Citing an increase in trash and illegal dumping, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan is proposing funding for the city’s parks and public spaces. (Alan Berner / The Seattle Times)
Citing an increase in trash and illegal dumping, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan is proposing funding for the city’s parks and public spaces. (Alan Berner / The Seattle Times)

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan has proposed a $5.6 million plan to address trash and maintenance needs in parks and public spaces between now and next summer.

The city has struggled to meet those needs since the COVID-19 pandemic began, the mayor’s office said Wednesday, citing an increase in trash and illegal dumping, a dip in staffing due to COVID-19 protocols and a reduction in volunteer cleanups. Seattle Public Utilities collected 195% more waste material in public spaces from July to September (921,000 pounds) than April to June (313,000 pounds), Durkan’s office said.

Durkan’s plan requires council approval. It would add about $1.2 million to Seattle’s remaining 2020 budget and about $4.4 million next year to boost trash pickup and maintenance in parks, business districts and natural areas. Council members have been discussing similar ideas.

The mayor’s plan would expand until July 2021: a twice-weekly litter and illegal-dumping abatement program from eight neighborhood routes to 18; a program that distributes and retrieves trash bags at homeless encampments from 17 locations to 34; and a needle-disposal program from eight boxes to 18.

It also would increase spending on graffiti removal and business-district cleanups while assigning teams of employees from multiple departments to chip away at the city’s cleaning maintenance backlog, according to Durkan’s office.

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The council has been discussing amendments to the 2021 budget plan the mayor submitted in September. Durkan’s office published an updated economic forecast Monday that grew Seattle’s expected general-government revenues by $57 million in 2020 and 2021. The mayor is suggesting the council use some of that money to pay for her trash-pickup and maintenance plan.

Durkan’s plan incorporates council ideas, she noted. Councilmember Tammy Morales has proposed expanding the bags program and Councilmember Dan Strauss has proposed more spending on business-district cleaning.

Durkan has heard from “community members all over the city” that more should be done “to clean public rights of way and parks,” she said. “It is critical we keep our parks and playgrounds safe and accessible to all. “

Greg Ramirez, who chairs the Georgetown Community Council, described Durkan’s plan as a good sign. Parks in his neighborhood have been neglected, he said.

“We’ll see whether they’re able to stay on top of this,” Ramirez said.

Several aspects of the mayor’s plan would address needs at tent camps that have sprouted in a number of parks. Some neighborhood and business groups, including the Georgetown council, complained about such camps in a letter about various parks problems last week, causing some tent residents and advocates to worry that City Hall might evict the camps without offering adequate help. Public-health officials have warned that breaking up camps could spread the coronavirus.

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Durkan’s plan says: “This initiative is not a proposal to increase encampment removals.” The council’s homelessness committee chair, Andrew Lewis, said the services in question should win widespread support.

“I’ve been out to a lot of encampments … and people want places to throw stuff away. They don’t want to pile up garbage,” Lewis said.

People in tents at a Denny Park encampment where the city already has located a dumpster have been keeping the area litter-free, they pointed out last week. The city may add Dumpsters at more parks and the parks department is launching a “quick-response team,” with existing resources, to prevent “piling on” by illegal dumpers at abandoned encampments.

Tiffani McCoy, lead organizer at Real Change, described the proposed services as welcome, but said she remains uneasy about camps possibly being swept.

Durkan is calling her plan a “Clean Cities Initiative,” McCoy noted, concerned that rhetoric could encourage people to blame “dirty” spaces on unsheltered people, rather than maintenance challenges and root causes of homelessness.

“Some of this is positive,” McCoy said about Durkan’s plan. “But I have to call out the reactivity. We continue to not invest enough upstream.”

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Alison Eisinger, executive director at the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, says most people here “understand that people are living outside because they don’t have anywhere else to be that’s safe and stable.”

Council members must weigh their priorities, she said. The restrooms at a park near Eisinger’s home where people are living are “inconsistently open,” she mentioned, adding, “We don’t have enough sanitation. We don’t have enough shelter. We don’t have enough housing.”

Ramirez hopes the potential surge in maintenance is complemented by an increase in assistance for unsheltered people, he said. Durkan has said her 2021 budget would add hundreds of short-term shelter beds. She and the City Council last week reached a deal to bolster homeless outreach for the rest of 2020. They’re still discussing how exactly to handle that work next year.

“This council has been very assertive about wanting to take a new course of action” that shrinks camps by guiding people to shelter, rather than by clearing tents away, Lewis said.

“We in Georgetown really want to see people connected” to help, Ramirez said.

Don Blakeney, vice president at the Downtown Seattle Association, called Durkan’s plan for trash mitigation a good first step.

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“The goal is to not have people living in parks — and to get there with outreach, services and safe places for people to go,” he said.

Cindi DeWitt, environmental services director at the Park Place assisted-living building in New Holly, said trash pickups are appreciated at nearby John C. Little Park. But DeWitt also would like to see City Hall invest in portable toilets and handwashing stations, because the park’s restrooms typically close around this time of year.

“I truly hope this will be addressed before the winter sets in,” she said.