East Precinct safety project remains in limbo

No money. No project. At least, not yet.

The $430,000 the City Council earmarked last fall for an East Precinct safety project remains in limbo, the result of a city-wide budget crisis combined with a lack of agreement over what kind of project or projects should be funded.

While the budget deficit remains a major stumbling block, with the money frozen until a resolution can be found, the City Council's Public Safety Committee listened last week to a number of proposals and recommendations about how best to spend the money.

The Thursday, Feb. 26, presentation was coordinated between the Seattle Neighborhood Group and the city's Office of Police and Management (OPM). Following three lengthy community meetings earlier in the year, a 28-page report was presented to the committee. The council heard numerous ideas, ideas generated from community groups as well as city departments.

Included on a list of nearly 20 possible projects were hiring a grant writer/fundraiser to find more permanent funding sources - the $430,000 is meant as a one-time contribution - as well as funding 37 days of a full-time, dedicated bicycle patrol as requested by many members of the Capitol Hill community. Other possible projects included hiring a chemical dependency counselor, funding community picnics throughout the precinct and adding case management to the Central Area.

The wide variety of East Precinct neighborhoods, and the fact that different neighborhoods have different crime problems, further complicates the challenging task of putting a safety project into play when the budget issue is resolved.

Independent of the budget issue, the OPM's recommendation to the council is to wait several months before making a decision. The report listed two reasons for suggesting a delay. One reason stated that more work needs to be done to find private funding sources to continue the safety project or projects after 2004. And current efforts by the Police Department and the mayor's office to "evaluate drug enforcement practices and develop a comprehensive city-wide drug strategy" should delay funding, the report read, because "many of the public safety problems in the East Precinct are related to illegal drug activity." The money, according to the report, would be better spent when such a strategy was put into place.

The recommendation to delay funding was not encouraging news for many of those who were involved with bringing many of the public safety issue to the city's attention.

"The report was off-putting for me. Many of us have been suspicious of the process. It felt a bit contrived and redundant," said Brad Trenary.

Trenary, who lives across the street from Cal Anderson Park, spearheaded efforts last summer to document safety problems he and his neighbors were experiencing in the park. Their request was to establish a fully dedicated bicycle squad to patrol the crime hot spots and help alleviate the problem.

Their efforts led to the $430,000 allocation meant to fund a safety problem in the East Precinct. Of that total, $30,000 pointed in the direction of providing continued funding for Randy Nelson's position as Capitol Hill Case Manager. Nelson, who works with homeless youth around Cal Anderson Park and Broadway, is highly lauded; it would be difficult to find anyone opposed to his efforts.

"It's becoming clear how complicated this is. The safety project came out of a small community effort last summer, and then grew to include many other neighborhood groups and service providers. We know there are safety issues throughout the precinct and the city," Trenary said.

City Councilmember Nick Licata, who chairs the public safety committee, said that the budget issue is the major barrier. The issue is required to be resolved by the end of March; there is a major role to play by Council member Richard McIver, who chairs the budget committee.

"The big question is what is the mayor going to do with the budget about this," Licata said. "Right now things are on hold. I wish I knew what was going to happen with this."

Licata acknowledged that while the prospective $430,000 was generated by neighborhood activists responding to a specific problem in and around Cal Anderson Park the fact that the project must apply to the entire East Precinct makes the situation more complicated.

"It is time consuming and sometimes wearying to go through a lengthy public process like this," he said. "The original concept often gets watered down."

Overall, Licata said he was struck by the fairness of the projects the committee heard described in the presentation. He thought the priorities seemed representative and were aimed to avoid the chance of pitting neighborhoods against neighborhoods in a fight for scarce dollars. He clarified that the money is coming out of resources already earmarked for Capitol Hill. Money targeted for playfield renovation in Cal Anderson Park would be diverted to the safety projects. The money would not, as some have mistakenly believed, be drawn from the city's general fund.

Licata said he was optimistic that something would get done, though it might not be the large pilot project initially envisioned. He did think that given the vast support for Randy Nelson's case manager position that at least that portion would get through.

"I think it would be unfortunate if we don't get something done on this. It would be very disheartening to many citizens after all the effort they undertook. This is a good pilot project and we do need to experiment," Licata said.

Licata added that he will be working to convince his fellow council members that the East Precinct safety project is deserving of support.

"There is a budget crisis, and it's astronomical," he said. "But I think everyone realizes that public safety is a high priority."

While last week's turn of events was far from optimal, Trenary said he and others do not intend to keep applying activist grease to the city's squeaky wheel.

"I am discouraged, but I don't feel hopeless," he said. "City government works at its own pace and we have to get used to it. But we're not going to stop this effort, and we'll be keeping our eyes on this. We plan to hold the mayor to his word."

Doug Schwartz is the editor of the Capitol Hill Times. He can be reached at editor@capitolhilltimes.com, or 461-1308.

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