Local Services Hosts Annual Town Hall, Pandemic Style

King County officials Zoomed in to inform and hear from island residents.

Last week, islanders heard from King County Councilmember Joe McDermott, representatives from the Department of Local Services and other county agencies supporting unincorporated areas in a town hall to discuss how the county is continuing to provide services to all 2.2 million residents during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The island virtual meeting was one of 10 town hall events scheduled by local services this year for unincorporated areas. Officials had to think creatively about how to conduct these usually well-attended, in-person events, as with just about everything in 2020, since restrictions remain in place on public gatherings and meetings. Hundreds of people turned out to hear from county representatives and officials directly last year to discuss government programs and more.

A look at council, county

McDermott, sitting in his basement office, turned his computer screen to reveal a picture hanging on his wall of orca whales breaking off the shores of Maury Island, a slice of island life always in the foreground of his work on the county council, he said.

“The council, even though we’ve been working from home and virtually for about seven months now, has taken on a significant amount of work because of the pandemic. And in fact, at times, it’s been some of the most important and timely work of my public career,” he said.

Aiming high, the council adopted multiple supplementary budgets to address a number of aspects of the pandemic, McDermott noted. As part of the county’s COVID response, he mentioned free testing available regardless of immigration or insurance status at locations across the area, including on Vashon, with more in South King County, as case rates are higher among communities of color, including Latinx, Black, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander. In addition to directing funds for eviction prevention and the county’s rent assistance program to the island, the council has also been able to award $20,000 to the Vashon-Maury Island Food Bank, he said.

McDermott said the county has prioritized working with schools in partnership with Public Health – Seattle & King County to nail down guidance on plans for reopening safely, and to make funds accessible to businesses in local communities, including Vashon, for needed assistance, acknowledging the tremendous financial impact the pandemic has on the economy and people’s lives.

One longtime community organizer spoke about how significant the impact has been. Hilary Emmer, program coordinator for the Interfaith Council to Prevent Homelessness’s Virus Rent Fund, commented during the meeting that many island agencies are not receiving critical grants. She said that 70% of the recipients who are directly allocated rental assistance from IFCH are Latino people, who the county identifies as being disproportionately affected by the virus, yet the island is passed over for other communities and is not receiving equal consideration for help.

“Our donors are totally fatigued and exhausted,” she said, adding that she had managed to collect $17,000 for rent in November for the families that depend on it, raising over $180,000 since March. “Right now, I’m personally a nervous wreck.”

McDermott replied, saying the undocumented population has an understandable concern over not wanting to interact or give their information to the county. He encouraged Emmer’s clients to reach out to the county’s general rental assistance program to augment local fundraising. More information about the county’s program is available online at tinyurl.com/y6sy55fk.

Focusing on other vulnerable populations, McDermott said, the council helped create isolation and quarantine sites and temporary “de-intensification” shelters for people with homelessness to spread out so that the disease does not proliferate within shelters. McDermott also touted legislation he cosponsored that the council has already adopted that led to the creation of the new sales tax-funded King County Regional Homelessness Authority. The plan is to set aside up to $400 million for the purchase of motels, hotels or nursing homes to provide single-occupancy residences for 2,000 chronically homeless people in the area, although the Seattle Times reported that cities opting out of the sales tax could siphon more than $18 million from the fund.

Vashon’s homeless and displaced people are not faring comfortably in the pandemic. In the absence of the library and a dedicated, warm space to go during the day, the only public restroom with shower facilities at Dockton Park remains shut down until further notice due to social distancing constraints, leaving anyone without access to showers in the lurch. The topic of reopening them was raised at the meeting, but until restrictions are eased or lifted little can be done. King County Parks has opened single-stall bathrooms and offered porta-potties and washing stations at some locations, including at Dockton, though McDermott said his office is coordinating with The DOVE Project on this issue.

The council will adopt a final, two-year proposed $12.4 billion budget for 2021-22 in November, McDermott said. It was transmitted by Executive Dow Constantine in September.

The county now faces an enormous budget deficit. Nearly 400 county jobs are slated to be cut due to the recession caused by COVID, according to budget manager Becka Johnson Poppe. But it’s not just jobs on the line. State and federal funding have together sponsored COVID research, contact tracing outreach, homeless shelter projects, food aid, rental assistance, legal assistance, small business grants and more. But federal funding expires on Dec. 30.

“Without support from the federal government continuing, our COVID response is going to be radically reduced starting in January,” Johnson Poppe said, noting that some state money will be available for public health to continue testing, outreach and contact tracing. “But almost everything else that we’re doing right now will probably need to be shut down in January. So that will be a big thing to watch.”

Meanwhile, the pandemic and the resulting economic downturn have contributed to a drastic decrease in sales tax revenues in the county, creating large holes in multiple budgets, including Metro Rail, the General Fund and the Mental Illness and Opioid Abuse Fund (MIDD)—a source of funding that is vital to organizations such as Vashon Youth & Family Services — just as the county is experiencing higher demand.

In response, McDermott said that the council would be allowing a transfer from the general fund to the MIDD to reduce the effects of the recession on behavioral health services.

Election 2020

In 2016, with less than two weeks to go before the November general election, the county got 200,000 ballots back from voters. As of last week, more than 500,000 ballots have been returned, an already record-breaking year for turnout, said Kendall Hodson, Chief of Staff at King County Elections.

“We asked our voters to vote early. I don’t know if it’s because we asked them or they just were very ready to vote. But we’re very happy that they heard us,” Hodson said, adding that turnout was anticipated to be as high as 90% this year.

New this year, voters can follow their ballot in the mail on its way back to the elections office. Track your ballot online at tinyurl.com/y3gf4luw.

The deadline to register to vote online or by mail was Monday, but the county has stations available to register new voters, update existing voter registration records, receive a voter registration card and find assistance for completing a ballot. More information is available online at tinyurl.com/y6cf82ht.

Eligible for exemption?

Most King County property owners who pay their property taxes on their own rather than via a mortgage lender have until Monday, Nov. 2 to pay the second half of their 2020 bill. Interest charges and penalties will be added to the tax bill after that date.

However, if you have applied for a senior exemption and it is still pending, you may now qualify for an extension of the second payment until Jan. 31, 2021, without facing any fines or fees.

Those eligible to qualify for the exemption must have been born in 1958 or earlier, disabled or otherwise unable to work last year; or a veteran who is 80% disabled under VA standards — they may qualify regardless of age. As of Dec. 31, 2019, you must be the owner/occupier of the house, and it must have been your primary home for at least nine months. Go online to tinyurl.com/yxkj6b8p to apply, but remember there’s a backlog.

Residential housing values have remained relatively steady so far, though King County Assessor John Wilson said that property values in West Seattle and Vashon may potentially increase in time due to the pandemic. However, for business owners who have suffered as a result of the economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, know that decreases in commercial value triggered by COVID will be reflected in the 2021 assessed value calculated for taxes due in 2022. The assessor’s office has launched an online platform enabling commercial property taxpayers to report on the effects of the pandemic on their businesses to help set up reliable property valuations. It is available online at tinyurl.com/y6ee4zvh.

KCSO working on camera program

Executive Constantine’s proposed 2021-22 biennial budget will allow a cut of $6.2 million to the King County Sheriff’s Office. Major Jeffrey Flohr of KCSO ‘s Southwest Precinct, however, said that no services to Vashon will be decreased or removed by budget cuts. The island will remain staffed with 22 deputies at all times to handle 9-11 emergency calls and patrol activities, as well as the personnel who can respond to high-level offenders.

Response times to the island’s priority calls — in-progress emergencies ranging from break-ins to domestic violence episodes — have dramatically increased over the last year, Flohr said. Online reporting throughout the county is now up and easier for non-English speakers to call for law enforcement, he said.

“To have an officer there when you’re calling for help within three minutes is huge. And I’m proud of that stat,” he said. “And I hope you guys, you folks out there listening, take that to heart that they’re very responsive, and it’s a great crew that works out there.”

Flohr cited KCSO’s own publicly available data on use of force events as an example of an attempt to improve transparency and promote the trust of the communities that deputies represent. The data consists of use of force incidents reported between 2014 and last year and is intended for the public to better understand trends of misconduct and the work of the Sheriff’s Office. It is available online at tinyurl.com/y249jdqv.

Soon, Flohr said, KCSO will launch a new body and dashboard camera pilot program in Skyway, White Center and on Vashon. The county agreed in May to a settlement of $2.25 million with the family of a teenager who was fatally shot in 2017 by officers in a sting operation. The deal contained a commitment made by the Sheriff’s Office to adopt a new policy that would enable deputies to use body and dashboard cameras, according to The New York Times.

“What we’re testing is the functionality, what our policies are, what the public disclosure is going to look like when we need to release those videos, digital evidence and tons of other issues you can think about with a camera program,” Flohr said.

COVID-19 rolls on

Vashon has had 29 COVID-19 cases in total since March after a significant jump last month. Meanwhile, case counts across the county have been on the rise again since late September.

Younger residents under 40 remain the largest proportion of new cases in the county and have the highest rates of infection.

So, in case you forgot, people get COVID-19 by coming into close contact with someone else who is ill. And if a person with COVID-19 speaks, coughs or sneezes, droplets from his or her mouth or nose can spread the virus.

Symptoms may occur as long as 12 to 14 days after exposure to the virus and may include fever or chills, cough, shortness of breath, trouble breathing, weakness, muscle aches, headache, new loss of taste or smell, sore throat congestion, runny nose, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. And this isn’t even a complete list, Mary Snodgras, a policy analyst at public health, said.

“Early testing is important to help prevent COVID-19 from spreading to friends, family and the community. It is really important to get tested immediately if you have any symptoms of COVID-19,” she said.

After your test, stay home and away from others while you’re waiting for your test results.

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