Prepare for the groan of tax fatigue
Seattle taxpayers are about to be hit up for all their loose change, writes Jonathan Martin
Times editorial columnist
Seattle’s famous tolerance for taxing itself will soon be tested like never before.
In the past few weeks alone, Seattle sewer customers found out their bills, already much higher than neighboring cities, might be jacked up again. Seattle City Light wants a surcharge, even as its CEO recently was considered for a bonus. And Metro is proposing a regressive tax, a $60 car tab, which hits lower-income households the hardest.
Thankfully, a voice of fiscal sanity emerged from the Seattle City Council.
The Metro proposal, one council member said, “would force the same low-income households, already battered by the recession, to again pick up the tab. ...” On the utility rate hikes, the council member tweeted that the council “needs to act so working people don’t bear the brunt.”
The source of this realism? Seattle’s socialist-in-chief, Councilmember Kshama Sawant.
It says something when the socialist sounds like the fiscal conservative.
Sawant’s solution, of course, is to shift Seattle’s high cost of living onto businesses and high earners, which would have cascading consequences.
But her eye on the pocketbooks of working stiffs is appreciated because Seattle is about to be hit up for loose change like a grocery shopper around Girl Scout cookie sales time. The list of levies and bonds and taxing districts coming to the ballot in the near future is breathtaking.
It starts with the expiring $146 million Seattle Parks levy (cost for owner of a $450,000 home: about $80 annually). It likely would be on the August ballot, undoubtedly larger than the last. Also expiring is the $365 million Bridging the Gap transportation levy (cost: about $166 annually). Mayor Ed Murray promised renewal. It will get bigger too.
Beautifying a Viaduct-free new Seattle waterfront would likely cost property owners in and around downtown about $200 million to 300 million, likely on the 2015 ballot. The waterfront plan also calls for a citywide tax of up to $65 million.
City Council President Tim Burgess and Mayor Murray are united behind a proposed citywide prekindergarten program. Funding could come from the $231 million Families and Education levy passed in 2011. But there’s little talk of diverting that money to this new initiative. Instead, expect an eight- or nine-figure pre-K levy on the ballot — because who wants to vote against kids?
Also, prepare for tolling on Highway 99, should Bertha ever get moving. Tolls are expected to raise about $1 billion over 30 years.
All of these would pile on to the $290 million Seattle seawall levy passed in 2012 (cost: about $54 annually); the aforementioned city Families and Education levy (cost: about $124 annually); and the $122 million Seattle libraries levy passed in 2011 (cost: about $67 annually). In fact, we’re also still paying off debt on the Kingdome.
Burgess notes that two levies — for the Pike Place Market and for fire stations — expired without renewal, and that King County isn’t in the top 100 counties nationwide for tax burden, according to a Brookings Institution report.
Nonetheless, Burgess said he was “concerned” about the potential tax fatigue, which he said is exacerbated by the state’s 1 percent cap on property-tax increases. “It’s a problem because we’re required to go to voters every single time.”
I’m not some cranky tax hater. I voted for all of the current levies because I like good parks, roads and libraries. I’ll vote for the Metro proposal, because good transit is an economic mandate for a city.
But these levies are in addition to the regular $1 billion city general fund. Because the library levy paid for some ongoing costs, it alone gave the City Council an extra $5 million a year.
When is enough enough? Seattle voted down a $60 car tab in 2011, but that was seen more as a referendum on former Mayor Mike McGinn than on voters’ tax tolerance.
Hence the staggering wishlist, headed your way.
If simple rate hikes by Seattle City Light and Seattle Public Utilities are enough to make a socialist sound like a conservative, wait until the collective groan of a billion-dollar ask.
Jonathan Martin's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org
Information in this article, originally published Jan. 26, 2014, was corrected Jan. 27, 2014. A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Seattle City Light CEO Jorge Carrasco requested a raise. Former Mayor Mike McGinn requested a bonus for Carrasco. The Seattle City Council did not act on the request.