Voters need to weigh the overall tax burden of local ballot issues
Seattle voters need to think about more than whether they agree with the purpose of any new tax they are being asked to approve this year. Is the overall tax stack too high?
Every year, it seems, voters in Seattle are asked to raise their taxes — always for specific things. “Libraries YES!” the signs say, promoting a property tax for library operations. “YES for Children and Families!” the signs say, promoting a King County property tax to replace a dilapidated courthouse and juvenile jail. In the fall there will be “YES!” signs for a property tax to replace the downtown seawall.
Each proposal speaks only for itself. Yet each adds to the total stack: the tax bill for basic police and fire protection, schools, the port authority, the ferry district and previous things to which voters said YES: more for schools, after-school programs, streets, parks, low-income housing, aid cars, a police fingerprint system, the Pike Place Market, etc.
It is a fairly long list. For the owner of a median-priced Seattle home of $359,000, one year’s property tax adds up to almost $3,650.
Each new measure to add to this stack is a proposal to increase the cost of housing in Seattle, with the attendant consequences to people of low income. And everyone who pays for housing pays the tax, directly or indirectly. That includes renters.
The question for the Seattle voter should be more than whether you are for the purpose of the new tax. Is the stack too high? Does this additional thing belong with the others on the stack, or is it different? Is it a core activity of government? Is it a one-time expense or ongoing? Is it urgent?
Graphic: Bellevue tax bill
This year, The Times urges a Yes vote on Children and Families Youth Services Center. That county levy is for a big, one-time expense that is a core function of government. And the need is urgent: crime, delinquency and family services will not wait.
The Seattle library levy, however, is partly about making a good library system better, which is important but not as urgent. It is also not for a one-time expense of the sort financed by bonds. It is mostly day-to-day money, which ought to come out of the city’s regular tax funds.
The other problem with the library levy is its role in a financial diversion.
In tight years, lawmakers are tempted to save the programs they like but that the public might not vote for. To do this, they cut programs voters like, and ask voters to save them with a tax increase. It is called supplanting. It is part of what has happened with the library, and is partly why, this time around, The Times has not endorsed that levy.
Readers are free to disagree, and many have. But everyone who votes should think about the total tax stack, how adding two new things affects them, their government and the community around them.
Graphic: Unincorporated King County tax bill
Correction: An earlier version of this graphic said voter approved taxes went to the Regional Transit Authority (Sound Transit). The money goes for transportation projects but not to the RTA.
An earlier version of this graphic said voter approved taxes went to the Regional Transit Authority (Sound Transit). The money goes for transportation projects but not to the RTA.