Dec 30, 2022
On this Hacks & Wonks week in review, political consultant and host Crystal Fincher is joined by the former Director of Progressive Majority who has now transitioned into public service but remains involved in numerous political efforts across Washington, EJ Juárez.
Crystal and EJ start the show discussing the challenges Washington’s infrastructure faced over the last week because of extreme weather and violent actors. Seattle was hit with a major ice storm late last week that caused widespread transit cancellations that showed severe limitations in our infrastructure’s resilience that need to be addressed through accountability and investing for future climate emergencies. Meanwhile, electrical substations in Pierce County were attacked on Christmas, cutting off power for thousands of residents in the area. These attacks, along with the arrest of a man suspected of placing a pipe bomb in a SODO parking garage, have not yet had motivations revealed by law enforcement officials, but they reinforce both the rise of domestic terrorism and the vulnerabilities in our state’s infrastructure.
In infrastructure news further south, the team overseeing the replacement of the Columbia River highway crossing reported earlier this month that the cost of the project has increased by more than $2.5 billion, moving the projected cost to a range of $5.5 billion to $7.5 billion. This increased cost again raises the question of whether the original assumptions behind the project are accurate, and whether policymakers will be willing to rein in scope and cost of the plan.
A newly proposed King County measure would implement a modest property tax to provide $1.25 billion towards behavioral health supports. Unfortunately, the funding doesn’t cover all of the county’s needs, and it would be decided by an April ballot, which will be a challenge electorally.
To end the episode, Crystal and EJ discuss a Real Change News story revealing multiple instances over the past two years where city officials knew that there wasn’t enough shelter to offer Seattle’s homeless citizens, and, despite that, continued to sweep homeless encampments. The current approach of sweeping encampments without getting people into stable housing is widely recognized as ineffective, expensive and inhumane.
As always, a full text transcript of the show is available below and at officialhacksandwonks.com.
“Bus Service Suspended, Only Light Rail Forging On As Seattle Area Blanketed in Ice” by Doug Trumm from The Urbanist
“Massive winter storm brings rolling blackouts, power outages” by Jill Bleed and Heather Hollingsworth from The Seattle Times
“What motivated the Pacific Northwest substation attacks?” by Hal Bernton and Sydney Brownstone from The Seattle Times
“Man arrested in connection to pipe bomb found in Sodo parking garage” by Daisy Zavala Magaña from The Seattle Times
“Washington State Is Losing Control of the Columbia Interstate Bridge Replacement Megaproject” by Ryan Packer from The Urbanist
“King County measure would put $1.25 bn over a decade toward behavioral health crises” by Guy Oron from Real Change News
“Earlier this year, encampment removals continued despite an acknowledged lack of shelter” by Tobias Coughlin-Bogue from Real Change News
[00:00:00] Crystal Fincher: Welcome to Hacks & Wonks. I'm Crystal Fincher, and I am 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. Full transcripts and resources referenced in the show are always available at officialhacksandwonks.com and in our episode notes.
Today, we are continuing our Friday almost-live 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: the former Director of Progressive Majority, who's now transitioned into public service, but remains involved in numerous political efforts across Washington, EJ Juárez. Welcome.
[00:01:00] EJ Juárez: Hello. Thanks for having me.
[00:01:02] Crystal Fincher: Thanks for being back - always enjoy when you're on and always receive lots of positive listener feedback to your insight and analysis. So this is an interesting week - the week between Christmas and New Year's - where lots of people are trying to do anything but work, engage in newsworthy things or cover the news. But there have been a few notable things that have happened this week.
Across the country, we have dealt with a wild week of weather and weather-related phenomenon and challenges. We got snow, we got ice - blanketed in ice - and as many people across the country may not be aware of, Seattle is a city of hills. Washington is a state, especially in western Washington, that is very, very hilly - and ice and hills just do not go together. And we're not really set up to deal with that consistently, so we had occasions where - it doesn't happen very often - but all bus service being suspended for a period of time, almost all transit, some limited train service was available. We saw disruptions in terms of air travel and just people's ability to get anywhere, in combination with flooding that we saw, whether it was South Park or Gig Harbor flooding due to King Tides, which happen normally but can be exacerbated by weather, which it looks like we saw. And so in general, we had a week worth of infrastructure challenges brought about by weather. As you consider what we saw this past week, what is noteworthy to you, EJ?
[00:02:51] EJ Juárez: Well, what's noteworthy to me is that - in my day job, I work a lot in climate resilience and environmental justice - and as the climate emergency continues to rage on, the impacts of those extreme weather events are only going to become more frequent, more common, and we're going to be dealing with them as people who live in big cities with complex infrastructures. What struck me as particularly noteworthy is a little bit of "the cat was out of the bag" on some of the ways that our public agencies were speaking to the public about the constraints on service, or the constraints on how our cities can meet our needs during these emergencies. Of particular note was - we've been told for many years that the rail service couldn't be run longer than the hours they're currently run because of various staffing constraints or time for maintenance of the trains. But then deep in the heart of the ice storm, the trains were still running but without passengers on them. And they were running to keep the tracks warm. And to me, it was just such a significant fail on top of what has been a number of fails from Sound Transit and light rail specifically to say that folks couldn't get on those trains in the middle of an emergency. If folks were wild enough to leave their homes at that time and try and get on a train and the trains were running, people should have been able to get on those trains. And the incredible work of the people who are operating that system - we had over 70 people operating, in an emergency situation, public transit options for the public and those workers were doing their best. But ultimately, the leadership said, the public is not getting on those trains, but we're going to keep running them. And they ran later and they ran all night to keep the tracks warm. So I think while we are experiencing these climate catastrophes and there is loss of life, especially when you're looking at what's happening in Buffalo, as well as what were the impacts here locally, we also know that our infrastructure isn't built for these events, but that we're also being told some fallacies around the capacity of that infrastructure that we're paying for.
[00:05:03] Crystal Fincher: That is an excellent observation. And also your point about the workers who are doing the frontline work to keep these systems maintained as well as possible, and providing service, or able to provide service to the public. Throughout this past week, just locally, we saw transportation and public works employees across the state out on holidays in inclement weather - whether it's horribly freezing, and rain downpours, through ice - doing that work. And when we talk about accountability for these agencies and for leadership, sometimes what gets lost in that is - people who are really working hard and doing their best under the circumstances that they've been placed in. And I do want to recognize that because there have been so many people out working hard for our benefit in ways that are not fun and not pleasant, while also holding the leadership accountable for the situations that they're in - for failing to be an effective steward of these systems and of this infrastructure that we are relying on as a community, that our economy relies on, that people's health relies on. And so whether it's the electrical grid, whether it's the bus and train system, our airline transportation systems - there was someone from Alaska who lost a heart that was reserved for them for a transplant because they could not manage to get from Alaska to Seattle for the transplant surgery and the heart was directed to someone else - that may cost someone's life. Just throughout all of these challenges, we know that our current infrastructure cannot handle the extreme needs that we're dealing with today and are absolutely not capable of meeting our needs in the future.
And as we continue to go through budget processes that we just saw from a municipal perspective and with counties that just concluded, as we head into this legislative session - are we actually doing more than paying lip service to the need to strengthen and buffet our infrastructure in a way that doesn't cost lives, cost jobs, cost health? We're just not doing good enough. And for so many people, for so many agencies, municipalities, it doesn't seem like the urgency or understanding of need or the impacts of the problem is apparent to many of the leaders that are steering this ship. So I hope we see an improvement of at least being straight with the public - we do have limitations today, we need to take action to improve this. And whether it's a water system, whether it's our electricity grid, that we need to allocate sufficient money to do this, which is going to require progressive revenue in some situations, which is going to require a careful look at our current allocation of resources and expenditures - and really making choices about what is worth sacrificing, or where we're not getting the results that we need to to redirect resources into areas that we're suffering from.
[00:08:41] EJ Juárez: One quick piece on that is - I really feel strongly that we're watching our elected officials and agency officials at the highest levels really ignoring the fact that we can declare emergencies on anything we want. But unless they are really investing in the unsexy work - the work that doesn't get headlines, the work that doesn't get a press release or headlines - to reorganize government agencies and reorganize the assets that we already have that actually mitigate and achieve climate resilience and achieve resilience in our transportation systems. As these events become more common, we're not going to get anywhere. We can have all the plans in the world, but it's about reallocating resources and reallocating priorities. We don't see that appetite right now in many of our civic leaders and we see lots of plans and press conferences, but no action on the less sexy work that has to get done in order to avoid these disruptions. There is no reason why a city like Seattle should not have train service for more hours than we do. There's no reason why a city like Seattle, or regions like King County, shouldn't have an integrated transit network that can operate in emergencies, even in once-in-a-generation storms. Because if we're being truly resilient and we're truly looking at climate resilience and our, frankly, survivability, it means we are dealing with those most impacted. And that means people have to be able to move even during the worst times.
[00:10:20] Crystal Fincher: And just bringing that up - also needing to say one other thing. Through these emergencies, despite the fact that much of the infrastructure we rely on - whether we're driving in cars or relying on transit - is unavailable or unsafe during these climate emergencies, there still are a significant number of workers - most of them lower wage and service workers - who still are expected to work, whose bosses and owners are still saying, Well, we got to be open, you got to make it to the office. And sometimes I think that is dangerously invisible, even in a lot of the messaging that we saw - Well just stay home. Why are you even on the roads? Some people have to - are choosing between their personal safety and being able to pay their rent, or buy food, or buy medication. Those are the positions that people are in. I know quite a few people who had to go to work, despite the fact that buses weren't running and it was unsafe to walk on the sidewalks, let alone to try and drive on the roads. And just what we're saying as a society with the expectation of that and with no pushback against that - it is not lost on me that, even in Buffalo, as we look at the deaths there, some people were dying, passed away on the way to or from work, in a situation where - the forecast was clear, it was going to be unsafe, they weren't even going to have customers or clients coming in to the office where the workers were, trying to get them back. And just what are we saying as a society when we expect that? We can't just assume that there should always be a class of workers that should be risking their lives for our convenience and in situations where it's not absolutely necessary. There are some where it is, and we need to make sure that we provide them with the tools to get around safely - whether it's an ambulance driver or people serving the public in that capacity, they're out there and they need those protections to get around safely and do that, and hopefully are compensated commensurate with that. But there are certainly workers that we are not doing that with, and we should be, and it's a shame that we expect people to put their lives on the line for - really - matters of simple convenience. It's disappointing and we can do better than that. We should expect better than that, and we should - that should be part of being a responsible business owner, CEO, person in the community - that you don't expect people to lay down their lives for things that are not essential to helping other people stay alive. Yeah, just a lot, and we could talk about that for quite some time, but appreciate your insight with that and we'll move on.
So a major occurrence this week was an attack - another attack, I should say - on our electrical grid in Pierce County. We saw four separate instances on Christmas Day of what the Pierce County Sheriff's Department has oddly characterized as burglaries or vandalism at different times, even though nothing appears to have been stolen, but really what are effectively attacks on the power grid. This is a continuation of attacks that we've seen. It looks like a continuation of a pattern - whether it's the same people with the same motivation - we don't know yet, we don't have that information. Certainly, as The Seattle Times covered, there have been talks or chatter or things seen - some from people with white supremacist or neo-Nazi affiliations talking about this. We've seen elsewhere in the country that this may appear to be a result of people with neo-Nazi or militia ties - a potential reaction to the really trumped-up, misguided faux outrage at drag story hours, continued attacks on the LGBTQ community. It really does seem like people are trying to make a statement by denying people power, attacking our electrical grid and infrastructure - which so many people rely on and which indiscriminately removes power from people who potentially - who are relying on this for oxygen, for medication and, everyone else for regular life. What was your impression when you heard that our power grids locally were attacked on Christmas?
[00:15:25] EJ Juárez: This story was particularly scary because I think back on, and it sounds so cringy to even mention it, but growing up in Central Washington right after 9-11, many of the schools were told if you were near the Columbia River, you were also near dams. And we were doing drills and we were being told as children what an attack on the power system would mean for us and the consequences of that. And that's the first thing I thought of. And as the reporting from The Seattle Times and others has been rolling out for attacks in Washington, two in Oregon - what is not lost on me is that we're in a region of the country where white supremacy is growing and where the efforts to establish neo-Nazi communities is flourishing. We have an obligation to learn a lot more about what the goals around - we've heard this term general chaos - what that actually means and the tactics that are going to be used to create that. There's not a lot of details that have come out around this, as they're still investigating. But my first reaction was this is an incredibly frightening set of events that impacts everyone, right? Just because these substations from Puget Sound Energy and Tacoma Power were in Pierce County doesn't mean that the substation down the street from our homes, or from wherever you are listening, is not also at risk. We also just saw in the news this week - Chelan County PUD beefing up security around their facilities and assets. I think that this is something that is going to become more and more a part of our lives around how are we securing vital infrastructure, specifically in the face of movements that may be decentralized and maybe have purely violent goals.
[00:17:23] Crystal Fincher: Yeah, I think that that is an accurate observation. And similar to you, when I first heard it - one, I thought about the prior six attacks just in the Northwest, and was this a continuation of that? I also thought about the period post-9-11, where there was the new realization for a lot of people who hadn't lived through some of the Cold War issues, other issues that - Oh, we are especially vulnerable from a number of different points. And whether it was port security, security of water infrastructure, that there are potential vulnerabilities all over the place that maybe we take for granted.
It also is not lost on me, just from the work I do, that there has to be a top-down acknowledgement, to your point, a much better understanding of what some of the aims and goals and targets can be. And what we're really looking at is - yes, we can be aware of the threats, but there is such a distributed and decentralized network that has to be strengthened and guarded. We have just municipal infrastructure across the state, right? There are hundreds of different cities, different counties. There are so many entities in charge of the infrastructure that we rely on locally. And just looking practically at how the leadership is set up for these, we're used to seeing cities like Seattle or the Legislature, where elected officials have offices and there are full departments of people who are dedicated to handling this. That's actually not how things work in most cities, in most localities. You have part-time elected officials who get a stipend, mostly less than $5,000/year, and who don't have any staff, who are just showing up as themselves. And just think about your uncle, cousin, grandmother, grandfather - that is who is running these cities with all of the information that they do or don't have, or encounter on a daily basis - whether that's Fox News, or CNN, or KIRO, or wherever - that may be the only interaction that they have with news or policy. And many people do not engage with them in terms of - these are best practices, this is what's happening today - they don't always get that information. There's kind of some statutory stuff that they have to cover - committee reports and approving of budgets and kind of general contract stuff going all along - but they may not know or be aware of these challenges or the best way to address them. Which sounds really basic and you'd be like, Well, that's your responsibility. Yes, but we also have to engage with a practical knowledge that they just may not have the knowledge, there may not be the infrastructure set up internally in these cities to take care of that. So I do hope there is a coordinated effort, whether it's federally or from the governor's office or from leadership of counties, to assist localities, utility districts, water districts, with - this is what needs to be done to make sure that we are protecting and can recover from any disruption or attack or anything. Because I don't think most people have to think about our infrastructure, but - and I think that it's really easy to become an elected official, especially at the local level, without even engaging in the need to do that. But there is - that's one of the most basic functions and responsibilities that there is - that we don't necessarily inspect during a campaign process, or talk about, or engage with. And so I think as we see, whether it's Congress or locally, and the vulnerability to even cyber attacks or ransomware attacks, and just a lack of understanding of what is actually happening or how to recover from that - from people who just are not familiar with the technical world - that we have a similar issue when it comes to just our regular infrastructure that we need to address.
[00:22:03] EJ Juárez: One of the things that's staying with me is I think we've all been around long enough to watch the rise in copper theft and the rise of theft that is based on security materials or tools. But to now transition into a phase where we're having multiple, perhaps coordinated - we don't know - attacks that are meant to sabotage and cause disruption for the sake of disruption is a very different, I think, impact for the general public. Because I just think broadly about how, as a culture and a society, there is such frustration and such hurt. And these actions, regardless of the motive, come from a place of being constrained and feeling - perhaps - boxed in by structures that are beyond your control. And so we are going to continue to see, unless we're striking at the root causes of either racism or health disparities or the climate crisis or whatever it may be, increased instances of people lashing out. And that is unsettling to me. And it's, I think, greatly disturbing to wrestle with the idea of chaos for the sake of chaos.
[00:23:22] Crystal Fincher: Yeah, no, I think that's astute. And just chaos for the sake of chaos, potentially - and again, another incident that we're not sure of - just yesterday. A man was arrested on suspicion of placing a pipe bomb in an underground parking garage in Seattle's SODO neighborhood. This was seen, it seems like it may have been caught by someone on a security camera who alerted the police. They sent in the bomb unit. It was an active pipe bomb that they were able to handle without any injury or loss of life. And a 38-year-old man was arrested in connection with that. It looks based on the surveillance footage, and he returned to the parking garage while detectives were investigating - don't know what the motive or purpose, whether he was targeting an individual or just wanting to create chaos. But when we talk about - this is another element of public safety and maintaining a safe community. And I hope there is adequate investigation and coordination and sharing of information and investigations just to try and make sure that we get at what potential motives, what potential networks, even if it's a distributed network - what is motivating these actions and how to interrupt that further upstream before we see it result in incidences of violence and mayhem and disruption. And to your point, just the goal of disruption is something that I don't know that we have really, as a society, engaged with the need to address and protect against in official ways.
So I also want to talk this week just about - obviously we have the state legislative session coming up in just a couple weeks here, starting for 2023. A big issue that we're going to be dealing with there is the continuation of looking at what we're going to do with the Columbia River Crossing Project - a replacement of the current I-5 bridge that is across there, with a stated need from the state - Hey, the bridge is aging, we need to replace it. Potentially, they feel that they need to add more capacity. There are disagreements on whether that capacity is justified or based off of realistic projections. We dealt with all of that before - the state allocated a billion dollars to that effort. And then we recently have had officials with that project come back and say - So it's going to cost a lot more than we initially anticipated. Billions more, in fact, than we initially anticipated. And that is what our legislature is going to have to deal with this year. What are they going to have to get into and decide as they work through this, EJ?
[00:26:34] EJ Juárez: I'm having a little bit of PTSD around this because I think this is another Gregoire-era transportation project that is based on assumptions that nobody can prove, right? And so when we look at the Highway 99 tunnel, we look at all the projections that were used to sell that to us - that is now in the midst of potentially asking for a bailout because of such poor projections. We are faced with a similar project, also from Governor Gregoire's era, over the Columbia River into the state of Oregon that is based on projections that are still being questioned by many of the people in the region - including environmental justice groups, including transportation groups - that are questioning the baseline assumptions of what this bridge needs to do and what this crossing needs to accomplish. As the costs have increased, the political will to increase that cost has also seemed to increase. But nobody's really taking ownership of this fast ballooning project. And when we look at a $7.5 billion project, there will obviously be overruns. It would be silly for us to assume that that would be kept at cost - look at Sound Transit, look at Highway 99, look at some interchanges out in Spokane. We have no ability to control that at $7.5 billion - and that's billion dollars - at a time when we cannot fully fund education, when we are not funding many other projects across the state. And I think what we're dealing with right now is - how much are we going to believe assumptions? Policymakers are looking at those projections saying, What is real? What will change? And how will changing behaviors ultimately impact the needs for this crossing?
[00:28:19] Crystal Fincher: Yeah, it's a big challenge. And The Urbanist has done an excellent job covering all aspects of this project and this work and the challenge that they are currently facing. One of the major issues that you just brought up were traffic projections, tolling projections. We have a very close and consistent reminder of how problematic bad projections can be, as we see with the Highway 99 tunnel that's going through Seattle. You just talked about how ridiculous and audacious it basically is to assume that there are not going to be cost overruns on a big project. We did see that happen with Highway 99. People who were really eager to get this project through were - many of them were insistent, including Governor Gregoire and some people in the current Seattle mayor's office, saying, This will be fine. We have planned and we've put in an adequate buffer and there will be no cost overruns and citizens won't be on the hook for anything, or residents of Seattle. So - which obviously turned out to not be the case. Lots of people who talked about errant traffic projections - problems that that would create with tolling and revenue projections - were actually proven right in that situation. But we seem to be walking into the same exact issue with this Columbia River Crossing tunnel - looking at - okay, for some reason, regardless of traffic patterns that we have seen in reality turn out to be counter to projections of just continual and unmitigated growth and consistency, that's not how traffic use has turned out to be. And if your financing plan for the project relies on continuing demand and continuing growth and you don't get that, you then create a situation where you're building in the need for a bailout, which looks like we are doing and will continue to do.
And that is aside from the cost, the very tangible costs and consequences of increasing the amount of vehicles that are traveling. If you build a wider freeway, cars will come and populate that big, wider freeway - induced demand is a real regular thing that happens. We don't actually reduce traffic when we build bigger freeways, we increase it. Even though we continue to hear - fewer than we used to - but still too many public officials say we need to do this to alleviate traffic. In practice and in reality, it doesn't do that. Anyone sitting in traffic on a freeway can experience that because we've widened all of our major freeways and they've only gotten worse, as we've seen. So we're walking into this project that is going to worsen climate impacts, that seems like it has errant traffic projections - and the core of the plan for this project has not been updated in the past decade. And we're working on decades-old assumptions, literally, as we move into this new phase. And there doesn't seem to be a grappling with the fact that maybe we need to go back and update the core assumptions that we are currently seeing - and a very present example in Seattle - be wrong. And are we willing to risk being wrong again when the consequence is billions of dollars when we're struggling to fund current infrastructure, current projects and programs that are fundamental to life and health because we want to build a bigger freeway no matter what the costs are?
[00:32:03] EJ Juárez: I think that the necessity to updating the crossing is clear. What is not clear is the extent in which that crossing needs to be additional lanes, car heavy, as expensive as this is, with multiple interchanges planned. But what is being lost in a lot of this is - when we assume tolls on public processes like this and public freeways and highways, it's almost always going to necessitate that we get into this cycle of you need to have more cars on the road to generate the money to build the thing. And so you are inducing demand because when the tolls fall - if we're pushing people into public transit, we're pulling people off of the roads - you are working against your own transit agencies and your own climate goals by pulling individual car use, individual trips out into public transit to then only say, Get back on the road. We actually need you to pay that toll. This is a counterintuitive cycle of funding that does not actually make sense when you look at it from a meta-level. And furthermore, when you dive deeper into the environmental impact assessment of this project, the number of trips that are going to be necessary over the next decade are far lower than what the initial projections had shown. And that the toll assumptions would actually be double what the EIS called for to make it solvent. So what is being communicated to the public in terms of the actual cost of these toll rates, the number of needed necessary trips across in single-occupancy vehicles, as well as the overall cost - all are not accurate for anyone to make a decision that is informed in reality.
One additional point that I'll bring up here is - when we look at some of these major projects and we look at actually the core of the equity issue is, for whom are we widening these lanes? Who benefits from that? And ultimately, what are impacted communities' ability to inform this project? The Columbia River Crossing group has invested $6 million in outreach currently, but there are still many, many impacted communities that have said we have not received any outreach, we have not had any input, we've not actually been in authentic relationship with our government around this project. So if that $6 million is truly being used to bring ownership and input into a project, we should see better outcomes that are more based in reality and centering equity and climate resilience. We're just not seeing that.
So my last point on this - because I think it's fairly clear how much of a crazy project I think this is, where it is today - we are looking at Oregon right across the river that has not identified a funding source for their share of this project. It doesn't move forward. It can't be tolls. The Legislature doesn't have the money to allocate this without a new funding source. So I'm not quite sure where decision makers go from here without pouring more money into an organization and into a project that might not ever come to fruition.
[00:35:28] Crystal Fincher: Yeah, I think that's exactly right. There's one other thing that I will throw into this - and especially being in the position of doing political consulting, communicating strategically - I just need to call BS on this newfangled justification that people in transportation planning circles seem to have come up with that is just marketing hype and there's no data to support it. And that is this justification that we see and an attempt to say, This is actually a green project and we actually are moving closer to our climate goals, even though we're putting more cars onto the road. Is the attempt to say, Well, if we make traffic better and cars can drive faster, that is going to lower emissions because they aren't sitting in traffic for a longer period of time, emitting more. This is a very creative justification. Certainly something new that they have found to say in the absence of doing the things that we know reduce greenhouse gas emissions, like reducing vehicle miles traveled - because in these projects, there seems to be no assumption or expectation that there's going to be any vehicle miles traveled reduction and no goal to do so. In the absence of that goal, they seem to be saying, So if we could just speed traffic up, we will lower emissions because technically they're on the road for shorter periods of time, they aren't sitting there emitting harmful substances. And so this is going to get us there if we can just make everyone go fast. This is so insufficient, lacks evidence, and is really just a marketing ploy. And I really need us to recognize that and call people out when they attempt to justify things that are going to make emissions worse and move us further away from our goals by coming up with a fancy, Well, we'll just make them move faster. That's not a thing. And if we are serious about mitigating the real impacts and real consequences that we are experiencing and will continue to experience to greater degrees, we need to engage with the fact that we need to substantively reduce emissions. There's no more effective way to do that than moving more vehicle trips off of the road, providing people with real options and opportunities to take transit, investing in those strategies that help people do that, that help people that build the infrastructure necessary to help eliminate the requirement that people drive everywhere because of how we have set our community and our infrastructure up.
This is the type of project that can make a meaningful impact on that if they so chose. And that can make things a lot worse and lock in the requirement to have to drive, to have high emissions practices and standards - and for the next generation. So in considering the costs of this, there are health costs, there are community costs. And it just feels like they have picked a course and are trying to stay it no matter what, regardless of the hard evidence that we've seen and are currently paying for, that the facts on the ground have changed. It's time to look at the core assumptions and projections and fix them and not make the same mistake that we did before.
With that, we will move on to other news that King County is looking at putting a behavioral health measure on the ballot potentially in April of 2023. What will this measure do? And what do you think of this, EJ?
[00:39:37] EJ Juárez: Well, I'll start with February measures. I am - there's no shyness around - I think there should not be February measures ever. The turnout is so low. It is unrepresentative of the communities that are voting.
[00:39:50] Crystal Fincher: And this one is April. We have another one in February. I think your point stands for both February and April - they are suboptimal. August, if you have to. November - please stop doing these special elections trying to pass revenue when you have headwinds that you know you're going to face.
[00:40:08] EJ Juárez: Thank you for that clarification. But yes - still the same, still awful. This is a proposal that's looking at a modest property tax over the next nine years. And this levy is $1.25 billion for behavioral health. This is something that many county leaders have been talking about for some time. And this is a pretty flashy announcement that is not adequate to meet the need that we have, but it is a step in the right direction and a really important program that the county should be funding, regardless of how this levy goes. When we look at what the county has done with core services and what is viewed as quality of life services - parks, culture, things like that, which are critical central roles and responsibilities of government - they have largely pushed these off into levies and bonds. And I think we're going to get to the point in which we are going to see voters here in King County and communities really levied out, where many of these things need to just be funded through core government. Because as you stack these on top of each other, as they begin to cascade forward, you're going to see multiple levies in multiple years, year after year, where voters are going to become quite wary of another one - just one more on the ballot, one more. So we have to figure out a way to pull some of this back into core government funding services from the general fund.
[00:41:32] Crystal Fincher: Yeah, absolutely agree. And this also serves the function of reducing accountability to spending within the general fund. Are we really doing a sufficient enough examination of what we are spending general fund dollars on, and if we're getting the return that we anticipate? Is our current allocation of public safety dollars getting us the return that people are expecting? Are we doing that in the most effective manner possible? It may require the same amount of money, but it may require a different allocation of investments than are currently there. Are we doing that? Are we, to your point, just relying on, Well, it's either an extra thing or it's nothing - when we aren't looking at this as a core responsibility, to your point that it really should be. I absolutely think this is necessary, should be funded, is a core thing. And I think it is a good thing to try and make a push. If it does wind up being a levy, we will be better for this. This is critical to public safety, to public health, to just the health and resilience of our communities. I wish we would recognize that in policy and in function and fund it as a core service. Because the reliance on passing it on the ballot means that they could decide not to, to your point, and get fatigued, and then what? And then we defund an entire apparatus that we know is necessary for public health and safety.
So it's going on an April ballot. If you know me, we have had conversations of putting stuff on these special election ballots and the challenges that they produce. And even the county moving towards even-year elections, which just passed on the ballot, is a recognition. The need for that was because turnout and participation is so low and insufficient just on primary and general election dates in odd-number years, not even accounting for the much lower participation in these special election dates. So I just wish that we would move away from these, but here we go again.
[00:43:57] EJ Juárez: Yeah. My thing with this is - I don't want it to be lost that the number of mental health beds in the county has decreased significantly over the past few years. This is at a crisis in which providers, families, neighbors, people you may know, are waiting 44 days or more to receive treatment. That also means that folks who are in crisis that are often made in the public's imagination to be the perpetrators of crime, to be the perpetrators of various mischief downtown Seattle or other places, right? This is a part of the public's imagination around who creates crime and where crime lives, but also asking that same population to then fund supporting those individuals when many of those people believe it is an individual personal responsibility failing - to me, is problematic. This is the route we need to go today. And I definitely hope that it is successful because a reduction from 355 beds to 244 - just since 2018 - is an outrageous decline that says a thing is deeply broken and it's breaking fast. But the idea that someone who I know may need mental health care and has to wait over a month to receive that - the amount of danger they are in in that month is worth every bit of effort it will take to make sure something like this passes.
[00:45:32] Crystal Fincher: Yeah, absolutely. I will be voting Yes on this. I will be encouraging other people to vote Yes on this. It is absolutely needed. And it's so needed that I hope moving forward beyond this, we fund it as a core function and not as something that is left, to your point, to the will of people who may not understand or want to deal with the true nature of this issue.
The last thing we'll cover today was a revelation from - Real Change News broke a story that in the City of Seattle earlier this year, encampment removals continued despite an acknowledged lack of shelter. Why is this noteworthy?
[00:46:22] EJ Juárez: This is the Seattle story, right? This is - we are shifting problems to different places without actually serving people. And I think many smart people, I think, are becoming more and more loud about - We can build an industry around a problem like no other in Seattle. We can build jobs, we can build organizations and nonprofits around a human crisis like no other place in this country. And we will fund it until it hurts. And that is what we are doing. With hundreds of millions of dollars going to the homelessness issue here in our region, we're still dealing with ultimately - we don't want to look at it, we don't want to see it, and we don't want to deal with it. And that we are turning this again into a personal responsibility failing. And you're seeing that through this approach. When we look at what this story in Real Change is bringing to us, it is an uptick in the mayor's sweeps policy, it is a number of high-level officials across the county and the city not actually taking responsibility for helping people, but instead treating this as an issue that must be processed away, that must be checkboxed away into a different area of responsibility.
[00:47:42] Crystal Fincher: I see a few things here and it's a complicated thing. And this is, to your point, a very Seattle problem in the way that it is manifesting. One - part of this is there are organizations and groups and people doing excellent work, doing outreach work - really trying their best to get people into housing, off of the streets in a sustainable way - beyond a shelter bed for a night - really trying to find a place and to connect people with services. An organization called Just Care and the services that they provide are important and have helped a number of people. At that same time, the services available are wholly insufficient for the scale of the problem and the amount of people that need help and shelter. And there just are not enough. Legally, this is potentially an issue because there was a court decision saying, Hey, you can't ban unhoused people from public areas or have them experience criminal consequences for being in a public area or living in a public area, if there is no other alternative. And so some of the checkboxing you see is really an attempt to say, It's okay if we sweep them, it's okay if we do that because we have offered them services that they have refused. So basically it is now their choice to be outside and not a necessity. When in reality, even when that checkbox is ticked on paper, the services that are offered are not applicable to, or relevant to, or helpful to the people who are experiencing that. We talked before in this program and it's been covered in lots of different places - even overnight shelter, the need to be in by 7pm and out by 7am. Well, what if they have a job? Lots of unhoused people do have jobs, do have needs that go beyond that. How is transportation happening? Are they going to lose a somewhat stable community if they leave for one night, that area gets swept, and now you've displaced everybody. So there are considerations with that shelter. But when there is none, there is actually a legal problem with conducting sweeps. And it appears that we have landed in that place. There is an explicit acknowledgement that we are in that place in Seattle. It seems like there has been a lot of effort that has gone into the show of providing services. And we have explicitly pierced that in at least some of this.
In the long term, I think that a lot of us know this, many people know this - that there are insufficient services and we have to figure out a different solution anyway. But I don't know that that is necessarily - this does not seem to be something that has been publicly acknowledged by the City, that has been publicly acknowledged by the mayor with an attempt to actually functionally do something about that. The mayor has said that he had a goal of identifying 2,000 housing units - identifying is not providing, getting people into, it's basically the equivalent of a report. They've still fallen short of that. It looks like they're continuing to work towards making progress on that. And they're over 1,900 at this point of time, but it really does make you question, Okay, if we can't identify it, how are we going to get people in there? And what's the plan for getting people into sustainable housing and not just one night of shelter. Or identifying a shelter bed, which is not housing, it's not anything housing. If we're talking about shelter beds, we are not talking about housing people. So what are we actually doing to make this issue better?
We had news come out this week that Seattle, that Washington only is behind California and New York, I believe, in the number of unhoused people we have in the state. And this is a problem that appears to be getting worse. By the data, it is continuing to get worse. There are more this year than there were last. So what are we actually doing to intervene in this? You brought up before we're great at declaring emergencies and crises and making a show of fixing this and investing in organizations who are saying we're fixing this, but is that resulting in more people moving into housing than moving out of it? That answer appears to be no.
[00:52:14] EJ Juárez: I think at the end of the day, there are so many good people doing good, amazing, hard, noble work at organizations trying to support people, and we will never service our way out of this problem. There are not enough services we can design, imagine, and fund to fix this problem. If we aren't talking about how we are treating people with dignity and justice and also talking about zoning reform and talking about taxing land more than structures so that we can encourage density on that land, we are not addressing this problem. And I think that anytime we are sucked into a cycle of saying the services offered are just inadequate, the shelters are just inadequate, we're actually missing the forest for the trees - because zoning, density, availability of affordable housing, the ability for people to afford that housing are all deeply ingrained in this problem. And what we're seeing is the further movement of the two issues away from each other. We're not seeing zoning advocates really deeply talking about this homeless piece and how we're moving folks from shelters and encampments into housing because zoning is available, right? And I think we need - and there are a few, right - I don't want to discount the work that's being done there, but I do think that this is an issue where I will say it until the cows come home, You cannot service your way out of encampments. You cannot service your way out of homelessness. It requires a much more deep systemic solution around zoning and affordability and density.
[00:53:54] Crystal Fincher: Absolutely. I think that's absolutely true. There is no long-term solution. There is no reduction in the crushing weight of the cost of housing and the percentage of people's income that is required without some substantive zoning reform and an increase in housing supply. I also think that we cannot overlook the importance of renter protections in order to stem the short-term tide, to address housing as speculation and investment without a regard to the fact that this is an essential necessary need for people and if they can't afford it or if they can be arbitrarily evicted and some of the predatory behavior going on there that we continue to make this problem worse in the short term. And I think that this is a three-legged stool. We absolutely need services to help with the issue of homelessness, but that is not a solution. We absolutely need an increase in housing supply and ability to build more housing in more places. But that's not the only solution. And we absolutely need greater protections for people who are tenants and reducing the ability for people to have to come up with incredible amounts of money to keep a roof over their head. And the capital required on an individual basis, even if their current apartment or rental is priced out of their price range - having to come up with first and last rent, if you have good credit and only if you have good credit, and moving somewhere else is just not something that people are able to do. This is why we have such a horrible homelessness problem here in Washington because we are not handling those fundamentals. So we absolutely need to engage on all of these issues. We don't have an option not to if we're going to address this problem. I do see people, to your point, in silos in each one of those issues and not acknowledging action on the other. And I think that we just all have to recognize that we need all of this action now. I think we're moving, I think we are making progress on housing. I do anticipate a bigger push and a greater likelihood of something legislatively happening in terms of housing supply and zoning reform, hopefully this session in the Legislature. But wow, we have so much that we need to do and that we need to get on.
[00:56:44] EJ Juárez: Including accountability. Just this week, the City of East Wenatchee was shown that they used many of their federal housing dollars for infrastructure projects across town that actually did not support people getting into homes, staying in homes, or improving areas where housing was being built. It was infrastructure projects that were unrelated. As long as we are going to invest tax dollars into these programs, whether that's McKinney-Vento or infrastructure money, we should make sure that cities are spending it exactly on those things. And that we have to recognize that in many places around the country and around our state, we have not allowed - or we have given, excuse me, too much leeway for elected officials to fund at their discretion versus funding where the need is. And the consequences for those deviations are not serious. They are entirely unserious. It is - well, the public can unelect them, the public should let them know. But unfortunately, when I get money - if I get a coupon from the store and it says the coupon is worth a donut, I can't go buy a watermelon with it. I got to go buy a donut. And the cashier will just say, Sorry, bud. That's the way this goes. We don't actually have that for much of our housing money. And I truly believe a lot of that is wrapped up in really deep, I think - well, I don't want to say traditional - morality issues around responsibility and self-sufficiency. So this is a problem - to get back to the sweeps - that has so many different people that need to lean in and that we have to fix on so many levels. And we can't rely on just one silo to help fix this problem. As you've seen from the stories from Real Change, from The Seattle Times, and others, there are so many folks that are looking at it with so many different lenses. And organizations like the King County Regional Homeless Authority and others help play a more meta-level role. But ultimately, we need more enforcement and accountability on the groups that are spending this money.
[00:58:55] Crystal Fincher: I think that's an excellent point. And I think sometimes we get into these kind of conversations surrounding this and a stance that questioning any money that is going to this issue means that you oppose this issue. And I think we need to break out of that - that this sometimes assumption or positioning that accountability is conservative. Ultimately, it is not. It is something that should be a regular practice of government and that it is so vital to make sure that what we're buying is what we're getting, what we intended to buy is what we're getting, what we're investing our tax dollars in is what we're getting. And so I just think that we need to get comfortable with that and that we all benefit from that. And that is a very progressive, responsible, prudent thing to do. And that when we do that well, we actually help more people. It is a very progressive thing to do, to say, Are we helping as many people as we can in the ways that we want to? And if we are not doing that, how can we course correct in order to make sure that happens? Are we getting what we bought for this? And if not, why not? Your coupon example is a great example. We need to do this regularly. And questioning that doesn't mean that we don't agree with wanting to help. I think it's really wanting to help more effectively.
And then beyond that, I think that we have to be comfortable with looking at things across the board. I think even though sometimes accountability is thought of as a conservative thing, we also get real selective when it does come to accountability. Lots of people now recognize that on the federal level, congressionally - we never question defense spending. But oh my gosh, we need to really look at providing kids with free school lunches - we may not have enough money for that, or what's it going to, or are people abusing that, and what if people who can afford it are getting it - when we have no problem just signing away billions of dollars for other things. Accountability should be uniform, right? If we're questioning in Seattle whether an alternative response program is delivering everything we want, are we applying that same scrutiny and expectation to stuff that is funded with the general fund, whether it be our police officers or - are we getting what we want and if we don't, how can we course correct and how can we all work together? That doesn't necessarily mean villainizing or demonizing people, or lacking the recognition that within those systems, even if they are flawed overall, that there are people who care a lot and are doing great work within those and that doesn't mean that they're bad people either. But if we're not getting the results that these programs are designed to produce or with the expectation of producing, then let's just not be like, Well, it'd be bad not to do it, or it'll be bad to say that we're not funding this. Let's just do the thing that helps people. Let's spend money in more effective ways. We're actually much better off when we do that across the board.
And with that, we will wrap this nether-week between Christmas and New Year's. Thank you for listening to Hacks & Wonks on this Friday, December 30th, 2022 - it's almost 2023, y'all. Hacks & Wonks is co-produced by Shannon Cheng and Bryce Cannatelli. Our insightful co-host today is former Director of Progressive Majority, who's now in public service, EJ Juárez. You can find EJ on Twitter @EliseoJJuarez. You can follow Hacks & Wonks on Twitter @HacksWonks. You can find me on Twitter also. You can catch Hacks & Wonks wherever you get your podcasts - just type "Hacks and Wonks" into the search bar. Subscribe to get the full versions of our Friday almost-live shows and our midweek show delivered to your podcast feed. If you like us, leave a review wherever you listen. You can also get a full text 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.