WENATCHEE — Homelessness comes with a price tag in Wenatchee — a $48,145 one to be exact.
City staff estimated the city spent that much in staff time, legal expenses, vehicle towing, equipment operation and landfill costs during 2021.
“This amount is slightly larger than what we would typically expect to spend because there was additional time and legal expense involved in removing RVs from city streets,” Finance Director Brad Posenjak said. “A certain level of police, code enforcement and park maintenance activity is expected every year.”
The $48,145 spent on homelessness responses is just 0.1% of the city’s 2021 operating expenses, which were roughly $48 million. But the actual number is likely more, added Posenjak.
“The hard costs directly related to the homeless response may not be significant to the city’s overall operational budget, but the time spent on these issues is significant,” he said. “There is probably another $50,000 to $100,000 in staff time and other expenses related to the homeless issues which are not specifically labeled as homeless response costs.”
Those expenses could include hours spent discussing issues relating to homelessness at council and committee meetings. Parks maintenance issues like installing cameras may not be directly tied to homelessness response, but “are probably exacerbated by the homelessness challenges,” said Posenjak.
By far the largest portion of the $48,145 is shouldered by the Parks Department. The city estimated the department’s maintenance crews spent 840 hours cleaning and removing vandalism and garbage, adding up to more than $33,600.
City attorney work on homeless issues ran the city nearly $9,500.
The Police Department put in an estimated 38 hours handling 51 incidents related to homelessness for a total of $2,443. Two of those incidents averaged 15 hours each, but the majority averaged 10 minutes.
The city also spent $219 and $520 in staff time for public works crews and code enforcement staff, respectively.
One man in particular, Juan Zabala, was a source of over $6,000 in city spending, particularly in legal expenses. Zabala, who described himself to World reporters as “kind of a hoarder” last June while living out of his van on Thurston Street, has been arrested multiple times for maintaining a chronic nuisance.
Zabala usually has a collection of items he buys or finds around town stored where he’s staying. “I try to help out as many people as I can,” Zabala said during the June interview. “I like to have it if they ask for something, you know, that way I can help them out. So if I don’t have it that time, if I come across it, then I’ll probably have it for next time.”
Mayor Frank Kuntz said while he hopes out-of-pocket spending from city departments decreases once a low-barrier shelter is built, he expects spending on cases like Zabala’s to be ongoing.
“That part of this isn’t going to go away until someone gets treatment, chooses to live in another spot or the courts treat them differently,” Kuntz said. “It will be an annual bill until something happens.”
In addition to what Kuntz called the “out of pocket expenses” of dealing with homelessness, the city also spent $2.7 million in funding to nonprofit organizations for regular homeless, affordable housing and rental assistance services. Including that funding, the city’s spending on homelessness rises to almost 6% of the city’s operating expenses.
Half of the program funding came from state and federal COVID relief money. The remainder was generated from county recording fees, sales tax and grants.
The first six months of 2021 included expenses for regional programs in both Chelan and Douglas counties since prior to July the city administered funding for homeless and affordable housing programs for both counties. The city now acts in a similar role with funds generated by 0.1% sales tax in Wenatchee and East Wenatchee, which will be used initially for a low-barrier shelter.
Posenjak says the city expects to put in a significant capital investment in the shelter, which is why the $2.6 million budget for homeless and housing program funding in 2022 is significantly higher than prior years. For example, the city only spent $1.3 million on program funding during 2019.
Due to the cost of ongoing operations for the shelter, the city expects a similar level of spending, about $2.5 million per year, moving forward.