Mayor’s response to homelessness still tied to selling public land

Friday, April 22, 2016, by David Kroman

In this edition of Remember When: How Seattle plans to pay for its homelessness State of Emergency. Remember when the $5 million in one-time spending was unveiled, the money was going to come from the sale of a property above the Duwamish River Valley? The plan was presented as solid, so solid that several media outlets reported the sale already completed.

But the sale, in fact, still hasn’t been carried out. So what’s going on with that?
Specifically, the property is part of what’s called the Myers Parcels, some 30 acres the city bought to build its Joint Training Facility for firefighters. It lies above a wooded hillside along Highway 509, near the south city limits.

After using part for the training facility, the city declared the remaining property surplus and made plans to sell it off to Lowe’s, but the deal fell through. Since then, the city has shopped it around to its various departments, but none were interested.

Beginning around the start of 2015, community groups started an effort to preserve the open space, which was once a gravel quarry, as parkland. But again, the city wasn’t interested in helping out.

The property lay dormant until last November when Mayor Ed Murray and King County Executive Dow Constantine took the unprecedented step of declaring a homelessness State of Emergency. Murray was pretty transparent about the fact that this was mostly a cry for help to the state and feds for funding. But in practical terms, it gave him the authority to bypass some red tape in providing services.

It also served as a catalyst for adding about $5 million in one-time spending, all of which was slated to come from the sale of about 13 acres remaining in the Myers Parcels. In the FAQ section of the mayor’s State of Emergency page, it is the only source of financing listed. The Seattle City Council approved the money, adding another $2.3 million from the general fund.

With the council’s approval, the State of Emergency was under way. The mayor used his broadened authority to open a safe parking lot for people living in their vehicles. He also spent $500,000 on a mobile medical van, a sort of physical and mental health outreach vehicle. Most recently, the city agreed to give Mary’s Place, a nonprofit service organization, $400,000 to help with its operating expenses.

Still, the Myers Parcels property hasn’t been sold. So where’s the money coming from? “From a cash-flow perspective we have used other dollars available in the General Fund to support on-going State of Emergency spending,” said City Budget Officer Ben Noble in an e-mail, “but ultimately we will need the property proceeds to replenish those dollars.”
When the council approved the one-time expenditure, it approved an interfund loan from the General Fund: borrowing the money from Peter to pay Paul, in effect, “until such time as the surplus property at 9401 Myers Way South is sold,” according to the fiscal note attached to the spending bill.

That all sounds good, except for the resurgence of the mostly West Seattle residents who want to see the property salvaged. As Crosscut noted earlier this week, some 700 people have signed a petition to keep it open space. Councilmember Lisa Herbold recently sent a letter to the Murray administration asking officials to hear out her constituents and delay the process.

And Herbold’s approval/disapproval carries more weight than simple political favor: Despite the homeless spending plan, the Myers Parcels sale has to go through the council.
In the meantime, Murray has been stressing about money in general. When asked about funding his goal of adding 200 police officer by 2020, he told Crosscut last week, “One of the challenges I’m having is, as you know, we’re already about almost $10 million over-budget on one-time money we’re spending on homelessness. Every time we have any elasticity around additional revenue, it’s being put into homelessness, which is forcing me to look at revenue.”

That highlights the importance of this sale for Murray. The mayor’s office didn’t respond to questions about its timing or whether there was any lsignificant concern it could be derailed. But budget officer Noble said, “The surplusing and sale process is proceeding per City policy. Per that process, we have received a good deal of public input and are processing that information now.”

In the end, it’s hard to see this council — which has made homelessness one of its priorities — jeopardize funding for the sake of a long empty lot. But on the other hand, questions of environmentalism in the Duwamish Valley have been hot lately, especially with the rogue lumberjacking of a precarious property in the area.

Nevertheless, the main question about the sale is most likely when, not if.

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