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Week in Review: February 9, 2024 - with David Kroman

Hacks & Wonks

Release Date: 02/09/2024

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More Episodes

On this week-in-review, Crystal is joined by Seattle Times City Hall reporter, David Kroman!

Crystal and David dig into why Seattle is putting less money into new affordable housing project this year and how this week’s launch of a second social housing initiative by House Our Neighbors may be appealing to voters wanting to see progress on the issue. Next, they discuss the pressure on Mayor Bruce Harrell to deliver results now that a City Council friendly to his agenda has taken office and how the new Council’s relative inexperience was on display at initial committee meetings. Finally, the show wraps up with a troubling story of the for-profit Tacoma immigration detention center refusing to allow state inspectors access after hundreds of complaints about the facility’s poor conditions.

As always, a full text transcript of the show is available below and at officialhacksandwonks.com.

Find the host, Crystal Fincher, on Twitter at @finchfrii and find today’s co-host, David Kroman, at @KromanDavid.

 

Resources

Harm Reduction in Rural Washington with Everett Maroon of Blue Mountain Heart to Heart from Hacks & Wonks

 

Why Seattle will fund fewer new affordable housing projects this year” by David Kroman from The Seattle Times

 

I-136 Let's Build Social Housing | House Our Neighbors

 

Seattle’s social housing developer proposes payroll tax on ‘excess earners’” by David Kroman from The Seattle Times

 

New Social Housing Initiative Would Tax Business to Fund Up to 2,500 Over 10 Years” by Hannah Krieg from The Stranger

 

A council of allies in place, Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell feels pressure to deliver” by David Kroman from The Seattle Times

 

Watch: New Transportation Committee gets intro from SDOT, CM Kettle puts foot in mouth” by Tom Fucoloro from Seattle Bike Blog

 

@KromanDavid on Twitter: “Councilmember Rob Saka: "Ideally I'd like to have an across the board auditing of the entire city budget, but I am mindful that that is very costly and a time intensive activity. It's not practicable or feasible this year."

 

State inspectors denied entry to privately-run immigration detention center in Tacoma” by Grace Deng from Washington State Standard

 

Find stories that Crystal is reading here

 

Listen on your favorite podcast app to all our episodes here

 

Transcript

[00:00:00] Crystal Fincher: Welcome to Hacks & Wonks. I'm Crystal Fincher, and I'm a political consultant and your host. On this show, we talk with policy wonks and political hacks to gather insight into local politics and policy in Washington state through the lens of those doing the work with behind-the-scenes perspectives on what's happening, why it's happening, and what you can do about it. Be sure to subscribe to the podcast to get the full versions of our Tuesday topical show and our Friday week-in-review delivered to your podcast feed. If you like us, the most helpful thing you can do is leave a review wherever you listen to Hacks & Wonks. Full transcripts and resources referenced in the show are always available at officialhacksandwonks.com and in our episode notes.

If you missed our Tuesday topical show, I welcomed Everett Maroon of Blue Mountain Heart to Heart for a conversation about how the opioid epidemic has impacted rural communities in Washington, the damaging role of stigma, what harm reduction is, and why it's so important. Today, we're continuing our Friday week-in-review shows where we review the news of the week with a co-host. Welcome back to the program, friend of the show, and today's co-host: Seattle Times City Hall reporter, David Kroman.

[00:01:22] David Kroman: Hello. Thanks for having me.

[00:01:24] Crystal Fincher: Absolutely. Thanks for being here. Well, there is - been a decent amount of news this week. We will start off talking about news you covered about why Seattle is funding fewer new affordable housing projects this year. What's happening and why are they seeming to step back here?

[00:01:45] David Kroman: Yeah, it's interesting, and I would say kind of concerning for the general affordable housing landscape. So back to as far as 2018, Seattle has always made these annual announcements of how much money they're going to be putting towards affordable housing. They pair it with federal tax credits and private donations, but it usually ends up being over $100 million a year. Last year, for example, it was $147 million - I think it was about that the year before. This year, the award is only $53 million for new affordable housing projects - that stands out because voters just passed a new housing levy that's triple the size of the one before it. There is still money - less money, but there's still money - coming in from the Mandatory Housing Affordability program. And there's also the JumpStart payroll tax, which is supposed to go towards housing. So all those things together would suggest there's a lot of money for new affordable housing, but the problem is that a lot of the projects that the city has funded in the past are struggling with their finances. The combination of interest rates and some wonky details about what loans they're on mean that these 70 projects or so that are in the works, or at various stages of development, need something in the order of $90 million to prop them up. So it's a frustrating reality for people in the affordable housing world because they want to be building new housing, they want to be putting new units on the market. But because of just the nature of construction industry and where interest rates are at, a lot of that money is getting sucked up into basically paying for housing that we thought we'd already paid for.

[00:03:17] Crystal Fincher: So does this money that is usually allocated annually - does it only go to the construction? Does it ever go to propping up other projects? Did this happen by surprise for the city? It doesn't seem like it was telegraphed that it would be this much of a hit. How did this change come about?

[00:03:36] David Kroman: Yeah, the Office of Housing always helps out with operations and maintenance, and they see that they have a certain obligation not to just fund the construction, but to make sure that the buildings that they're helping fund function properly and can actually house people. I don't think it's uncommon that they go back and help out buildings that they'd already funded. As far as I know, though, it has never gotten to this size. It was telegraphed actually a few months ago - their initial announcement of how much money would be available suggested that it was going to be quite a bit smaller. I think people thought there were some more technical explanations for that. But what's really happening - in affordable housing, there's basically two loans that these affordable housing buildings get. There's the construction loan, which is what they get to put up the building. And then there's their final loan that they convert to once they've leased up enough of their units and are bringing in enough rent - because, despite the fact that it's affordable housing, the calculations that the banks make around these still require that they're collecting some level of rent from their tenants. Usually that process takes two or three years for them to convert from their construction loan to their final loan. But for a lot of reasons, they're just having a really hard time doing that. They're having a harder time filling their units - I think that's probably worth following up on why that is exactly. And then they're having a harder time collecting rents - some of that does go back to some of the pandemic era policies that were intended to stabilize people in their rental apartments.

So they're not able to get to the point where they can get off of their construction loan. And that is a really bad loan to be on for a long period of time, just because the rates and interest rates on those are way higher. And so I think that reality is just coming to pass this year, that basically every single one of these projects is functioning on a construction loan. But if the Office of Housing didn't go back and help them weather this storm, then we're looking at a much worse problem, which is affordable housing buildings that have already been built and people are living in them - but them just basically going belly up or needing to be sold. And so kind of a rock and a hard place for the Office of Housing - they have a choice of spending on new buildings or helping out the buildings they've already funded. The choice in some ways is fairly obvious because you don't want to lose these buildings you've already built. But it does mean that future projects take a fairly significant hit.

[00:05:48] Crystal Fincher: Well, it does look like that and it's important to keep these projects moving and healthy so that they don't go belly up or cause a large amount of destabilization in the market. But looking forward, especially with this hit to new affordable developments in an already-crisis level situation with housing affordability, the need for more units to be added - what kind of long-term impact does this look to have? Are we looking at a similar situation next year where we could be looking at a further hit? Is this a permanent injury to affordable housing funding, at least for the short to midterm?

[00:06:28] David Kroman: Yeah, it's a good question. I'm not sure, but I do know that something fairly material would have to change between now and next year to make sure that this isn't a problem anymore. The number of units in a building that have to be leased up and collecting rent is like 90%, so it's really high. It used to never be a problem, but it seems like a lot of these buildings are hovering around 80% occupancy/rent collection. So unless the City has some trick up its sleeve for making sure that these buildings are 90% leased up and the people who are in them are paying that rent, it sets up a situation that is out of the City's hands because these are banks making these calls on whether or not they qualify for these cheaper loans. It's not like the City can pass some law that requires the banks to give them a cheaper loan. And so my guess would be it's not a problem that will go away in a year and probably will come up again this time next year. In the past, this has just never been a problem because, unfortunately, affordable housing is in such high demand that banks have never even thought twice about whether or not an affordable housing development would hit 90% occupancy and payment. The deeper concern here is that as banks see that that assumption is maybe not holding up as well, they might be more hesitant to write these loans in the first place. The only sort of cold comfort, I guess, is that this is not really a specific problem for affordable housing. I used to cover transportation - any transportation project is having these massive cost overruns and problems with construction projects too. And so maybe there's a little more leniency on the part of the financers because they understand that this isn't just some negligence on the affordable housing providers part, it's just the reality of the construction industry right now. But that doesn't mean that it's going to start being cheap anytime soon.

[00:08:13] Crystal Fincher: Right - that's almost the takeaway. Everything about building housing right now seems expensive and growing more expensive. Inflation has definitely hit every element of it and interest rates are higher than they used to be, and just everything seems to be contributing to a higher overall cost. And so that's a challenge that we're going to have to figure out how to deal with, especially as it would be one thing if this were 15 years ago - We need to make plans because this is going to become a problem if we don't address it appropriately. But this now is a problem, a major problem, crisis level, where from the legislature to different cities are all acknowledging that we do have to build more residential units - at minimum - in addition to a variety of other policies, in order to prevent rents and housing costs from continuing to skyrocket. So here we are again, but not enough money is currently budgeted to go around. Is this a money issue? I know there's also a big budget deficit that they're in the process of beginning to deal with. Did the money just run out? Is this a matter of priorities?

[00:09:21] David Kroman: Yeah, there is one lever I think that the City could pull and is pulling that could actually help this a little bit, which is one of the problems is the permitting timeline - for anything really, but affordable housing included - it used to be a year and a half basically just to get all the permits. There has been some legislation passed recently to exempt some affordable housing projects from design review in an effort to speed things up. That could help because then you're not sitting on a piece of property without actually being able to do anything with it. But yeah, it is a money problem because what it is at the end of the day is just things are costing more. The problem is every time there's a property tax levy in Seattle, the specter of levy fatigue is raised. So far, Seattle voters have never hit that - they have handily passed pretty much every property tax levy put before them. But there is, to an extent, an upper limit on how much in property taxes Seattle officials are going to feel comfortable asking voters to fund affordable housing. And if more than 50% of their money is going towards projects that they already thought had been funded, suddenly the political scenario starts to feel a little more fraught.

Meanwhile, the other two funds that the City relies on for affordable housing are also no longer guaranteed solid funds. The Mandatory Housing Affordability pot - that depends on there being a lot of development in the City of Seattle. And of course, we've seen permits for new development plummet, which means there's just not going to be as many contributions from private developers toward affordable housing. And then the JumpStart payroll tax, this new city council is thinking already about this $230 million budget gap that you mentioned, and are not the friendliest to the idea of a business payroll tax. And so shifting the JumpStart tax from pure housing purposes to basically budget relief is very much on the table. And I think nonprofit housing developers understand that. So the problem is that in addition to the housing levy, which is robust and large, not going as far as they had hoped, combined with these other two sources of funds either declining or perhaps being repurposed for political reasons, in general, creates a lot of uncertainty among nonprofit housing developers.

[00:11:23] Crystal Fincher: It does. We will continue to follow this. Thank you for covering that so comprehensively. Well, and that leads into news this week that House Our Neighbors launched a new social housing initiative, basically Part 2 of their initiative process that they talked about before. What is House Our Neighbors? What did the first initiative do? And what are they launching with this initiative that they just filed?

[00:11:51] David Kroman: House Our Neighbors is the political side of Seattle's new social housing developer. 2023, they ran an initiative that set up this public developer that was theoretically going to take money and then either buy or build buildings. On its surface, it sounds a little bit maybe like Seattle Housing Authority, but their focus was going to be on mixed income or housing for not necessarily the poorest residents - 80% to 120% AMI. The idea being that if you're trying to raise a family in Seattle, it's really difficult because it's very, very hard to find two-, three-, four-bedroom affordable apartments. This would fill that gap that they see is missing between the market and government provided subsidized housing. The complaint or pushback on the last initiative was that there weren't any funds to do any of that work. That was intentional on the part of the people who ran the campaign because there are concerns about violating the state's rules against having multiple subjects in one initiative. So this new initiative that they're running would be that second step. It would provide a funding source via a tax on businesses with employees earning more than a million dollars. Their hope is to raise $50 million a year and buy or build around 2,000 units of social housing. I don't know that their announcement was coordinated with the Office of Housing's affordable housing announcement, but the two things certainly are related to each other.

[00:13:11] Crystal Fincher: Yeah, definitely. And with social housing, it's designed to be permanently affordable, government-owned, mixed-income housing that insulates itself, basically, because it's not part of the private market - where we just got done talking about all of the factors causing price increases in the private market. But because this is public, government-owned, it can move forward with a different model that is conceivably more insulated from market forces, in addition to not having profit pressure attached to it - helping to keep it more affordable with mixed incomes where people paying into the pot help fund the affordable housing for everything else. This did pass in the City of Seattle. And as you said, this was a two-part initiative process. The first part was on whether we were going to establish this public developer. And now comes the time to fund it. So when it comes to funding, what is the funding mechanism? And why was this chosen?

[00:14:15] David Kroman: Yeah, the funding mechanism is similar to the JumpStart Tax that we were talking about before, which is it focuses on companies that have an employee making a million dollars or more. And I think the thought behind this - if you think back to the contentious Head Tax debate, which was targeting overall revenue of a business and trying to tax that, that became really contentious because you have businesses like grocery stores that have really high revenue, but super thin profits. So when you have Uwajimaya, for example, testifying against this tax as a beloved local business, people get kind of queasy about it - it basically failed because of that. The argument here is we're not really focusing on the overall revenue. We're focusing on whether or not they have employees that they're paying over a million dollars, because that suggests - if you can pay somebody a million dollars or more, you should be paying some tax on that. And it's a marginal tax, so the first million dollars of that person's salary are not taxed - it's everything above that that is taxed. The City's payroll tax exempts grocery stores and healthcare businesses, or at least healthcare businesses have waiver for a few years. This one doesn't do that. This targets any business that's paying people a million dollars or more. The exact number of businesses that that includes is a little murky. They relied on a couple past legislative efforts at the state and city level to come up with their calculations. If it passed, we'd get a little more sense of who would actually have to pay this tax, but that's basically how it works.

[00:15:33] Crystal Fincher: So what they're referring to is an 'excess earners' tax, and it'd be a 5% marginal payroll tax. As you said, if they had an employee making $2 million, the tax would not apply to that first million. It would only apply to the one million above that at a rate of 5%. They're estimating with that revenue source, they could acquire or build 2,000 affordable units over 10 years. What is the timeline for this initiative now? What do they have to do in order to qualify and get it on the ballot?

[00:16:06] David Kroman: They have set 30,000 signatures as their goal, and they want to get it by June - because if they got it in by June, that would leave the current city council no choice but to put it on the November ballot. And anybody who's trying to do a more left-leaning progressive initiative wants to get their measure on the November ballot because turnout in Seattle is going to be probably 80% - it's a presidential election - and the progressives of Seattle figure that more turnout favors them. So the goal is November '24. But they said that if for whatever reason they didn't get there, they would run it anyway at a later ballot date. I just think politically, that would be a little more challenging for them.

[00:16:40] Crystal Fincher: Yeah, definitely. They just filed the initiative. So that process for the initiative to be approved, get to the signature gathering process will be commencing. How does this fit in, in the general overall landscape? Tiffani McCoy, who's the policy and advocacy director with House Our Neighbors, talked a little bit about this happening because there is either not a plan or a deficit in the ability to deliver the amount of housing we need and the type of housing we need at scale.

[00:17:11] David Kroman: Yeah, it fits in because the affordable 80% to 120% AMI - there is just not really anybody interested in doing that right now. There have been some one-off projects around the city where a developer, out of the good of their own heart, has said that their building is going to be affordable to a certain level - workforce housing. But you're really relying on individual developers being interested in doing that. Usually those come with time limits, so they guarantee it for 30 years or 40 years or something like that. And then as we talked about before, there's Housing Authority and Office of Housing - it's a small lane, but there is a lane for 0% to probably 60% AMI. But when voters are approving a property tax levy, they're not quite as interested in building housing for people who are making up to $80,000 a year. But when you're looking at how expensive it is to live in Seattle or what the median income is, those people are having a hard time finding places to live and especially raise families in Seattle. And so that is more who this effort is targeted towards, which is fill that gap between 0% to 60% AMI and then 200%+ AMI housing, which there's just not a lot of people out there building that kind of housing right now.

[00:18:21] Crystal Fincher: Right. And that matters so much because that is related to a lot of the staffing shortage talk that we hear about, whether it's teachers or bus drivers or healthcare workers or - across the board, we're hearing about workforce shortages, particularly in the City of Seattle and surrounding areas. And a big piece of that puzzle is that people just can't afford to live in the areas where those jobs are. It's way too expensive. So you have people moving further and further out, making it harder to commute in for a job, or just finding a job elsewhere outside of the city. And so housing affordability is an important element in just these conversations about our overall economy, including workforce strength and availability. It is absolutely related to those challenges.

So once they made this announcement, the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce immediately make a statement that opposed it. I don't know that this opposition was necessarily surprising, but it was an immediate reaction. How did they respond?

[00:19:30] David Kroman: No, not surprising at all - they took the JumpStart Tax to court. They clearly don't like payroll taxes on businesses. Their argument was they supported the Housing Levy and they support some level of voter-agreed-upon property tax to build housing for the poorest people. The Chamber's line, and this has been their line and that of other businesses since at least back to 2017 when the first Head Tax debate came up, is this all comes down to supply. That the real issue is that Seattle is zoned in a way that you just can't add more supply, especially in the 60% or whatever it is of the city that's zoned for single family homes. So their argument is you are asking businesses to try and address a very small part of a much larger illness. And in so doing, you're not going to get us to where the city actually needs to be. And at the same time, you're going to materially hurt these businesses at a time when it has been, at least for some of them, sort of a difficult period. I think the counterargument is it has not actually been that difficult of a period for businesses like Amazon. And if you're paying somebody over a million dollars, something must be going okay for you. But I think the Chamber's position does kind of go to this point, which is - you're talking about a symptom when the real cause is just that we have built a system that doesn't allow for new housing construction.

[00:20:42] Crystal Fincher: Yes, and it would be less ironic if they didn't seem to also oppose a lot of the rezoning and necessary new construction for that. But I guess it's a comfortable position to be in when you can just oppose things that seemingly have to do with each other. But I do think that's part of the reason why this passed in the first place. This passed after several years of seeming opposition and defeat of efforts to make things more affordable overall, including housing, especially those that are funded with taxes. And that has been a big point of contention between the Chamber and other folks there. The Chamber traditionally takes a - Hey, just don't tax us approach. A lot of their financial support of candidates in elections seems tied to their willingness or unwillingness to tax business. So this has been a long-standing divide that we have here. But I wonder if they've ever wondered if that long-standing hesitance to do that, in the face of skyrocketing costs borne by the regular residents of Seattle and surrounding areas, might have something to do with the alternatives becoming more popular to the point where they pass this in Seattle. So it'll be interesting to see how formal and robust the opposition to this initiative is. But it does seem like this is an alternative that the residents of Seattle are looking at. And as we look forward, especially if the JumpStart Tax is raided for the general fund, some of the other mechanisms that the legislature is looking at right now don't end up coming to fruition - this may be one of the only avenues where it looks feasible that something can actually happen, that there can be funding for, and that we can start to make up some of the gaps that are reopening here in some of the other areas. How do you see the prognosis for this moving forward?

[00:22:42] David Kroman: Yeah, I think you're right that this is a lot of voter response to an intractable problem. I think it is true that the underlying problem is supply - I think that's hard to dispute at this point. It's just there are a lot of people coming into the city and just not enough housing for them. And so then, therefore, even old, run-down housing is being competed for - rich people are outbidding people of lesser means for housing that you would not necessarily associate with rich people. A lot of that is enabled by the fact that most of the city - it's just cast in amber and there cannot be any added density. So at a time when the city's population is growing, you've got certain neighborhoods in Seattle where the population is actually decreasing, and I think that is what is driving a lot of rent increases. I think the reaction, though - the problem is now, the struggles are now - and so it's all well and good to diagnose the deep problem and look back at what the city should or shouldn't have done, or what the city should be doing to help this problem in 10 or 15 years. The city could upzone across the entire city tomorrow, and the construction environment - as we just talked about - means it's pretty unlikely that you're going to see a huge influx immediately of new housing and density because it's just not a great time for building new stuff. And so I think that then causes people to look for alternative options. And this is one of them, which is a more direct taxation to construction that is divorced from - well, not entirely divorced because we talked about the problems facing the nonprofit housing world, but more divorced from market forces that, again, perhaps should have been addressed a long time ago. But even if they were addressed tomorrow, would take years, decades, perhaps, to really show meaningful improvements in the affordability of Seattle. And so I think that is why these solutions that the Chamber doesn't like - because they are not market solutions, they are taxation solutions on their clients and the people that they represent, but that becomes more appealing because people want to make some immediate progress in the next year.

[00:24:38] Crystal Fincher: Absolutely. Well, we will continue to follow that story and the initiative and see how it goes.

I also want to talk about a piece that you wrote this week about Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell, titled, "A council of allies in place, Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell feels pressure to deliver." I think that pressure is an appropriate response - a number of commitments or what he ran on two years ago still has a lot of areas for improvement. I don't know that anyone feels that the type of progress that was indicated or promised has actually happened. But some of that was in his telling because he didn't have a great working relationship with the council - even though they have very distinct roles and responsibilities. But he's saying now, and part of what he said during the campaign - if we have a better working relationship, we could accomplish more. What did this story uncover, what did you talk about, and where does he stand on what he's accomplished and what he's looking to accomplish?

[00:25:37] David Kroman: Yeah, I think it's perhaps not quite exactly like having a one-party President, House and Senate, but it's something like that. Because at least since I have been watching City Hall, I would argue that there has been no mayor who, at least on paper, has come into a more favorable political environment than Bruce Harrell does right now. Because he endorsed five people for city council - which I don't think Durkan or Ed Murray dipped that much of a toe into the political scene, so that alone was a big jump into playing politics - and then all of them won. And then he gets this bonus of another one of his opponents, Teresa Mosqueda, leaving to go to the King County Council. So basically he gets six new friendly people on the council, banishes all but Councilmember Tammy Morales as clear opponents to his agenda. And then more than that, if you've been watching the committee meetings in city council this year, their agenda items are what is the Seattle Department of Transportation and what does it do? They are just getting their feet under them. They are still trying to find where the bathroom is. Meanwhile, Bruce Harrell has been in City Hall for 14 years. So all of that added together means there is nothing in his way to basically do what it is that he has envisioned for City Hall. The question is - can he or will he do that?

And also it kind of puts to test some of the narratives that were created around what the previous council was at fault for doing. Some of those I think could end up being true, but also I think some of the problems that we're talking about here - fairly complicated and don't just boil down to who exactly was on the previous city council. For example, police recruitment. The mayor has said he wants to grow the department to 1,400. It's a real question of whether the police department is ever going to be back to 1,400. But there's no longer the boogeyman of "Defund the Police" to fault for those challenges - now the rubber meets the road. Can a council that has explicitly said it wants to hire more police officers actually do that? And then if it doesn't, I will be curious to see how voters respond. Will they give him the same level of scrutiny that they gave the council the last few years? That will be interesting to watch.

[00:27:35] Crystal Fincher: That will be interesting to watch. I do also find it interesting, from the perspective of his allies that we heard during the campaign, of stuff like "Defund the Police" and blaming some of the inability to achieve what they said they wanted to achieve on that, as if the council had been hostile. But if we look - particularly over the past two years - the council didn't pass up an opportunity to fund the hiring of more police officers. Functionally - policy-wise, budget-wise - they allocated all of the money that was asked for, they allocated bonuses related to that, yet they still ran as if this council was somehow hostile to that issue. It seemed, to your point, like the creation of a boogeyman that didn't exist, and certainly not since he's taken office here. Did that strike you as genuine reasons or reasons that really would have impeded him taking action on some of his priorities that he seemingly talked about? Well, it was because of the council that I couldn't. But on an issue like police funding, where council did provide the funding for that, where council did provide everything that was asked for to do that, yet there still wasn't progress - does that rest on the council or was that another issue?

[00:28:51] David Kroman: Yeah, I think if you ask him and you ask the current council, they acknowledge - Sure, they didn't literally defund the police by 50%. And what they did "defund" was mostly a shuffling of the decks.decks -moved parking enforcement to SDOT for a while and they moved 911 to Community Safety. So the police department's budget shrunk, but those functions just moved to a different department. I think they acknowledge - yes, that they didn't cut them. But policing is an incredibly competitive recruiting environment. And I think their argument is. And I do think - yes, they didn't literally defund, but they were pretty public about some of their comments around the police. And I think that that probably had an effect on certain police officers' willingness to stay at the police department and others' willingness to come to the police department - can have a whole debate about the merit or harms of that, but I do think that probably played a factor. But at the same time, I think that there's a lot else going on around that issue of police recruitment that transcends just conversations around "Defund the Police" and what the previous city council did or didn't do. The mayor's office has had a budget for marketing for a couple years now. As far as we know, the recruitment environment has not improved. And so I think there are a lot of technical details that will slowly come out over Harrell's administration that show that the problems - while I do think that whatever the city council's previous image was, made probably a difference around that - I think there's a more complicated story around the mechanics of what recruitment actually looks like.

[00:30:17] Crystal Fincher: Yeah, I tend to think that there's a more complicated story around the mechanics of recruitment, particularly because several surrounding departments, including those with staunch supporters of hiring police, of funding police, are also experiencing challenges with hiring. It's hard to find a department around that isn't saying that they're experiencing staffing problems. So it seems to go deeper, in my view, than just that. Can I absolutely say that their willingness to examine the budget four years ago had nothing to do with this now? No, I can't. Certainly conservative elements in talk radio and Fox News continue to make a lot of that and characterize "defund" as a current dominant thought, which I think is just demonstrably false. On top of that, just on that issue, with the understanding and the knowledge that even if you were to hire an officer today, it's going to be a year plus before they can actually be deployed on the streets because of their need to train and go through their requirements. Is there a plan in the interim? We're two years into Bruce Harrell's term now, and it doesn't seem like - okay, barring that, what are we doing? I don't want to say no plan. They introduced a limited partial trial of a co-response model for behavioral health through his new CARE Department. There is that going on in a limited way - would love to see that expanded so it's at minimum around-the-clock, but certainly more than a handful of officers and responders involved there. Certainly in the area of public safety, I think a lot has been examined there. Were there any other issue areas, whether it's homelessness, the City's environmental plans, economic development within the city, that he talked about wanting to deliver or work on in his next two years?

[00:32:10] David Kroman: Harrell - I think he's going to be dripping these out slowly. But the thing that I would say stood out to me the most was his comments about the City's relationship to the county. We had seen some comments of his about, specifically the City's relationship to the King County Regional Homelessness Authority, leak out unintentionally over the last two years. Fairly clear that he took a skeptical eye toward that body. But now I would say the big change now that he has this friendly council and basically full control of the City Hall is he's no longer saying those things in private. He's being fairly public about - he has a skeptical view of the King County Regional Homelessness Authority. And he has a skeptical view of the amount of money that the City of Seattle is giving that body and whether it is doing what he wants it to do. He said basically the same thing about Public Health Seattle King County, which I thought was interesting. I had never heard that relationship come up as one that needed additional scrutiny. But he said that when it comes to the issue of fentanyl, that basically he thinks Public Health Seattle King County should be doing more, and he was wondering why they're not doing more. And so as far as specific policies or legislation he might introduce, I don't have a great read on that just yet. But I do think - and I've heard this from the new council members too - I wouldn't be surprised if we see a fairly dramatic rethinking of how the city and the county work together on some of this stuff.

[00:33:25] Crystal Fincher: Interesting. Certainly, it seems like there might be some budget implications attached to that. That might be another reason why we are talking about this now, as the City looks to trim a couple hundred million dollars or make up for a budget deficit of over $200 million that they're facing. Has he been responsive, or did you get a chance to talk about some of the seeming inaction on some of those areas? There certainly seemed to be a number of promises as he walked in and optimism from a lot of people as he took office that - Hey, you're someone with a different vision who's looking to move forward on a variety of things, talking about One Seattle and the vision that he has for that. Has that resulted in or materialized in anything? Is he talking about doing anything specific with that? I think a lot of people are wondering just kind of overall what his plans are.

[00:34:17] David Kroman: Yeah, I think so far this has not been the most policy-heavy mayor's office by any stretch. I think back to the Murray administration - before, of course, everything else came out - but that was an office that pushed super hard for the task forces around $15 an hour and housing affordability, the HALA committee, and they would lock people in a room and make them work it out. This is not that office. What we have heard from him is a lot of messaging and, I think, an effort to do perhaps not systemic things, but pushes around certain homeless encampments or priority policing around Third Avenue or 12th and Jackson. And it's kind of these hits and sort of giving a general message about what kind of mayor he is. I think he would perhaps point to some of the rules - tree canopy legislation or things like that. But I don't know that you can point to the first two years of his office and call it a major policy-heavy term. I think there's going to be more pressure on him to be a little more policy-minded in the next two years, because as we just talked about, he's not going to have to do nearly the amount of negotiation with this city council as he would have had to do with the last one. If he comes down to them and says - I think this is really important, we got to pass this. - pretty good chance he's going to get it passed without, there's going to be tweaks and I'm sure there's going to be some nods towards pushback or accountability. But at the end of the day, this is a city council that has kind of adopted the mayor's own One Seattle slogan.

When he was on city council, too, I don't know that everyone would have pointed to him, as a city councilmember, as the most policy-driven. He had certain things that he focused a lot on around policing, or he was the one who pushed the hardest for body cameras. And he's pushed hard for some police technologies like ShotSpotter and things like that. But when he was on city council, he wasn't taking the lead on a lot of big, big policy swings. And so far, I would say that's mostly been true for the first half of his term. It's just he's going to have to show some big policy swings, I think, for these next two years - because I do think he's hyper-conscious of his own reelection campaign, is my sense. We didn't talk about that specifically, but I think he's interested in running for reelection. I think it's assumed he will run for reelection. And so he's going to have to build a case for himself to voters in two years from now.

[00:36:28] Crystal Fincher: Definitely. I also want to talk about some of the firsts that we saw this week. We saw the Seattle City Council conduct their first committee meeting. The Transportation Committee, chaired by Councilmember Rob Saka, held its first meeting. As you talked about, it was very Intro to or Transpo 101, because these are a lot of new members who are not familiar with the way this functions, who are still just getting their bearings underneath them for how City Hall works, how legislation works, what SDOT does do. They are all very new and are not even coming into this with a policy background in the area that may help. So this is really starting from Step 1 here. What did we hear during this committee and outside of the committee - statements from members of the council this week?

[00:37:19] David Kroman: Well, a few things that stood out to me. One, it's starting to hit home a bit that this is just an incredibly green city council. This is two-thirds of people who have not held elected office before - that's not to say that they have zero experience. Maritza Rivera, for example, was a department head, so she has spent some time in City Hall. But at the end of the day, some of the questions they're asking or getting briefed on are things like - What is the Sound Transit Board? Who decides where the West Seattle to Ballard stations go? - things like that. Not to say that they don't know those things, but that's the level that we're at right now in their committee meetings. So that was one thing that really stood out to me, which is - they don't have a lot of time to figure out a lot of these big problems. We're already a month in to the year because they had to spend the first month appointing a new member. Council President Nelson didn't schedule any committee meetings during that time. So it's February and we're doing the briefing meetings. I think that's going to be something to watch.

We also heard, I would say - let's call it some acknowledgement of the reality of the situation. On the campaign trail, we heard a lot of talk about "auditing the budget." We really heard it in the applications to fill the vacant council seat, this phrase "audit the budget, audit the budget." It was never super well defined what they actually meant by audit. We heard from Councilmember Saka that a literal audit of the entire budget is something that would take a really long time and be really expensive. And he acknowledged that they're not going to do that, at least not this year. So that raises some questions around what they actually meant when they were saying we were going to audit the budget and how that is materially different from what happens every year with the budget - which is you review what you can, and cut where you think you can cut, and fund what you want to fund. So that was interesting - just there's a certain reality that comes with moving from being on the campaign trail to being in office.

[00:39:06] Crystal Fincher: There is a reality about moving from the campaign trail to moving into office. Speaking personally and speaking as someone who is a political consultant, has worked with plenty of candidates. This is something that you hope candidates would have an understanding of while they're running. This is directly related to what their plans are going to be. Certainly, Rob Saka and other councilmembers were asked plenty of times on the campaign trail how they were planning to deal with this looming budget deficit. And part of the background of this is that, "Well, we need to audit the budget" issue - never sound credible or serious to a lot of people because, overall, just a citywide budget audit is not the thing. But as you said, the budget process is what that is. The budget process is continually reviewing, understanding, approving, modifying - what this funding is, how effective the funding has been - that's all part of the standard budget process of the City every year. And so a lot of it seemed like they were trying to avoid talking about what their plans were. They were trying to avoid taking a stance on particularly the progressive revenue that would be needed to close a budget hole like this. And the mayor put together a Progressive Revenue Task Force that came out with options that may seem doable - asked about those, the move from a lot of the candidates, especially the moderate to conservative ones, was to say - I don't know about that progressive revenue, but we really need to audit the budget before we do anything else. We need to take a look at exactly what's being spent where and see if it works and that kind of stuff. But I think we're arriving in another situation where if you actually come in with a plan about what you want to accomplish, that's one thing. If you're coming in trying to avoid talking about what you want to accomplish, that becomes really hairy - trying to contend with and explain once you're actually in office. So now the one thing that people heard you talk about, which seeing response certainly online following these comments, was - Hey, the only thing he talked about was doing audits. And now he's saying that - Well, they can't really do that, we're walking it back, it's not practical or feasible. One, that seemingly could have been something that when people pointed that out on the campaign trail, maybe they should have taken that to heart and come up with a more realistic plan. But also now that we're here, it just seems like maybe there wasn't the kind of understanding related to what they were saying. I hope future candidates look at that and take that under advisement. I hope voters look at that and again, look at the types of answers that you're getting - even though they may sound good in a soundbite, are they actually realistic? Will they actually get done what you want to see happen in the city? Or is it just a line that people are tossing out in order to avoid talking about something else, or because it sounds good as a soundbite?

[00:41:57] David Kroman: Yeah, I would say this, though, about the budget. I don't want to sound like I'm defending the City's budget process too much because - it takes you a little while, but it's very easy to see where dollars are allocated, theoretically. It is much, much more difficult to know if those dollars are actually being spent in the way that the city council budgeted them for. We've seen this actually crop up in conflicts between the city council and the mayor's office, which is city council will budget a certain amount of dollars and the mayor's office - not this mayor's office, past mayor's offices - just won't spend it because it wasn't part of their priority. And I think you can look to that conflict and generalize it out a little bit. I don't know that there are great mechanisms to show for sure that when the city council puts money towards a certain thing, it's A) going to the thing that it was supposed to, going out at all - I do think there are probably some amount of dollars that are dedicated and not being spent for whatever reason. I don't think it's corruption or anything like that. It's just staffing and permit timelines or whatever it might be. And then of course, the final question of - So it's gone out the door, is it doing what it was intended to do? I think those are all questions that are probably worth asking. And I'm not sure are always asked in the fullest sense every year during budget. And so I agree that the use of the word "audit" was incredibly fast and loose on the campaign trail. Because when you say "audit," that implies something pretty specific. We have a Washington State Auditor. We have a City of Seattle Auditor. And they do audits, or you can hire people to do an audit. It's clear that audit in the most literal sense of the term is not on the table here because that costs time and money. Close scrutiny of whether the dollars that the City has allocated are being used in the way that people said they were going to - sure, I can buy that a little bit more. I don't know how you bring that more into the process than what's already there. To the new councilmembers' credit, I think there is room there to shed a little bit more light on that end of the budgeting equation than has been done in the past.

[00:43:50] Crystal Fincher: Yeah, definitely agree with that. I think you raise a really important point. It's hard to do it comprehensively - doing a deep dive into everything is a challenging thing. I do think that those questions do need to be asked frequently, especially on these high priority items. We definitely have a number of examples in the Durkan administration where they just refused to spend money - if council funded something and it wasn't aligned with the priorities of the mayor's office, the mayor's office just wouldn't spend that money in some instances or would look to divert that money to another area that wasn't one of their policy priorities as they've identified. So certainly just because money is allocated, does not mean at all that it's being spent at all or spent effectively. And I hope council does take seriously their responsibility to make sure that what they intend to happen as they set forth does happen and that money isn't just sitting there - that should be working for the residents of the city. But we'll certainly see what happens there.

Last thing I want to talk about today was a story that was really concerning about a for-profit ICE detention center in Tacoma blocking health and labor inspections. What happened here?

[00:45:04] David Kroman: Yeah, this was news to me. It looks like the state had tried to pass a law that basically increased access to the ICE facility - a privately run jail, basically - for people who have come into the United States. Because, as we know, there have been a lot of complaints about that facility over the years, but it's always been a little bit of a he-said, she-said situation because there's just such limited access in a way that - not to say that the state or city or county jails are in great shape, but lawmakers have an eye into those places and can see what's going on in there. They just don't with this facility because it's private. And so this bill was supposed to allow that access, but it seems like the GEO group that runs the prison is fighting them super hard on it in court and even barring people from entering. And this is pretty new to me - it seems pretty concerning - something that if you were a lawmaker, you might want to follow up on.

[00:45:52] Crystal Fincher: Yeah, these complaints, there were hundreds of complaints - over 200 just between April and November of last year - stuff like insufficient food, misuse of solitary confinement, clothes rarely laundered and returning when they were supposedly laundered wet and dirtier than before, detainees with mental health issues being refused clean clothing. Medical issues, including stroke, paralysis, asthma, internal bleeding. One instance, a detainee with a broken arm was only given ibuprofen and not a cast for days after the incidents. When you talk about the types of violations that can happen when you have people who are 100% under your control, who you control their access to everything - the possibility of denial of that is egregious and atrocious. And so you do have to follow the laws of the state. Representative Lillian Ortiz-Self is trying to work through legislation to ensure that the state can inspect and examine what is happening here so it gets out of the world of he said, she said, and to ensure that they're following the laws of our state. And they've refused. So it is really concerning.

A law was passed in 2021 aimed at shutting down the detention center by 2025, but that was ruled unenforceable. It just really is scary to think about - that we have these facilities responsible for people's care, basically, while they're being detained just seemingly unaccountable to anyone, with really catastrophic impacts on people who are jailed or detained here in this situation. And sometimes I'll hear people very flippantly - If they didn't want that to happen, then they shouldn't have done something to land in there in the first place. One, I think it might surprise people, the amount of seemingly innocuous things that can land someone in there. But regardless of how they landed in there, these are still people in the care of the state. And the detainment is what has been called for there, so they're being detained. But that doesn't mean that abuse, neglect, mistreatment is in any way justified. It is never justified. And I just think that we need to look at these things seriously. And when we hear about facilities, with the responsibility on behalf of the state, where they can control people's access to the necessities of life, that we should hold a higher standard than the average private company out there. And it really is just infuriating to me that we seemingly land in these situations where we have people being mistreated and they just seem to not care about the law - it's about the profit - and regardless of how people suffer at their hands in the process of it, I just - these types of stories really get to me.

[00:48:54] David Kroman: Yeah, and I think it's why people are so concerned and looking for ways to get more eyes on the private prison industry - just because it is a constitutional right that people, even incarcerated people, have healthcare and food and not inhumane conditions, but just a little harder to make sure that it's not happening when the prison doesn't necessarily need to answer to the voters.

[00:49:17] Crystal Fincher: Yeah, absolutely. Hopefully that is something that will change soon.

And with that, we thank you for listening to Hacks & Wonks on this Friday, February 9th, 2024 - it's my mom's birthday today, as we're recording this February 8th. The producer of Hacks & Wonks is Shannon Cheng. Our insightful co-host today was Seattle Times City Hall reporter David Kroman. You can find David on Twitter at @KromanDavid, that's K-R-O-M-A-N, David. You can follow Hacks & Wonks on Twitter at @HacksWonks. You can find me on all platforms at @finchfrii, with two I's at the end. You can catch Hacks & Wonks on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever else you get your podcasts - just type "Hacks and Wonks" into the search bar. Be sure to subscribe to the podcast to get the full versions of our Friday week-in-review shows and our Tuesday topical shows delivered to your podcast feed. If you like us, please leave a review wherever you listen. You can also get a full transcript of this episode and links to the resources referenced in the show at officialhacksandwonks.com and in the podcast episode notes.

Thanks for tuning in - talk to you next time.