This November, people in Seattle are being asked to vote for three new tax increases. Two are proposed by Seattle's leaders, who are again urging people to accept higher taxes to pay for core public amenities. These are property tax increases for the Pike Place Market ($75 million) and the Parks Department ($145 million). These special levies are presented as limited to six years each, though homeowners know that "temporary" levies for core services have a way of becoming permanent.
The third is a request from local officials to give Sound Transit $22.8 billion in new taxes, in addition to what the agency is already collecting. The three new taxes would add $414 a year for a typical family in Seattle, on top of the current tax burden of $4,365.
At the same time, people in Seattle are paying more in regular taxes than ever before. The city's budget, adjusted for inflation, has more than doubled since 1980. General Fund spending this year is $853 million. Seattle's total budget is $3.5 billion, which the city council plans to boost to $3.9 billion next year. By any reasonable measure, people are providing Seattle leaders with plenty of money.
Yet there has been little preparation for coming costs. At 101 years old, the Pike Place Market is showing its age. City leaders have known for years that the Seattle landmark is in need of restoration work, particularly for wiring, plumbing, seismic upgrades and fire safety. They have also known that part of the parks budget is due to expire. Even so, Seattle leaders have neglected to plan for these looming expenses.
City leaders are again putting the "ask" on residents at a time when Seattle has already added a new tax to fix streets, a head tax on workers, higher parking fees, a big jump in water rates, higher garbage collection fees and the Mayor's proposed disposable bag fee. A recent survey of 51 cities found that people in Seattle pay the highest water and sewer rates in the nation.
Another consideration is the two (three counting Sound Transit) new taxes would be added to the 14 bonds and special levies, totaling $1.5 billion, for which people in Seattle are already paying.
There has also been a lot of public money wasted at the city and county level. Poor management has conservatively cost taxpayers $958 million in recent years, with little public benefit to show for it. Past decisions on things like self-cleaning toilets, computers that don't work and monorails that were never built, mean public money is not available for parks or the Market.
The decision to go to the voters continues a trend in how city leaders manage spending. The Mayor and city council members usually fund low priorities first, and neglect high priority public services until the need becomes urgent. Once there are no other options, they turn to voters for higher taxes.
The implication is that if voters do not agree, city leaders will decline to fund the public amenity. Political campaigns on special levies often say we need to "save the Market" and "save our parks," creating the impression these public resources will be lost if citizens do not agree to pay more.
Seattle leaders have learned that when they shape public funding choices with a sense of crisis, voters will almost always go along. From an elected official's point of view this strategy makes perfect sense. After all, as long as voters continue to say yes to paying more, why not keep asking them for more?
Given steadily rising tax revenue, though, means that if voters turn down a special levy, city leaders would likely redirect funding to the Market and to parks after reviewing priorities within existing budget increases. City leaders are not short of money; it just means they would give a less important program a smaller increase.
As they go to the polls, voters will be weighing how the new levies relate to overall taxes and whether further burdening family budgets, especially in a worsening economy, is worth the promised public benefits.
Paul Guppy is vice president for research at Washington Policy Center, a non-partisan independent policy research organization in Seattle.