Employee head tax, parking-tax hike sought for Seattle bus service
Two Seattle City Council members propose helping Metro Transit service with a head tax and higher parking taxes, rather than a sales-tax increase.
Seattle Times transportation reporter
Two Seattle City Council members want to raise money for bus service by charging businesses a tax of up to $18 per worker per year, and charging drivers more to use parking lots.
Councilmembers Kshama Sawant and Nick Licata said Monday these taxes would be combined with possible car-tab fees to pay for bus trips within the city, averting Seattle’s piece of a proposed 16 percent reduction in King County Metro Transit service hours, a plight Metro attributes mainly to aftershocks from the Great Recession.
Licata said he hopes the City Council will enact the parking and head taxes, to raise about $21 million a year, then send to the November ballot a proposed $60 car-tab fee for transit. State codes require a citizen vote on local car fees exceeding $20.
Employee taxes have been a taboo subject in recent years, and City Council President Tim Burgess sounds skeptical. “I haven’t looked at it very closely as yet, but I’m not inclined to support it,” he said in an e-mail message Tuesday, without elaborating.
A proposal last week by Mayor Ed Murray intends to combine a 0.1 percent sales-tax boost with a $60 car-tab fee. Last month, King County voters rejected the same tax rates to pay for a mix of transit and roads, but within Seattle the yes vote was 66 percent.
Sawant and Licata’s plan would swap out the mayor’s sales-tax hike, and replace that with employee and parking taxes.
Another idea, filed as Initiative 118 by transit activist Ben Schiendelman, calls for a property tax of $22 per $100,000 value per year. Signature gathering was suspended 10 days ago as momentum grew within City Hall for alternatives.
Sawant, a socialist, called the sales tax the worst kind of tax because it falls hardest on lower-income people.
“This would not be enough to stop regressive taxation in Seattle, but it is a start in the right direction.”
The two council members propose that Seattle’s existing 12.5 percent tax on parking fees rise to 17.5 percent, for drivers who use commercial parking lots. Parking-meter rates for city-owned spaces are not affected.
Licata and Sawant made their announcement along the Third Avenue bus corridor, surrounded by supporters, including the Transit Riders Union, 15 Now activists, the Church Council of Greater Seattle, and Democratic Party organizers from Northeast and Southeast Seattle.
They’ve asked staffers to study a tiered rate, charging big businesses $18 and smaller businesses $12 per employee per year.
Sawant said companies should contribute toward transit used by their workforce, including retail workers who can’t afford to drive. “I think Target should pay for that,” she said.
At least 43 percent of downtown employees ride a bus, train or ferry, according to surveys.
Council member Mike O’Brien said he generally supports adding as much transit as possible, but stopped short of endorsing the employee tax. “It’s intriguing for sure,” he said Tuesday. “I want to make sure we get all possible options on the table to look at.”
In 2006, the council enacted a $25-per-year employee tax for city transportation and repealed it three years later, under pressure from businesses to keep taxes down during the recession. But a city property tax for streets, and a parking tax, were kept.
The Downtown Seattle Association (DSA), which favors Murray’s plan, criticized the head tax.
“We want companies to come to Seattle and create jobs, and the companies that are already here to grow. A city tax on jobs sends the wrong message. The council was right to repeal this tax in 2009. Additionally, Seattle already is one of the most expensive cities in the nation with respect to parking,” said a statement by Jon Scholes, DSA’s vice president for advocacy and economic development.
Fares cover 29 percent of Metro’s operating costs, close to the U.S. average.
Sales and property taxes are common sources of transit dollars nationally. However, Portland’s Tri-Met transit agency is funded mainly by a payroll tax of $7.24 per $1,000 in wages.
Fellow council members heard little about the new proposal Monday. They were occupied with the announcement of a new police chief and hours of regular meetings. The mayor’s office had no comment.
“We need a broad-based reliable source of funding for transit service,” said Councilmember Tom Rasmussen, Transportation Committee chairman. “I will be interested in learning more about their proposal.”
In many cases, the routes on Metro’s cut list have the lowest ridership — but may be the only transit at a particular time or to a particular neighborhood. If Seattle approves more tax, council members may buy service for routes where buses overflow, or stave off Metro’s cuts to less-used routes, or a mix.
Licata said route choices should be debated later, after the city approves money to protect bus riders.
Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @mikelindblom