The tax on big businesses to raise money for homeless services still faces an uphill battle in the city council, but proponents got a big win Tuesday when budget chair Lisa Herbold included it in her balanced budget package.
Herbold said the homeless crisis was the defining factor of the budget package put together this year and that "Seattle can't afford to wait," adding that there would need to be even more investments made to "move the needle forward." She again said that the city has a duty to acknowledge that economic prosperity has led to some not only reaping the rewards but suffering because of it.
So that leaves the city council with four in favor of the tax, four opposing it, and Mayor Tim Burgess against it; council president Bruce Harrell, who has a good relationship with businesses, also seemed skeptical of the tax at a budget committee meeting but hasn't directly signaled whether he opposes it. And the city council will need a majority to pass the budget package. The employee hours tax would affect businesses with gross revenues above $5 million at a rate of about $100 a year for every full-time employee.
Council member Sally Bagshaw was the only one on the council outspoken on Tuesday against the tax and said the council would risk losing businesses as an important partner in the long term ("politically joyful for a few but counterproductive in the long run") if the tax were to move forward, adding that there needs to be a new dedicated strategy on tackling homelessness before there are new taxes.
"We throw blocks of money as if we’re an ATM machine," Bagshaw said. "Raising a head tax in a vacuum is a nibble around the edges without the business group at the table."
What the budget package didn't have from the Housing for All Coalition's demands was Sawant's proviso on homelessness—barring the city from using funds for unsanctioned encampment sweeps. Herbold's replacement proviso instead bars the city from using funds on the Navigation Team until the mayor agrees to reporting regular performance measures on the team.
"I appreciate that this is an incremental approach, and it's very difficult and frustrating to take an incremental approach when I know that people's lives are at stake," Herbold said. "But I'm not comfortable with making a major policy change about how the executive does this work in the context of our budget discussions this year."
A Kshama Sawant amendment to the budget package co-sponsored by five other council members adds another $450,000 to authorized encampment sites and would include two additional authorized sites.
Council member Kirsten Harris-Talley said the city doesn't need more performance measures when homeless people already know the sweeps don't work.
"Without actual outcomes of what this is solving we are hemorrhaging millions of dollars to move people around and not actually addressing houselessness," Harris-Talley said. "We need to move those dollars into services and housing. ... I'm worried about the expediency of the problem."
Updated 11:26 to fix an editing error on structure and clarify a quote.