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Vote on tax for homeless shelter likely this week

WENATCHEE — A key vote is expected this week on a proposed sales tax that would fund a low-barrier shelter and expand services to the homeless in the Wenatchee Valley

If approved by the Wenatchee City Council, the one-tenth of 1% sales and use tax would each year generate $800,000 to $900,000 in Wenatchee and $400,000 in East Wenatchee.

East Wenatchee City Council approved the tax March 16, but it must be approved by both cities for the tax to go into effect. The city of Wenatchee will host a public hearing Thursday where the city council is expected to vote on the tax.

“I think they’re prepared to vote,” said Wenatchee Mayor Frank Kuntz.

Frank Kuntz

Wenatchee mayor

Drawing the money for the low-barrier shelter and homeless services from general funds is not sustainable due to recurring costs each year, said East Wenatchee Mayor Jerrilea Crawford.

Jerrilea Crawford

East Wenatchee mayor

Wenatchee Mayor Frank Kuntz also said the city already spends roughly 50-55% of its general fund budget on what he broadly termed “public safety issues.” This includes police and costs paid to the county jail, prosecuting attorney, public defense attorneys and courts.

“You take it from your general fund and that just means less money on roads, less money in parks, less money in other places,” Kuntz said.

If the ordinance is passed, Kuntz would like to see the tax in effect by July 1 and a shelter opened by late fall before temperatures drop to dangerously low levels.

“That’s the important part,” Kuntz said. “And it gives us the ability to get wraparound services: folks and Confluence Health, mental health counselors, people that will help them with their drug and alcohol abuse to try to get them back on their feet.”

Crawford said the two-city partnership “speaks volumes to this as a community problem.” More than 350 people experience homelessness on any given night with about 84 living outdoors, according to a report filed with the city of Wenatchee: Strategies to House the Unsheltered Homeless Population and Decrease Community Impacts in Chelan and Douglas Counties.

The proposed shelter is described in city documents as a “sleep center” featuring about 40 individual structures designed to house one or two people. It would be staffed in the early evening and morning hours by case managers and have overnight security.

The program would also provide case management services to help clients move into permanent housing.

The project consists of two phases. The first would build the shelters and the second would support transitions to permanent housing including more permanent supportive housing units in the region, establishing and expanding homeless day center services and expanding outreach services.

Crawford pushed back against a perception of “if you build it they will come,” meaning that expanding homeless services would attract more homeless to the area.

“There isn’t any evidence to support that,” Crawford said. She added: “If you build it, it doesn’t mean they’re going to flock from other communities to the Wenatchee Valley.”

Kuntz said that the valley in some ways is already a hub for those experiencing homelessness due to the presence of Confluence Health, Catholic Family Charities, and low-income and transitional housing.

Should the ordinance go into effect, police could change the way they deal homelessness.

A 2019 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Martin v. City of Boise, found it unconstitutional for police to remove the homeless from public property, like a park, if they have nowhere else to go.

“If you’re camping in one of our parks for lack of a better term, or if you’re sleeping overnight on the sidewalk in front of the YMCA, there’s nothing we can do about it. We don’t have the legal way to ask you to leave,” Kuntz said. “If we build the shelter we will have a legal way to ask you to leave.”

Crawford views this as a positive and noted that police could provide people with a ride to the shelter.

“I think it will offer a more friendly interaction between police and the homeless,” Crawford said.

The proposed low-barrier shelter would also function as a place for its users to store personal belongings, which are often left at a campsite while the owner goes about his or her day and then are sometimes confiscated by police under the impression the item was discarded, Crawford said.

As for the location of the shelter, a city of Wenatchee report defined the ideal site as “close to public transportation and services but not directly located in residential areas, near schools, or in downtown city corridors.”

Kuntz said he’d like the shelter to be placed on rented property and the individual shelters to be easily movable.

“I’m thinking that we would be renting property at some point and putting in the shelter and then we can move it every couple years if we find places that might fit better,” Kuntz said.

City Council meets at 5:15 p.m. Thursday. The public will be allowed to testify remotely at the meeting. Check wenatcheewa.gov for a link to the meeting.

‘Food Fights Forever’: Coach Parker’s Opus

WENATCHEE — Tootsie Rolls have always been coach Jim “Papa” Parker’s calling card.

No matter what gym, track field or cross country course the Pioneer Middle School Bears were competing at over the past two decades, Papa had a bag full of them.

“He would walk over to the kids and toss them into the air yelling, ‘Food Fight! Food Fight!’ and the kids would scramble to grab them,” said Brian Vickery, a Pioneer Middle School physical education teacher and Papa’s son-in-law. “Everyone who has played a sport here remembers those Tootsie Rolls.”

Last Friday, some of Papa’s former cross country runners and track athletes (now at the high school) and Pioneer’s current cross country team returned the favor.

Led by a fire truck blaring its siren, the caravan of runners wearing Tootsie Roll T-shirts crossed Cherry Street from Triangle Park and walked down to Papa’s house behind Columbia Elementary School — along with a group of parents, teachers and former administrators in tow.

The entire neighborhood peeked out their front doors to see what was going on. One kid, no older than 8, walked off his front lawn and asked what everyone was parading for?

“For ‘Papa’,” someone in the crowd responded.

Once the band of runners reached its destination, the group walked up one-by-one to Papa — who was seated out front of his house in a wheelchair and hooked up to oxygen, eyes glistening — said “thank you” and dropped a Tootsie Roll into a small basket sitting next to him.

Papa, who has been Vickery’s assistant for basketball, cross country and track for two decades, turned 80 last May. Last spring (before COVID-19 hit) was going to be his final season coaching. Then he was diagnosed with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer over the summer. He’s been battling the disease every day since.

After all the kids, parents and teachers made their pass, the group fanned out and said in unison, “We love you, Papa!”

Jim was overcome with emotion. He had done a pretty good job of holding it in up to that point, but looking out at the cluster of kids he had influenced, his eyes began to well up. The kids then gathered in front of Jim’s house and took a group photo with Papa.

The whole event was a surprise for him, though his wife Joanne had known for some time.

The idea came to Vickery a couple of months ago after Papa gifted him his old truck.

“It was a gesture that I couldn’t say no to,” Vickery said. “He was like, ‘Now you have something to ride around with your grandkids in. It’s a safe truck and I know it’s not much newer than the one you already have, but it’s a good truck.’ It was a moment and, of course, I wasn’t going to say no.”

While cleaning out the truck the first week after he got the key, Vickey found a single Tootsie Roll under one of the seats.

At first, he thought about getting a shadow box for Jim that had “Food Fights Forever” written on the front with that the Tootsie Roll glued below it.

But then one day, he started talking with fellow physical education teacher and Wenatchee cross country coach Susan Valdez about doing a joint run to Jim’s house.

“He misses coaching so much; he just looks forward to seeing the kids and he’s been inside his house pretty much 90% of the time (since being diagnosed),” Vickery said. “He’ll go out for a quick walk, but anytime he can see the grandkids or his kids, it gives him the motivation to keep going. So we just thought, let’s try to make this happen.”

Vickery said one of the runner’s parents offered to make Tootsie Roll T-shirts and donated them to both the high school and middle school runners. Jim was also given one signed by all the runners.

His grand vision was for it to be like “Mr. Holland’s Opus.” In the film, Mr. Holland is a high school music teacher who taught for 30 years and was a legend at the school. At the very end, the school principal decides to shut down the school’s arts program. On his final day, Mr. Holland is packing up his office, but on his way out his wife and son take him to the auditorium, where all of his past students are waiting. They greet him with a standing ovation before bringing him on stage to conduct a symphony orchestra comprised of his ex-students.

“That was their opus for him,” Vickery said. “I wanted to give Jim his opus.”

Even though sports just started for middle school, Vickery said it’s been much harder this year than in seasons past. Jim, who often calls himself the team go-fer, is typically the detail guy. Whatever you needed, just call Jim, Vickery said.

“He’s there with the med kits; he makes all the arrangements and is typically the first one at the site setting up and making sure he has healthy snacks and Gatorade for the kids,” he said. “He gets the tarps up and Tootsie Rolls ready. He’s like a grandpa to everyone and the kids all treat him like a grandpa. Now I’m the one that has to make sure I find my med kit and I’m just like, ‘Who’s going to take me home?’ It’s been kind of surreal driving his truck around; hopefully, I can keep up his tradition of giving.”

Eventually, Vickery hopes to establish a 5K ‘Papa’s Run’ in Jim’s honor. He said he would talk to Jim about it after the event and ask how he would like to dole out all of the proceeds, whether it be for scholarships for middle school or high school graduation.

“That is what Jim would do — any dollar he had he would send it toward kids,” Vickery said.

State enters Phase 3's loosened restrictions with hope, anxiety

SEATTLE — As Washington state moved into the third phase of Gov. Jay Inslee’s COVID-19 reopening plan Monday, the response by many residents, business owners and experts seemed to be a mixture of optimism, anxiety, and weary resignation over just how far the state still has to go.

Many welcomed the rule changes, which will allow live attendance at sporting events and will boost indoor capacity at restaurants, retailers, fitness centers and other indoor spaces to 50%, as signs of progress against COVID-19 and critical steps for a battered economy.

“It’s definitely going to make a difference,” said Antonio Lovett-Grimm, 47, as he stood at his Grimm Brothers Foods stall at the Pike Place Market Saturday. “It’s just going to give people a little bit more confidence.”

That confidence will be key for businesses that have struggled since Inslee ordered the first stay-at-home order a year ago.

Seattle alone has seen the permanent closure of more than 260 street-level business locations, including 183 downtown, since the start of the pandemic.

And even as Washington’s broader economy continues to recover, unemployment remains elevated — 5.6% as of February, compared to 3.8% a year earlier, while the number of Washingtonians filing new claims for jobless benefits is nearly double the level before last March’s shutdowns.

“We believe moving to Phase 3 will have a meaningful impact on economic activity in downtown, particularly as we move into spring and summer,” said Jon Scholes, president and CEO of the Downtown Seattle Association.

Certainly, many consumers seem ready for a less-restricted economy.

In recent weeks, commercial districts in and around the Seattle area have been busier as people take advantage of the warmer weather and the return of indoor dining, which was allowed in much of the state at 25% in mid-February.

On Saturday, the Pike Place Market in Seattle’s downtown was thronged with shoppers and tourists, many of whom came for the annual Daffodil Day celebration.

People are “just tired of being locked in,” said Sean Brewer, 34, a sales associate at the Moon Valley Organics stall in the market. “People are seeing that light at the end of the tunnel — and they’re sprinting towards it.”

Many Mariners fans were delighted after the team announced that 9,000 fans would be allowed to attend opening day April 1.

But amid the excitement and anticipation of a return to normality, there was also a palpable sense of how much work remains before Seattle and the rest of the state fully reopen.

Most of the office workers who are so vital to downtown economies in Seattle, Bellevue and elsewhere are still working remotely. Many big employers aren’t expected to return to the office until after all employees have received vaccinations, possibly by this summer, and some workers may continue working remotely indefinitely.

Although the state’s vaccination efforts continue to gain momentum, just 22.29% of Washingtonians have received their first vaccine dose and 12.94% are fully vaccinated, as of March 17, according to the most recent data available from the Washington State Department of Health.

That had some people wondering whether relaxing restrictions now, before more people are fully vaccinated, might spur new coronavirus cases, which have plateaued in recent weeks after falling steeply in January and early February.

“You want to go out and support ... your local restaurants, but at the same time, are we doing it safely?” said Micah Jackson of Seattle, who was in the market Saturday with her husband, Kevin Jackson.

Not surprisingly, many businesses and organizations are approaching Phase 3 with considerable caution.

Many smaller businesses planned to keep capacity below what is technically allowed in the third phase.

Robot vs Sloth, a gift shop downtown, plans to allow only four customers in the shop at a time — or five in the same party — even though Phase 3 would allow up to nine, said owner Lauren Rudeck.

Any more than five “puts too much pressure on us to constantly monitor” social distance, said Rudeck, who instead asks customers to wait their turn outside and rewards them with the chance to win a free gift. “I’m not going to raise [occupancy] to 50% until all of [our staff] are vaccinated.”

The pace of that reopening will be dictated as much by consumer comfort level with in-person activities as by whatever phase the state happens to be in, say economists and policy experts.

Economist Hart Hodges, a director of the Center for Economic and Business Research at Western Washington University, said the reopening will be governed both by how quickly consumers feel safe again but also by how quickly they give up cautious habits picked up during the pandemic. “I think both will be slow,” Hodges said.

But Hodges and colleague James McCafferty, also at the center, note that the pace will vary regionally. “I won’t be surprised at all to see some areas of the state be remarkably ahead of others when it comes to consumer activity,” McCafferty said.

Mark Harmsworth, a former Republican state lawmaker and current director of the Small Business Center at the Washington Policy Center, agrees.

“I’ve been spending time over in Eastern Washington and ... people are much more relaxed over there than they are in downtown Seattle,” he said.

Suspect in Colorado mass shooting faces 10 murder counts; motive unclear

BOULDER, Colo. — A 21-year-old man faces 10 counts of murder in connection with Monday’s mass shooting at a Colorado grocery store, but his motive remains unclear, authorities said on today.

The suspect, identified by police as Ahmad Al Aliwi Alissa of Arvada, Colorado, was in stable condition after he suffered a leg wound in an exchange of gunfire with responding police officers at the King Soopers outlet in Boulder, about 28 miles northwest of Denver, on Monday afternoon.

The 10 victims, whose names were released at a Tuesday morning news conference, range in age from 20 to 65 and include Eric Talley, an 11-year veteran of the Boulder police force. Talley, 51, was the father of seven children and had recently been looking for a less dangerous job, according to a statement released by his father.

Police identified the nine other victims as Denny Stong, 20; Neven Stanisic, 23; Rikky Olds, 25; Tralona Bartkowiak, 49; Suzanne Fountain, 59; Teri Leiker, 51; Kevin Mahoney, 61; Lynn Murray, 62; and Jody Waters, 65.

Authorities have not yet offered a possible motive for the bloodshed, which came six days after a gunman went on a killing spree in the Atlanta area, fatally shooting eight people at three day spas before he was arrested.

Investigators said they were confident Alissa had acted alone, though they did not offer any details on what might have motivated the massacre.

Alissa is expected to be released from the hospital later on Tuesday and transported to jail to await an initial court appearance, officials said.

Monday’s attack, which began around 2:40 p.m., drew hundreds of police officers to the scene and sent terrified shoppers and employees fleeing for safety amid the sound of gunfire.

The shooting added to the Rocky Mountain state’s tragic list of mass killings that include some of the most shocking episodes of gun violence in U.S. history, including the 2012 mass shooting at a movie theater in Aurora and the 1999 rampage at Columbine High School near Littleton.

Witnesses in Colorado described a chaotic and frightening scene inside the store.

Ryan Borowski, 37, went in looking for something to satisfy a sugar craving. He had picked out a 12-pack of soda and a bag of chips when he heard shots ring out, sending him scurrying for the store’s back exit.

“It was pretty terrifying,” he said. “Fastest fire drill I’ve ever been in.”

Sarah Moonshadow, 42, was at the checkout line with her adult son, Nicholas, when the gunfire began.

“And I said, ‘Nicholas, get down.’ And Nicholas ducked. And we just started listening and there, just repetitive shots ... and I just said, ‘Nicholas, run,’” she said.

Moonshadow said she tried to attend to a victim she saw lying on the pavement outside the store, but her son pulled her away, telling her, ‘We have to go.’” She broke down in sobs recounting their ordeal, adding, “I couldn’t help anybody.”

In Washington, D.C., President Joe Biden planned to deliver remarks on the shooting Tuesday before departing for a trip to Ohio, the White House said.

Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leader of the House of Representatives, said the violence again underscored the need for stricter gun laws, which have stalled in Congress amid Republican opposition.

Yakima Valley to get more vaccines for State Fair Park, mobile sites through FEMA

YAKIMA — Yakima County is slated to see a big increase in COVID-19 vaccine doses under a federal pilot program.

Under the program, which starts March 31, Yakima County is expected to increase the capacity of the recently-opened drive-thru vaccination site at State Fair Park in Yakima from 200 vaccines to 1,200 vaccines daily, said Stephanie Badillo-Sanchez, a spokeswoman for the Yakima Health District. Doses also will be distributed through additional mobile vaccination units throughout the Yakima Valley.

“We know Yakima County has been particularly hard hit during the COVID-19 pandemic with disproportionally high infection rates as well as hospitalizations compared to the rest of the state and our region,” Badillo-Sanchez said in an interview Monday. “That’s why we’re very thankful for this partnership we have now. Our county leads the state in agriculture and food processing, which makes it difficult for our critical workers to work from home.”

The Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, chose the Yakima Valley for the program in hopes of expanding vaccination in rural and agricultural communities. FEMA has already set up 21 of what they call Community Vaccination Centers across the U.S. Along with vaccines, FEMA will also provide supplies. The effort is 100% federally funded through the American Rescue Plan COVID-19 relief legislation signed into law by President Joe Biden earlier this month.

FEMA is working with several state and local organizations on the effort, including the state Department of Health and Emergency Management Division, Yakima Health District and Yakima Valley Emergency Management.

The exact number of vaccine doses provided through the FEMA program was not available Monday. Still, it is expected to be enough to supply both the mass vaccination site and mobile sites. Initially, Pfizer and Moderna doses will be sent, but the Johnson and Johnson vaccine could be sent later. The additional vaccines provided through FEMA are in addition to the county and state’s regular allotments.

Details of the mobile sites are still being determined. Part of the mobile vaccine operation will involve transport any leftover vaccine doses from the State Fair Park site to various locations, such as correctional facilities, farms or even local retailers. The goal is to ensure that there are no wasted doses, said Horace Ward of the Yakima Valley Office of Emergency Management during an interview Monday.

With Yakima County having a high percentage of essential workers in agriculture and health care, which generally cannot be done remotely, the county has been hard hit by the virus. At one point last summer, Yakima County had some of the highest COVID-19 infection activity in the country.

The program is expected to last six to eight weeks, enough time for FEMA to help local officials establish a vaccination program that enables the effective and quick distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, Ward said.

Additional details on the program, including the roles of different organizations, should be worked out later in the week, Ward said.

The start of the new FEMA program on March 31 coincides with additional vaccine eligibility that will open up the same day. The state will enter Phase 1B Tiers 3-4 of its vaccination plan on that day. Under those tiers, eligibility expands to restaurant, construction and manufacturing workers; anyone between 60 and 64 years of age; and anyone with two or more underlying conditions.