Compassion 2011? King County gives landslide approval to vets levy

Pessimism about today's economy proved no barrier to King County voters from saying 'yes' to the 2011 Veterans and Human Services Levy on Tuesday. The measure received a larger percentage than in a 2005 vote.

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Pessimism about today's economy proved no barrier to King County voters from saying 'yes' to the 2011 Veterans and Human Services Levy on Tuesday. The measure received a larger percentage than in a 2005 vote.

King County voters in Tuesday’s primary election strongly approved Proposition No. 1, a renewal of the Veterans and Human Services Levy for the next six years. As of Thursday afternoon (Aug. 18), the measure had won by a two-thirds margin: 199,987 yea votes to 91,477 nays. 

Many ballots remain to be counted, of course, but early reports indicate a rise in voter support since the first levy vote six years ago, which was approved by about 58 percent of King County voters. This year more than 68 percent have approved the levy so far, even in the throes of a serious economic downturn.

The increased support makes sense to Mike Buchman, communications manager at Solid Ground, a local organization that receives levy funding: “With the difficulties in our economy, more people in our community have felt closer to what it’s like to deal with issues like income insecurity and unstable housing.” In addition, while nonprofits have struggled nationally, local residents have the model of “major institutions in the community like Boeing, Microsoft, and United Way, that have stepped up.”

The first levy in 2005 also has “a good track record,” said Anna Markee, special projects manager for King County Community and Human Services, who heads levy fund planning. Bill Block, project director for the Committee to End Homelessness, agreed: “The last time, nobody knew what [the levy] would do. As it went forward, it very carefully documented what it had done and had a good story to tell.”

Harry Hoffman, executive director of the King County Housing Development Consortium, praised “volunteers, including veterans, doing the hard work of getting out the vote in front of stores and at street fairs,” as well as “strong leadership from the County Council. All nine members endorsed it. It was truly bipartisan, truly beyond the political discourse of our nation.”

The levy provides over $13 million every year for six years to help county residents in need get their lives back on track. Half the funds are earmarked for former or present military personnel and their families, and half for other individuals and families. A successful project fueled by the 2005 levy for both groups was client-care coordination, Block said, “looking system-wide at the most frequent users” of hospitals and jails so that limited housing and support would go where most needed and reduce demands on more costly social services.

Another success was reducing depression among senior citizens, Markee told me. PEARLS, a national evidence-based program developed at the UW in the late 1990s, “helps seniors continue to live in their homes and stay connected with their communities.” An online story tells of a depressed elderly woman living in her own home who rejected medical care for her declining physical state and seemed destined for a nursing facility, until a PEARLS-trained counselor from levy partner Aging and Disability Services helped her build a more hopeful sense of control over her future. She started keeping medical appointments that she had gloomily skipped in the past and can now maintain a more independent life.

For children living in poverty and their families, levy funds have done more than increase the availability of housing, said Markee. “A portion focuses on at-risk mothers with infants. Home visits from nurses strengthen the parent-child bonding” that helps keep kids from ending up in the juvenile justice system some day.

Veterans told their stories about being assisted by levy-supported programs in a Crosscut article last month, and success stories about other individuals are available online. The levy’s 2010 annual report tells how an apprentice construction worker regained her financial footing after being laid off and evicted. Solid Ground stepped in to help the woman and her two small daughters find housing, and subsidized her rent while a career program supported her training for the journeyman level in her trade. Now employed full-time in a construction job, she covers all family living expenses independently, including rent.

Levy-funded programs will cost the same as in 2005, with property owners paying up to five cents per $1,000 of the assessed value of their real estate each year. The owner of a median-priced house, worth about $340,000 this year, will pay approximately $17 annually over the next six years.

But some levy plans are changing, said Markee. Counseling services will be increased not just for veterans but for their entire families, and other levy programs will expand investments in housing for vets, building on the national five-year plan to end homelessness among those who have served in the military. Markee added that “with national health care reform, many changes will be coming down that we can't predict, so it’s important to plan in ways that will let us take best advantage of new policies.”

Still, the overall goals of the levy remain the same: to reduce homelessness, lessen the use of expensive emergency medical and corrections services, and increase individual and family self-sufficiency. Working toward these goals keeps financial costs to taxpayers at a minimum while also preserving the quality of public life. Many would also want to argue that helping each other is simply the right thing to do.


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