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.