Last-minute changes to the proposed merger of King County and Seattle’s homelessness services after nearly a year of deliberation could go to a vote as early as this week.
The latest plan, hatched with urgency as the year comes to a close, would give King County’s suburban cities more power in the proposed authority’s two-tier governing structure — a change made within the last week that has upset some involved with developing the new entity.
Under the new proposal, suburban cities would make up a quarter of the seats on the authority’s 12-person governing committee of elected officials and community members. Seattle, King County government and people who have been homeless would each get a quarter of the votes.
The authority would be funded by both Seattle and King County, with Seattle contributing $75 million to the authority’s $132 million budget, and King County funding nearly $57 million.
Last year, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan and King County Executive Dow Constantine endorsed folding the governments’ homeless services into one regional authority, as recommended by consultants who faulted the system’s lack of organization as a reason government was failing to adequately address the problem.
The governing committee, called a “steering committee” in an earlier plan, has also been granted more power —a major sticking point in the ongoing development of the authority. The committee would have the ability to fire the CEO of the authority with a nine-member supermajority. The governing committee would additionally be responsible for confirming the authority’s CEO and could amend the budget.
These changes represent a major overhaul. Under the previous plan, this group of elected officials could only confirm or reject budgets.
The other governing tier of the proposed authority will be composed of a group of 13 experts.
King County Councilmember Jeanne Kohl-Welles helped broker the deal over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend – working out the “hiccups,” as she called them. The week before, King County Council members and the city had worked on a deal to make another major change: swapping the structure of the agency from a public development authority to an agency created through an interlocal agreement.
The original proposal was not popular with leaders of suburban cities who feared they wouldn’t have enough say in where county tax dollars would go.
“I think there’s better opportunity for getting to do this work if suburban cities are in partnership with us,” Kohl-Welles said.
It was also a practical consideration, she added. Suburban cities have a big influence on the votes of county council members whose districts include them.
If the newest plan passes out of the Regional Policy Committee this week, it’ll go before a vote at the King County Council and Seattle City Council. Supporters of the proposal are pushing to make that happen before the legislative bodies’ last sessions of the year in mid-December, before new city and county council members start their terms in January.
“I don’t think it’s a perfect plan,” said Colleen Echohawk, Chief Seattle Club executive director, whose organization participated in the planning of the authority. “It’s not going to solve all of our problems. But is it a plan that’s better than anything I’ve seen? I think so.”
Others in the human-services community, however, are concerned that giving more power to politicians could push the authority away from evidence-based solutions recommended by homelessness experts, such as increasing pay for front-line staffers and finding vacant buildings that could be turned into shelter. Some are urging elected officials to revert to the earlier proposal.
“Our concern is that it doesn’t put experts at the center and could prevent us from moving forward,” said Lauren McGowan, senior director of ending homelessness and poverty at United Way of King County. “We strongly recommend staying with the original proposal and we also have a sense of urgency.”
The original proposal also had the benefit of being vetted by community and the people most impacted by homelessness, said LaMont Green, chair of the Lived Experience Coalition. “I’m a little bit leery about any changes made to the original proposal,” he said.
Shaun van Eyck, the union representative for staffers at the homeless-services investment division at the city as well as some employees at the county and the county’s coordinating homeless-services agency, said his members are frustrated by the “major structural changes” to the version of the plan that had been workshopped over months.
“The big red flag for me was the change in the governing committee role and authority,” van Eyck said. “It’s massive.”
Van Eyck questioned why a quarter of the seats would be given to cities that don’t contribute funds from their budgets to the new authority. Union members at the city and county are now organizing to show up at meetings and attempt to delay the vote, he said.
But leaders of suburban cities say van Eyck’s criticism misses the fact that their constituents also fund King County’s budget.
Redmond Mayor-elect Angela Birney, a board member of the Sound Cities Association and member of the Regional Policy Committee, said she believed it was “the appropriate amount of opportunity to have a say in what’s going on.”
Bellevue City Councilmember John Stokes, another member of the Regional Policy Committee, said that the rest of the county also suffers from Seattle’s negative image regarding homelessness.
“One of the concerns that Sound Cities have is that to a great extent we are directly impacted and sometimes negatively impacted by the Seattle issues, and frankly the inability of Seattle over a substantial time period to actually deal with this issue in a productive way is harming everyone else,” Stokes said.
The Seattle City Council has not yet set a date to vote on the latest proposal. The Regional Policy Committee is set to consider the plan on Thursday.