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Wenatchee OKs sales tax for homeless shelter, services

WENATCHEE — The Wenatchee City Council on Thursday OK’d a sales tax to fund a low-barrier homeless shelter and expanded services for those experiencing homelessness.

The unanimous approval of a one-tenth of 1% sales and use tax will — combined with a partner tax in East Wenatchee — raise about $1.6 million a year for a sleep center-style shelter and programs to help homeless transition into housing.

“I don’t like all these taxes, but we’re at a point of desperation in our community,” said Councilwoman Linda Herald. “We have a problem. One that’s only going to get worse if we do not do something.”

The ordinance will give police more authority when interacting with the homeless. The 2019 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Martin v. City of Boise, found it unconstitutional for police to remove the homeless from public property if they have nowhere else to go. When the low-barrier shelter is built, there would be somewhere else to go.

The tax is expected to begin July 1 with the two cities receiving their first monies in September.

The city of Wenatchee initially believed the tax would raise $800,000 to $900,000 a year, but updated its projections before the city council meeting to $1.2 million.

East Wenatchee City Council approved the ordinance last week, but the Wenatchee council had to approve the tax for it take effect. They expect the tax will bring in $400,000.

Herald described to the council how she was accosted by four homeless men while she was leaving the Wenatchee Convention Center. She added that the city’s parks department reports more than $280,000 of damage due to vandalism.

“We need a low-barrier shelter,” Herald said. “And this would enable us to provide them the wraparound services to deal with this segment of the homeless population, and lift them off to drugs or alcohol and work with them on their mental health issues.”

The 2020 point-in-time count, which measures homelessness, found there were 350 homeless individuals in Chelan and Douglas counties, 84 of whom are considered unsheltered and 43 that were considered chronically homeless.

“And those are the folks that really are the most visible — especially the chronically homeless,” said Sandra Van Osten, Wenatchee housing program coordinator. “These folks that lived on the streets for an extended period of time, oftentimes years at a time, and have serious medical and behavioral health issues.” She added they are the most vulnerable and most visible.

She explained that “low-barrier” essentially means there are minimal barriers to accessing services and staying in service.

“So it doesn’t mean that it’s a free for all, and there’s no rules and that people can just do whatever they want and use drugs on site,” Van Osten said. “People have to be safe, but it’s just kind of making it as easy and seamless as possible for people to access services.”

Wenatchee Police Chief Steve Crown believes the homeless population will increase during the summer and those who found temporary shelter in the winter will be back on the streets.

“It creates a tremendous impact on the number of calls that we receive,” Crown said. “Having a low-barrier shelter allows something that is really important to me is getting these folks, the proper help that they deserve and need by having those wraparound services be at the location where you’re going to have a low barrier shelter.”

The council vote followed a two-hour public hearing that included the testimony of 18 citizens.

Councilwoman Ruth Esparza was hesitant to vote in favor of the tax, but was swayed by testimony of a city of Moses Lake employee who spoke of the city’s success with a low-barrier shelter and she noted that it was the will of the people to enact the ordinance.

“I’m walking into it very cautiously,” Esparza said. “And I hope — I hope — that we are not creating a bigger problem, like it is in Seattle because I really believe that Seattle has been spending all this money, and if you build it they will come.”

No members of the public spoke against the intent of the ordinance but a few were unhappy with the language in the ordinance.

One speaker was displeased that the ordinance wasn’t decided by a citizens vote and that the hearing wasn’t better publicized to Spanish-speaking residents.

The most debated point was whether the ordinance should include a sunset clause — a date when the ordinance would expire — to allow the council to lower or discard the tax if needed. Staffers recommend the two cities reexamine the ordinance every five years in a joint meeting.

Councilman Keith Huffaker supported a sunset clause because he believed that would give the city time to learn whether the program is effective and would give incentive to those running the program to run it successfully.

“For me personally, I really hate doing this without the vote of the people and this is one of the reasons why I think a sunset clause is very important,” Huffaker said.

Community Development Director Glen DeVries said enacting a sunset clause would eliminate the city’s ability to apply for a bond if the program needed more funding or features, like a day-use center. Mayor Frank Kuntz noted that the City Council can vote to end the tax at any time.

Rocky Reach Discovery Center work continues

NCW — Chelan County PUD’s Rocky Reach Discovery Center renovation is well on its way, with 50% of the project complete.

The PUD projects it will reopen the center at Rocky Reach Dam, about 9 miles north of Wenatchee on Highway 97A, by mid-August.

Crews worked on installing drywall, welding the roof and the mechanical and electrical rough-in this week. The PUD originally planned to finish work on the building in May, but COVID-19 affected the supply of material.

According to the PUD, new additions to the popular center include large windows for close-up fish viewing, hands-on displays, three mini-theaters, a gift shop, a kitchen area, outside deck and a larger overall exhibit.

Windows in the fish viewing room have been lowered for children to get a better view, free of obstacles. Visitors large and small will be able to go right up to the window.

Workers on the new roof are installing translucent polycarbonate to let light in. The 471-square-foot open-air deck on the second story will have balcony seating for visitors.

The new Discovery Center building will be 11,523 square feet, up from its previous size of 9,076 square feet.

Crews put up sheetrock last week for The Living River exhibit room. The new exhibit room will feature local history topics from along the Columbia River.

Pacific Studio in Seattle is crafting new displays and exhibits for the center. A few returning items include the steamship wheel, wood canoe and tule house. Tule houses are living areas which Native Americans along the Columbia River used to make out of reed.

A wheel next to the steamship lets visitors guide the boat using a video display and the canoe will be lowered into the center through a skylight.

“This is going to be a five-star Discovery Center,” said visitor services manager Debbie Gallaher in the PUD update. “When kids come in, you’re going to hear, ‘Let’s go here! Let’s go downstairs! Let’s go outside!”

The upgrades are the first major improvements to the center since the 1960s and have been underway since October. The center will be open year-round.

The center’s new hours, when it reopens, will be from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., open daily May 1 through Oct. 31. The same hours will be retained Nov. 1 through April 30 on a Tuesday-Saturday schedule.

The PUD previously had closed the center from Nov. 1 through Feb. 28. The Rocky Reach Park will still remain closed from Nov. 1 through Feb. 28.

The Discovery Center employs a manager, education specialist, three custodial workers, and two seasonal tour guides.

The PUD listed the total cost of the project to be $7.7 million.

Inslee: Schools can loosen social-distancing to 3 feet

OLYMPIA — Schools can opt to ease their social-distancing requirements in classrooms to allow more students to return to in-person learning, Gov. Jay Inslee announced Thursday.

To follow updated coronavirus guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the current state guidelines of 6 feet of separation can be cut to 3 feet in most settings, effective immediately, according to Inslee’s office. Three feet is the minimum requirement, and schools can opt to remain at 6 feet.

“The more students we get back into the classroom faster, the better,” Inslee said in a news conference.

Inslee said he fully expects schools to use this 3-foot guidance by the summer or fall but said school districts don’t have to wait to make the switch. Some schools may be able to immediately resume in-person full-time, if they meet the 3-foot requirement, he said.

And eventually, schools will be able to remove any distancing requirement, he said.

“That’s not today, but that day will come,” he said.

The Washington Association of School Administrators took a cautiously optimistic view of the news.

“Today’s statement from Gov. Inslee is welcome news, particularly for those districts already positioned to bring more students back on campus for in-person learning,” said WASA Executive Director Joel Aune.

“Some districts will need more time to adjust and plan under this new guidance, though this development puts everyone on a pathway to more fully reopen schools for in-person learning by the fall,” Aune said.

There are some limitations to the new 3-foot rule, and state health officials want districts to remain cautious.

Staff must remain 6 feet apart from each other and from students. When students are eating or taking part in activities without masks, such as band practice, they must remain 6 feet apart.

Department of Health deputy secretary for COVID-19 response Lacy Fehrenbach said studies across the country have shown a less than 6-feet social distancing requirement doesn’t change transmission modeling in schools by much. But students and staff must continue wearing masks to slow the spread.

In Washington, middle and high school students who are not in cohorts must still be placed 6 feet apart when community transmission of the COVID-19 virus is above 200 cases per 100,000 people.

Current transmission activity across the state could be worrisome, Fehrenbach said. The state’s case rate is now plateauing, meaning numbers are about where they were last fall but still higher than they were last summer.

She said it was “imperative” that communities and school districts move forward cautiously.

Inslee agreed, saying there was “reason for both joy and diligence today.”

He cited the prevalence of vaccines as the reason the change in guidance is possible. Fehrenbach said the department most counties have told them they are close to completely vaccinating their educators but did not have the actual number of school staff in the state fully or partially vaccinated.

World photo/Don Seabrook Samantha Segaline cleans out an area of Ohme Gardens, getting ready for opening day April 15.

A Larch Transport truck driven by Joshua Noel hauls logs from the Walter Springs Timber sale March 18 near Cle Elum.

Gov. Jay Inslee speaks at a press conference in Yakima last week.

The 747 Global Supertanker drops 19,200 gallons of water during an demonstration Tuesday at the Grant County International Airport. State officials hope the plane, which is currently undergoing maintenance and upgrades in Moses Lake, and its wildfire fighting capabilities can be put into play in the future as a crucial part of an early initial air attack to keep fires small and contained.