to withhold $73 million from the regional authority,” Gonzales said, at Thursday’s committee meeting, adding she doubted it would come to that.

That set the stage for Monday’s final vote where Gonzales again voiced her concern over what she described as substantial flaws in the  plan and made clear she did not receive the assurances she had hoped for.

Gonzales praised Durkan and Constantine for signing a letter committing to addressing the issues she raised, but said she had not been given assurances from others.

“No one, not a single person on the county council was willing to sign a letter affirming commitment to addressing what I see as outside issues,” Gonzales said explaining why she’d be a no vote.

“Politics has already taken ahold in this structure and that is just really saddening to me,” Gonzales added, expressing disappointment in having to reject a regional homeless authority – an effort she wholeheartedly supports.

Mike O’Brien also was disappointed that no county councilmembers signed the letter committing to address the city’s expectations, and stressed the importance of the new authority sticking to evidence based practices – and at the end, he said the city had the leverage because it was putting up the most money.

“This work cannot move forward without the city of Seattle being on board,” O’Brien said.

“We can tell them next month that if you don’t agree to these terms, you need to know we will not approve budgets and you’re wasting your time at this point going forward. We would not technically be withdrawing from the ILA, but will make it a meaningless effort if those conditions aren’t met,” O’Brien added.

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