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Originally published Thursday, March 27, 2008 at 12:00 AM


Joni Balter / Seattle Times editorial columnist

Land of the free, home of the levies for life

Northwesterners love their walks in the woods, their trails to the beach, their parks of every shape and kind. And public officials know...

Northwesterners love their walks in the woods, their trails to the beach, their parks of every shape and kind. And public officials know it.

Which explains why parks are on the ballot every few years in Seattle and King County, and not something unpleasant like jails or sewers.

We have similar and deserved infatuation with the beloved, iconic Pike Place Market.

With that emotional leverage in mind, public officials seek voter approval of money measures to upgrade parks and the market. The idea is to win such a blessing in the huge, younger — read: more liberal — turnout of a presidential election in November. The skittish economy? Whatever.

We've seen this act before. Political leaders offer an eight-year parks levy or a seven-year something-else levy. Then, when the levy is about to expire, as in, we are done paying, we have an Oklahoma land grab for the taxes.

Nowhere is this more apparent than at Seattle City Hall, where a few City Council members, mindful that the 2000 Pro Parks Levy expires at the end of the year, hope to offer a renewal this year. The need for more parks and park development never vanishes.

Politicians are itching, scratching and otherwise jumping out of their Crocs to spend soon-to-be-idle tax dollars.

Who doesn't support parks? I spend part of my weekend in Seward Park. In a rapidly densifying city, parks are needed relief for mind and body. That doesn't mean taxpayers should be taken advantage of.

There is something insidious about proposing a levy, specifying a number of years, making a pact with voters, and then acting like, La di da, of course, we will be back with a renewal.

"It's not a new tax," they'll say. "You are already paying." And good-hearted, civic-minded voters usually go along.

But hold on a second. Polls and common sense say the public is nervous about jobs, declining home prices, rising gas costs, inflation, stagflation, recession.

Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels this week proposed a six-year, $75 million levy to pay for upgrades and improvements to the Pike Place Market. Who can argue that the nearly 101-year-old facility does not need electrical, plumbing and seismic upgrades?

Nickels, interestingly, does not support renewal of the parks levy. Not now. Council members Richard Conlin and Tom Rasmussen, and perhaps others, want to tap those dollars when the tax expires. A poll under way assessing public sentiments will guide them.

At least Nickels had time to read up on a few economic indicators. "People are very concerned about the economy," he said in an interview. "We should be careful what we propose and be careful through the slowdown."

That said, he supports expansion of Sound Transit light rail to Northgate and to the Eastside across Interstate 90 enough to back a ballot request this year.

King County Executive Ron Sims takes a harder line, though he loves taxes and often supports them. Sims comes to his position after a pair of county parks and open-space levies already passed.

Please note, in 2003, the county offered a four-year parks levy — supposedly a stopgap until better times. That lasted until last summer when county officials offered larger, longer parks and open-space levies. This is the great Northwest, where parks are gold in the streams. The levies passed handily.

Now, Sims opposes putting anything on the ballot, including Sound Transit. His opposition to light rail is more complicated than ballot overload or the economy. But he is adamant there is a time to propose tax levies and a time to hold back.

"I am not going to support any tax levy; this is a bad time to put out a tax," he said. "We may or may not be in a recession but there is a great deal of public anxiety. Every year the county or the city puts issues on the ballot. There has to be a relief period."

Still ballot measures line up. This may be a light year, for example, just the market and Sound Transit, maybe parks. But in Seattle, 2009 will see renewal of the housing levy. The year 2010 is reserved for an upgrade of Seattle Center.

Seattle is a great city in part because we invest in amenities. But the place grows less affordable by the day. The middle class is shrinking. Several council members campaigned on a promise to help keep the city affordable. How can we do that if we rarely let a levy run its course?

The politicians are one step ahead of us. They know we are easy to roll for something as sentimental and necessary as parks.

In the end, I likely will support the market rehab, but only if someone promises it is a one-time deal. That would be revolutionary.

In general, we don't do one-time levies. Seattle and King County have become the home of levies for life.

Joni Balter's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is; for a podcast Q&A with the author, go to Opinion at

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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