Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell unveiled a new six-year proposed Seattle Park District budget at an Aug. 31 press conference that was overshadowed by a political controversy over his reported candid remarks to police officers earlier this year.
Reporters questioned Harrell about his comments, first reported by MyNorthwest.com columnist Jason Rantz, including that he did not believe people facing homelessness have a right to sleep outside, that he wants to oust progressive city councilmembers who oppose his agenda and that he may reduce funding to the King County Regional Homelessness Authority (KCRHA) due to a lack of support for his approach to homelessness.
Harrell did not deny the contents of Rantz’s article, saying, “I give probably on average five or six speeches a week, so I can’t keep track of everything that I said.” He also doubled down on the “tough-on-crime” messaging he told to cops.
“But I will tell you what I’m intolerant about, and I will remain [sic] my right to criticize what I see,” he said. “I’m not happy when I look at the number of murders and deaths we’ve had in the city. I’m not happy when I see people who are not housed in tents. They’re living in tents on streets, and they’re not getting the services they need. I’m not happy when I see the fentanyl issues that are killing communities — literally. People elected the mayor to be decisive, to make decisions, to be strong.”
In the private conversations, Harrell said that he wanted “to hold [KCRHA] accountable” for not supporting his sweeps of unhoused people’s encampments. Since he’s taken office, Harrell’s administration has conducted more than 100 sweeps, according to public records. Despite the harsh impacts of sweeps on unsheltered people, Harrell defended his policies at the press conference, saying that Seattle was allowed to impose “reasonable restrictions” on camping in parks.
When questioned by Real Change if sweeps effectively criminalize homelessness, Harrell said, “No, we don’t sweep,” despite the fact that there have been dozens of documented removals of homeless encampments. Harrell also said that Seattle offers housing and treatment to unhoused people and that the city was in compliance with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision Martin v. Boise, which bars cities from conducting sweeps when people don’t have available shelter.
In announcing the proposed 2023–2028 Seattle Park District budget, Harrell blamed homeless people for taking shelter in public parks and making them inaccessible to other members of the public.
“In mid 2021, I think this is important to note that nearly 100 of the parks and natural areas managed by the Parks and Recreation portfolio ... were closed or impacted by unauthorized encampments,” Harrell said.
The Park District is an independent authority approved by voters in 2014 to raise additional funding from property taxes to invest in public parks and green spaces in the city. Delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Park District is now going into its second budget cycle.
Harrell’s proposed budget will spend $114.8 million over the next two years, including $10 million in new capital investments and more than $40 million in new spending. One of the main priority areas for the mayor is increasing cleanliness and accessibility in parks, such as providing more funding for public bathrooms, increasing community center hours and creating a dedicated $600,000 graffiti and vandalism response team. Harrell also pledged to reestablish the park rangers program by hiring 26 new rangers (there are currently just two), as well as increasing enforcement of off leash and dog poop laws.
Sandra Wilcox, a Seattle park ranger since 2008, said it was great that the program will be expanded after being short-staffed for so long.
“Park rangers aren’t the answer to everything. It’s just one more thing that could possibly help,” Wilcox said.
Wilcox also said that, contrary to some preconceptions, park rangers are not like cops. “No, we do not carry any defensive tools. We don’t make arrests. We don’t detain people,” she said.
Seattle Parks and Recreation Acting Superintendent Christopher Williams highlighted investments in equity, including outreach to BIPOC and multilingual communities and an expansion of youth mentorship opportunities. The proposed Park District budget will also expand the Seattle Conservation Corps, a job training program for adults facing homelessness, by 20 percent.
“These recommendations are very equity-centered, in order to serve the needs of the community,” Williams said.
Some of the new capital projects funded by the budget include opening 12 new parks totaling more than 10 acres of land, renovating community centers and pools and opening a dedicated pickleball court. Earlier this year, pickleball was declared the official sport of Washington state.
With his response to reporters during the rollout of his Park District budget, Harrell made it clear that he will not back down from criticism of his controversial policies or leadership style, even when it clashes with his progressive colleagues.
Read more of the Sept. 7-13, 2022 issue.