By Carolyn Bick
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
The Asian Counselling and Resource Center (ACRS)’s food bank is adopting a “wait and see” policy, when it comes to the funding from the Sweetened Beverage Tax (SBT). In July, many of the Chinatown-International District’s senior residents packed the Seattle City Council’s chamber to protest the Council’s decision to funnel the revenue from the city’s sugary beverage tax to a special fund. Doing so was a move away from Mayor Jenny Durkan’s plan outlined in her proposed budget to take $6 million in SBT revenue and put it towards food banks and meals for seniors. The money previously came from the city’s general fund, and allowed Durkan to put the $6 million from the city’s coffers towards her other priorities.
Though Durkan vetoed the law, the council voted again on Aug. 12 to override her veto.
Durkan had warned that this would create a hole in the budget, but Seattle City Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda called this warning a “manufactured crisis,” meant to create opposition to the way the SBT funds were always meant to be used.
“It was a false argument to say that the funding for these programs was in peril, or the City Council was cutting it, when that is absolutely not the case. In fact, if we are looking at 2020, the mayor has the opportunity to include those programs in General Funds, as was always the case,” Mosqueda said in a later phone interview.
The mixed messages from the city’s highest levels of government has created confusion amongst the city’s community partners, Mosqueda said, because the way the mayor’s office has worded the issue makes it sound as though there will be no funding, if the SBT revenue is channeled into a special fund. But this isn’t true: even if the mayor decides not to listen to the City Council’s veto, Mosqueda said the budget must pass through council for tweaks, before it becomes official.
“If the mayor doesn’t send out a budget that has those dollars included, we will advocate to amend the budget to keep these organizations whole,” Mosqueda said. “Organizations are already operating on very thin margins. … We shouldn’t be creating unnecessary havoc when we still have the means in front of us to create a budget that keeps these organizations whole with General Fund dollars.”
The confusion has played out within community organizations’ leadership. From what she understands, ACRS Communications Manager Liza Javier said the food bank’s funding is secure through 2020 and, as such, the ACRS does not have a plan in place, if the budget goes through as the mayor wants, and SBT funding should run out in 2021. However, because the SBT is so new, the ACRS doesn’t have any allocation history to go on.
“We definitely support having those funds support our organizations and the funds that go towards our nutrition programs. But to supplant the funds is a completely different ball game altogether,” Javier said. “That is not what we would call a stable source of funding for us.”
Frank Miranda is service organization Solid Ground’s Food System Support Program Manager, and has been an SBT organizer on behalf of the Seattle Food Committee, which includes 27 food banks and 15 city-funded food programs. He said that because the budget has not been finalized, there is no real assurance that the money will be replaced.
When asked if the food bank and senior meal funding is secure, the mayor’s office Deputy Communications Director Kamaria Hightower said in an email to the Northwest Asian Weekly that “there is no update at this time on funding, final determinations will be outlined during the budget process.”
Hightower did not respond to further request for comment, when asked if that meant the funding’s future was up in the air.
At the July Seattle City Council meeting, the council said it would work with the mayor to find the money to fully fund existing programs, but there was still some friction between councilmembers and the mayor. During the meeting, Mosqueda condemned what she saw as the mayor’s office using threats of an austerity budget to pit vulnerable populations against each other.
The council’s legislation is meant to ensure that the communities who are most affected by the SBT receive the benefits from the revenues collected. Residents who are the most impacted by this kind of tax tend to be communities of color and low-income families, and the programs funded by the revenue aren’t meant to be solely funded this way, Mosqueda said. The SBT revenue is meant to enhance and expand these programs, but their core funding comes from the General Fund, which is stable, unlike the SBT revenue.
This instability is due to the fact that the SBT revenue isn’t meant to stay at a consistent level, Mosqueda said. The tax itself is meant as a deterrent to people drinking high-calorie, nutrient-empty beverages. By funneling all the money gleaned from the tax back into the affected communities, residents within these communities can have more and better options via food assistance programs, like Fresh Bucks, and the Farm-to-Table initiative. Over time, the hope is that the SBT revenue will decrease, as fewer people drink sugar-sweetened beverages.
However, the council’s own staff had officially warned the council that creating this special fund would damage funding for any programs that had used the SBT revenue to supplant money from the General Fund, saying that these programs “could be reduced or eliminated as a result of this legislation, barring other budget cuts or creation of new revenue sources to backfill the removal of SBT funds.”
But this isn’t due to the creation of a special SBT fund, Mosqueda said. She said it’s the result of the mayor’s budget decision to replace the money from the General Fund with SBT revenue, without a plan to continue to use General Fund money, should the council override her veto.
Hightower did not respond to phone or email request for comment, when asked if this was the case.