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Mayor Durkan responds to proposed payroll tax

caption: File: Mayor Jenny Durkan smiles while giving a speech on Tuesday, November 7, 2017, at The Westin in Seattle. Mayor Durkan's latest proposed budget would include funding to support creative industries and the arts.
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File: Mayor Jenny Durkan smiles while giving a speech on Tuesday, November 7, 2017, at The Westin in Seattle. Mayor Durkan's latest proposed budget would include funding to support creative industries and the arts.
KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan joins us for her weekly check-in.

This is an abbreviated and edited transcript of Bill Radke's conversation with Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan on April 23, 2020.

A moment ago, a homelessness outreach worker named Dawn Whitson told us that there are not enough shelter spaces and she wants people put in hotels. I know you've been doing some work with hotels, how many rooms are set aside now for frontline workers? How many for unsheltered people?

I heard the interview with Dawn and I want to first thank her for the work she's doing now, but all the work she's done. It's some of the hardest work we have -- those frontline workers with people experiencing homelessness, particularly Evergreen Treatment is a critical place for people with substance use disorder. And for her to go the extra mile and visiting food banks and trying to get clothing for people -- those are the kinds of stories that keep me inspired. I am hearing it every day, our city workers are doing that to the Office of Sustainability and Environment -- they're trying to keep food banks going by fixing their refrigeration and making deliveries to people. So first, I thank her for her work.

The second is, she's asking all the right questions. And I want her to know that we are not only asking those questions ourselves, we're looking at everything that we think might work. Because we know how hard this has been on the most vulnerable populations. It's why this week, we stood up even more hygiene centers for people to be able to have shower facilities or go to the bathroom. Because for people who are living on the streets, there's this interconnected network of businesses and parks and recreation centers. And as all those things closed down, many people didn't think about the impact it would have for people to do their very, very basic functions as a human being. So we're trying to stand things up as quickly as we can. We've opened up our hotels to some of the frontline workers. We're also making sure we're pushing and working hard with Seattle/King County Public Health to get as much testing as we can.

I think some of the good news is early reports today and yesterday, is that the approach we took early on with the guidance of King County Public Health to spend our energies on deintensifying our shelters so there could be more space, has actually resulted in a reduced infection rate as compared to other cities that didn't do that. Now again, it's preliminary. I'm not trying to minimize the risk, because we know there's still significant risk in congregate settings. And so we're looking at all options.

I talked this weekend to [San Francisco] Mayor London Breed to see what lessons they've learned from hotelling, as well as the mayor of San Jose [Sam Liccardo], because they've announced a bunch of that through California. We're asking our federal delegation and our governor to step in, because the city doesn't have the resources to scale to the need of this crisis, particularly with regards to people experiencing homelessness. So there is nothing that is off the table, but we're limited with the resources the city has right now, because the needs are so very, very great. Not just there, but across the city for people who've now lost their jobs and have either housing or food instability.

My fellow journalist Erica C. Barnett reported that at the Executive Hotel Pacific in downtown Seattle that you rented out for first responders -- there are 155 rooms and 17 people (ed. note: previously incorrectly reported as 22) have stayed in there. Is that an option? As I was discussing with that homelessness outreach worker, is that an option for using that hotel as space for unsheltered residents?

So that option actually is being used for a variety of other things. And I think the reporting has been incomplete on that. For example, we are housing both nurses, our frontline providers and state patrol officers. So we are trying very hard to have a range of facilities open. King County was able to use some hotel rooms and we've been working with them on additional shelters that need to be relocated because of increased infections. So we're looking for hotels in the city of Seattle to have those relocations. And working very hard there.

As I said before, you know, it's easy in this time for people say, well, why aren't they thinking about this or doing that? There's nothing that we're not willing to listen to or look at. And that's from people experiencing homelessness to, you know, how our streets are being used to, you know, what the rules should be around grocery stores. We get a lot of good ideas from folks and your listeners in particular. So we're looking at all options. And we've been very, very focused on making sure that we both follow public health guidelines but also increase the capability.

I will say one thing that you asked that I think that is not well understood is, we just stood up some new shelter capability including tiny house homes that can house a number of people. It is probably the most successful shelter we have to get people into long term housing. And it has become some of the most sought after shelter for people experiencing homelessness because it's people's own space, has a door that can lock, they can have their things in there. And recently, we've been working to get people into that kind of shelter. And we still have a number of people who are unwilling to come inside, which continues to be a huge challenge that even when we offer people shelter, they decline it. So we're going to continue on that front to find more places and more humane ways to bring people inside.

One of the things that the homelessness outreach worker, Dawn, suggested was making a centralized legalized outdoor encampment with hygiene and adequate spacing. Will you do that?

We've done that, that's what camp Second Chance started as, which is down kind of near White Center but in the city limits. And it became one of the first sanctioned outdoor encampments. We also had Nickelsville was very early on, they were the probably the first and go back many, many years. And so the concept is not necessarily one the city hasn't done.

But again, it's providing people experiencing homelessness, a place just to live outdoors, falls short of what we need to do. We also have to make sure that we're providing wraparound services, that we provide adequate security and public safety, that we're making sure that people who have substance abuse disorder have access to places like where Dawn works -- Evergreen Treatment Center. That we can perhaps get them on some medically approved treatments. So it is very complex but it has things that the city has done. And what we have to look at is make sure that when we take these steps, we are actually helping solve the underlying problem itself, which is to get people stabilized, so we can eventually move them into long term housing.

Dawn, from the REACH outreach service at Evergreen Treatment Center suggested using the National Guard to supplement staffing or she said, making the staffing of bathrooms for example, an essential service -- that there are people out of work, who could be working. What do you say to those staffing ideas?

Again, we've asked the state and FEMA for help for having some mass sheltering capability so that we can provide both a safe place for people to be, and core to be staffed and it continues to be one of the obstacles. Because you must have a certain level of experience, particularly trauma informed experience, to successfully staff on an ongoing basis, anywhere where you're going to have people experiencing homelessness be for a period of time.

Second is, the bathrooms is much more complicated than people seem to think. And this is one where I think people have to step out of their own shoes for a minute and think about the shoes of for example, the park employees, who are the ones on a regular basis now staffing and cleaning all of those bathrooms in our parks, which even before a pandemic, was a difficult job to have. But in a pandemic, when you have a virus that is so highly contagious, it requires different steps and greater frequency. And these are the same park employees who are one, trying to tell people that we shouldn't be congregating in parks and two, staffing our homeless centers that we've stood up in a number of our parks facilities.

So I think it's really important for Dawn and others to realize, these employees are going to work every day doing a really hard job. Nobody is just sitting at home that can be redeployed en masse to fill these needs. We have such a high range of needs in our city right now. Everything from small businesses that have closed to whole communities that have real lack of access to food security, and we are trying to tackle it at every level in our city. And I appreciate all the work that she does because it is one of our highest needs. But she should have every confidence that the city is looking every day and talking to our labor partners about, what are those other areas of work that folks could do to handle the crisis we're seeing today?

Sandra in Lake Ridge: What's going to happen to utility bills for people at the end of this period? Is there any thought from the city about forgiving half the bill or letting people go on payment plans?

Radke: I assume listeners should go to the city's website to find out what can be done about your utility discount program.

Durkan: Yeah like Seattle City Light or Seattle Public Utilities, also have a place where people can look to see if they're having trouble paying their bills or whether they qualify for that discount program.

We've seen protests in Olympia over the Stay at Home order. Some state Republican want to see businesses open faster than the governor does. What do you tell people who want to work or run their business and they say that unemployment, mass unemployment and bankruptcy and idleness is as dangerous as the virus?

There's a really difficult balance here. I don't know anybody who doesn't want to be able to get out more, see their friends return to normal. I want that. I want our our economy to open up not just because that will help pay the bills for folks, because it's part of who we are coming together being innovative, getting a paycheck, so that we don't have to be worried all the time.

But at the same time, we have to make sure that what we do is smart. We're in a lockdown because we missed the virus. It was circulating in our community and we didn't know it. And we've got to make sure that if we start to reopen, we don't miss it again if it starts to come back or grow. Because we know, the majority of people in Seattle have not been exposed to the virus. As soon as we come together, the people that have the virus will expose more people. So we have to be smart, and we have to learn the lessons that brought us here. And if we want to honor those healthcare workers and those first responders who put themselves at risk day in day out, we've got to make sure that we do this in a smart way. There is no easy path here and it's not an A or B. You cannot choose between your economy and the virus. [Los Angeles Mayor Eric] Garcetti coined the phrase, that it's a matter of "epinomics," to the greatest extent the virus and how it spreads is going to define what we can do when.

The city is facing an estimated $300 million tax revenue shortfall because of the pandemic. Wouldn't a new payroll tax on about 800 of the city's highest paying businesses help plug that hole?

No, it wouldn't, because even the proponents would tell you that money can't be collected until 2022. So the payroll tax has no ability to plug any hole in what we are facing this year or next year. And there's no mechanism by which you can generate money to send checks to people or get funds to people this year.

Council members want to borrow money from the city, give people that cash now and then repay it later with the payroll tax. How does it not work that way?

It doesn't work that way because one, a number of the funds that people have identified, it's unclear whether you can even borrow from them legally. But more importantly, when you borrow money, you gotta pay it back. And to the extent that we can borrow money from those funds, we may need to borrow them just to plug the two to $300 million hole we have, so the people from the city of Seattle can continue to get the essential services.

And then when you pay it back, you have to have a pretty good forecast, that you're going to be collecting the revenues necessary to pay it back in the out years. And I don't think there's anybody who believes that Seattle is going to return to full strength on the businesses this year, and maybe next year.

If it's not a tax increase on big businesses, how do you fill that giant gap? Is it all cuts and what gets cut?

We're gonna have to look at a whole range of tools. But again, it is an absolute fact that a tax increase will not fill that hole. You can't spend money today that you're going to collect in 2022. So that is just a financial facts that people have to believe and then we have to deal with those facts and figure out moving forward, what tools do we have?

And we're looking at a variety of things. We believe that we'll get additional money from the federal government. We will be looking for reimbursement on expenses we've made, for example, in the FEMA area for homelessness. And so until we know what the exact number is and what the other resources are, we won't know all the options we're going to have to do, but we know, I've asked every department to submit what they would do to get to a certain level of cuts. We've frozen hiring, we've frozen all kind of discretionary spending. And so we're going to be looking at a whole range of things to see how we fill that hole. But there is no tax you can pass today on payroll that will fill that hole because it can't be collected for two years. That's just a fact.

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