My Thoughts on the North Precinct

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On Monday, the Council took action on a resolution regarding the North Precinct, a proposed new facility that would serve most of the residents of District 4. Though much as been made of previous Council discussions on the project, I’ve heard from many constituents that they want to build the new precinct, but that the cost is too high.

During Monday’s discussion, I wanted to avoid “green-lighting” a hard number for the Precinct but did want to gather additional information to make a sound decision. The resolution that was adopted accomplished these goals. Although the real funding decisions ultimately will be made during the budgeting process, I worked to assure that this was expressly spelled out in the resolution. As such, our work on the North Precinct will continue from September through November as we find ways to keep costs down.

Staff at Finance and Administrative Services (FAS) and Seattle Police Department (SPD) have indicated that the design of the precinct is in response to several needs, chief among them being that this facility contains crucial training spaces that SPD needs to remain compliant with the federal consent decree on police use of force and bias free policing. On the other hand, we’ve had lots of public feedback regarding the North Precinct, receiving hundreds upon hundreds of phone calls and emails over the last month and a half, and I’d like to recognize the organizing efforts of the many community based organizations for showing up consistently, making their voices heard, and demanding that we provide additional scrutiny and a new evaluative lens to $160M worth of policing infrastructure.

After hearing multiple points of view, I’ve come to the conclusion that regardless of where you may stand on policing issues, a new precinct at $160M or even $149M is far too large a sum for one building.

As we’ve engaged in conversations and briefings with SPD and FAS as to how and why this project has gone from $88M to more than $160M then through value engineering revised down to $149M, I’ve been frustrated by the difficulty of getting the project costs down. This is why I added language to Section 1 that calls for an additional third-party cost estimation, with that third-party to be selected in consultation with Council. This separate estimation, combined with the use of the City’s Racial Equity Toolkit, will provide Council with crucial information to make a much more well-informed decision for what type of funding will need to be appropriated during the Budget season.

Additionally, as I mentioned this Monday morning during Council Briefing – as a new council member, I’ve been taken aback by the significant cost overruns in several City capital projects:

  • Spending for the Seawall Project is scheduled for an additional $40M in 2016 and $31M in 2017 – $71M over a project originally estimated and advertised to voters at $300M in 2012.
  • Spending for the New Customers Information System by Seattle City Light and Seattle Public Utilities is scheduled for an additional $43M in spending over the approved project budget of $66M in the 2015 Adopted Budget.
  • And, according to a Seattle Times column published in October of last year, the 2003 Fire Levy was $109M over an estimated $197M budget.

In response, Councilmember Herbold and I issued a press release calling for the creation of a new City Capital Projects Oversight Committee. This committee would share characteristics with capital oversight best practices, such as creating a series of systematic check-ins as projects progress, both through planning and construction. Using Sound Transit as an example, I appreciate that as they develop their projects, staff seeks Board authorization at eight points throughout the process, including for preliminary engineering, final design, and baseline budget, which includes total project costs and construction.  The goal of this proposed oversight committee would be to establish a baseline of transparency to help ensure City capital projects – such as the Seawall and North Precinct – remain on time and within budget.

Transparency should be the name of the game as we develop our capital facilities. As a Seattle City Councilmember, I expect the public to hold me accountable for delivering our capital projects on time and within budget, but we need the tools necessary for proper oversight. If City facilities are projected to run over-budget, the Council should have plenty of lead time to develop alternatives or contingencies.

When it comes to the North Precinct, I am looking forward to reviewing the findings of our third party consultant and of the Racial Equity Toolkit. I think these are all necessary and important steps for this project that must be incorporated into any final budgetary decisions. I appreciate the work of my colleagues (particularly Councilmember González) and community activists in shaping the discussion over the past few weeks and months – and hope to continue dialogue with all those wanting to speak out about this project.