Seattle and King County need to hold off proposing big tax increases for homeless response until they show more progress improving the regional homeless-services system.
Seattle and King County politicians are leapfrogging each other with plans to raise ever-higher taxes for additional homeless services.
Their compassion is appreciated. But it’s time to press pause.
The plan said about $10 million was needed to get started, after which “costs will decrease year over year.”
Mayor Ed Murray budgeted $12 million for the plan and last week promised that reforms are underway, including a competitive bidding process for homeless-service providers.
It was the mayor who started an arms race in February by proposing a $275 million, five-year levy to nearly double city homeless spending.
County Executive Dow Constantine followed with a proposed $469 million, seven-year sales-tax increase for arts, science and culture programs.
Then last week, Murray dropped his levy plan and partnered with Constantine to propose a countywide sales-tax increase, which if approved by voters in 2018 would generate $469 million more for homeless services over seven years.
That clears the runway for this year’s tax proposals — the arts tax, extending the county veterans and human-services levy and a soda tax for city education programs.
The homeless crisis has worsened. But it’s not clear that major spending increases are warranted. Consider this: King County and Seattle now spend more than $130 million a year on homeless services. This targets a fluctuating group of 10,000 to 15,000. Last year’s county tally found 4,505 unsheltered people and 6,225 in shelters and temporary housing.
As highlighted by city and county consultants last summer, the system isn’t making the most out of current spending levels.
Furthermore, the Legislature is reforming taxes to fully fund K-12 schools. Until the effects of that are clear, it’s irresponsible to dramatically increase local taxes. So far, the education funding proposals lean heavily on the Puget Sound region’s taxpayers to fund schools statewide.
None of this is to diminish the importance of addressing the homeless crisis. This a compassionate region. Seattle alone spent about $1 billion in the last 20 years to shelter and house the homeless and poor.
Murray increased city spending on homeless services to $59 million this year, up from $33 million in 2013.
But taxpayer fatigue is setting in. People expect to see improvements instead of more garbage near homeless camps.
Murray’s own analysis of homeless investments, in 2015, warned that funding decisions were overly influenced by activists and lobbying, instead of being driven by a cohesive city strategy.
Fixing such flaws will take strong management and financial discipline. If additional dollars equated progress, the crisis would be long over.
What’s really needed is a system revamp. As consultants confirmed, reforms are needed to ensure dollars aren’t frittered away on inefficient and potentially inhumane programs.
And there are signs of hope. The percent of King County homeless transitioning to housing increased from 25 to 39 percent last year.
Let’s keep improving the system. Let’s wait to see how the Legislature funds schools. And let’s wisely spend the trove already budgeted — and hold off asking for more.