Elected officials across King County got their first peek Wednesday at how a proposed regional homeless authority could operate — and its proposed $110 million annual budget.
But leaders from suburban cities in the county and others are concerned they won’t have enough decision-making power once the new organization is up and running.
The preview of the new authority’s governing structure, at a King County Regional Policy Committee meeting, came one day after city of Seattle homeless-services employees learned they will be guaranteed employment only through the end of 2020 as part of the city’s planned merger with King County in the new regional homeless authority.
These are among the first public signs that consolidation of the region’s homeless efforts, pushed by Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan and King County Executive Dow Constantine, are closer to becoming a reality.
Consolidation and creation of a regional authority are intended to streamline the countywide homeless-services system, which is currently spread across six city, county and federal agencies. A consultant last year said the structure had “stunted progress toward ending homelessness in the region.”
As proposed, the new regional authority would be composed of a five-person steering committee of elected officials from around the county and an 11-person governing board of experts.
The steering committee would appoint members to the governing board, confirm the authority’s five-year implementation plan and approve annual budgets for the entity, said Leo Flor, the county’s Department of Community and Human Services director.
But while the steering committee would have final approval over various decisions, the governing board of experts would handle many of the details.
The estimated $110 million annual budget is based on past Seattle and county expenditures, Flor said.
As Durkan and Constantine have supported consolidation, and would still need to approve the plan, elected officials have expressed concerns about what the merger will actually achieve. Suburban city leaders have also said they want to make sure they have a seat at the table, and that this isn’t just Seattle running the show.
“I think you’re losing the opportunity to have a stronger system by having more people from the cities involved in this,” said Bellevue Councilmember John Stokes, who sits on the Regional Policy Committee.
Flor said the county plans to send a proposed charter to create a public development authority for homeless services by the first week in September. But policy committee members emphasized they saw no point in rushing.
“We’ve got to do it right,” said King County Councilmember Jeanne Kohl-Welles.
The road to creation of that authority could still be a bumpy one. Not discussed Wednesday were the nitty-gritty details of how a new authority will come together.
Seattle city staff learned of the 2020 deadline on their employment in a memo sent Tuesday afternoon and obtained by The Seattle Times. The city’s Human Services Department (HSD), which oversees homeless investments, said in a statement that it is giving employees extensive notice of their employment options “to mitigate the negative impact on staff to the extent possible, while ensuring continuous service delivery.”
Although HSD employs about 400 people, only about 40 people working in homeless services will be potentially affected by these changes, said HSD spokesperson Meg Olberding. Overall, Seattle’s homeless-response spending has risen to about $90 million a year.
The memo describes a three-phase “migration” of homeless services to the new entity. In the first, city employees will co-locate with homeless services staff from King County and All Home, the county’s current coordinating agency for homelessness. In phase two, the regional authority’s executive director — who has yet to be hired — will run day-to-day operations.
By the last phase, city employees will have three opportunities: pursue jobs with the regional authority; pursue other jobs with the city of Seattle; or look for other employment.
This week’s HSD memo comes after months of internal turmoil in the city’s Homeless Strategy and Investment (HSI) division — some of the unrest related to consolidation but also to frustration with leadership and management within the department itself.
In April, Durkan withdrew her nomination of Jason Johnson to permanently lead HSD, which includes the homelessness division, after some HSD employees, homeless-service providers and council members protested the selection process. Johnson remains interim department director.
Several HSI staffers have quit since the summer began, including Jackie St. Louis, the previous supervisor of the city’s Navigation Team, which provides outreach to people living in homeless encampments.
Earlier in the summer, the city announced the expected departure of homeless services Deputy Director Tiffany Washington. She is leaving to work with the city’s Early Education and Learning department as deputy director.
Olberding said HSD employees are “committed to keeping the work going” throughout the transition to the new authority. “We have a very, very professional staff who are dedicated and motivated to make a difference in reducing homelessness,” she said.