Joni Balter / Seattle Times editorial columnist
Do Seattle's taxpayers have a breaking point?
Before the recent election, one burning question among political insiders in Seattle was: What exactly is the taxpayers' breaking point...
Before the recent election, one burning question among political insiders in Seattle was: What exactly is the taxpayers' breaking point? When would our effusively do-gooder voters turn down a big project involving a tax increase?
Would last month's $365 million road-and-bridge-improvement tax be the tipping point?
Not yet. Voters blessed Mayor Greg Nickels' proposal by a respectable 53 percent and gave the mayor a steady green light to raise taxes for several key transportation projects. Property owners will pay roughly $144 additional next year, an amount that rises slightly over the next nine years and pays for a variety of projects.
No quibble with the need for the transportation work, such as replacing timber supports under the 45th Street Northeast overpass connecting University Village and the U District.
Seattle voters are so civic-minded, there is almost an implicit agreement between the "yes" voters and the city that every year or so, Seattle will effectively shop out one of its jobs, especially on popular items like parks, housing and education-related spending. More often than not, voters go for it.
But here are a few fun facts to put the spending in perspective. The city of Seattle has raised taxes, with voters' blessing, seven of the past nine years. Some say this is the natural result of Tim Eyman's tax-cutting measures that require voter consent of tax increases. And there is some truth to that.
It is also true the city is happily dependent on the generosity of voters, accustomed to asking voters to approve more-popular items, while the regular ho-hum budget covers projects with less public appeal.
Here's the good, the bad and the ugly of what our voters have approved and are still paying property taxes on:
• Library facilities (1998). Voters approved a bond package that funds numerous branch improvements, like the lovely new Douglass Truth Library in the Central District, and the stunning downtown Central Library.
• Community Centers (1999). Voters OK'd a levy that improved 11 community centers and refurbished what is now McCaw Hall and the Flag Pavillion at Seattle Center.
• Neighborhood Parks (2000). Voters said yes to park improvements around the city. The levy even included some money for park maintenance.
• Low-Income Housing (2002). Voters approved a renewal of a low-income-housing levy that began in the 1980s. This was one of the more generous levies in that it raised income thresholds for folks seeking assistance.
• Fire stations (2003). "Yes" again to a levy for new and improved fire stations.
• Families and Education Levy (2004). Voters approved this important city support for the Seattle School District, a levy that continues providing financial help for such things as early-childhood education, middle-school support, family support and health clinics.
Supporting solid civic improvements is a good thing. Voters take each one on its own merits and even reject a few, such as the misguided latte tax for early-childhood education of a few years ago.
I would rather live in Seattle than in other places where voters often say no to every project. Seattle is a city on the move. A great city has to keep renewing itself, to keep moving forward with city building.
But over time, there is a cumulative and corrosive impact on lower-income and even middle-income families as housing costs soar out of reach. Not everyone can afford all these increases!
I certainly hope the breaking point does not arrive on the upcoming school levy and bond issue in February.
Someone should pay closer attention to how much we ask taxpayers to do. Don't forget, the city doesn't stop spending and building if a year goes by without a tax proposal. The city sometimes uses its credit card, so-called councilmanic bonds, for things like the new City Hall.
And none of the city spending happens in a vacuum. King County has an outstretched hand for parks and fingerprint I.D. equipment and staff. Voters agreed in November to raise the sales tax for new buses. The average Seattleite pays $3,850 in total property taxes on a $400,000 house for the city, county, Port of Seattle and the School District. The road and bridge package is on top of that.
Maybe we are really flush. Maybe renters in Seattle help push support for levies and bonds over the top because they like the proposed amenity and don't see immediate price hikes at their apartments.
Seattle is a livable city in part because we care enough to continue investing. But it is a delicate balance. At the same time, we are driving away middle- and low-income families who often cannot keep pace with all the demands for their money.
Joni Balter's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org