In recent years, voter-approved property tax levies have passed easily in Seattle and King County. But the size and structure of Seattle’s transportation levy on the November ballot has drawn some unusual pushback.
It raises the question of whether even normally generous Seattle voters are feeling levy fatigue.
“The spending breakdown is illustrative only and shall not be mandatory.” That single sentence in the proposed “Move Seattle” transportation levy is drawing a lot of scrutiny. The levy aims to fund everything from repaving and safe school routes to bridges and transit access. It’s more than twice the size of the Bridging the Gap levy that it replaces.
The League of Women Voters and the Municipal League are urging people to vote “no” on the levy because it lacks specifics. And some voters, like Melissa Nitsch and Andrew Curry of West Seattle, said they plan to reject it in November on those grounds.
“This is just not how you run government, and we have some experience in being involved in government, and I’m just shocked,” Nitsch said.
The couple moved here two years ago from Washington, D.C., and both work for federal agencies. Nitsch said she’s dismayed that the nine-year, $930 million levy commits money only to general categories.
“I think that there’s a real arrogance being put forward by city leadership to put something like this in front of voters and not articulate clearly what we’re getting out of it," Nitsch said. "It’s basically a nonprioritized, nonbinding wish list.”
The levy provides only partial funding for some of the projects it touts; for instance, it includes about an eighth of the money needed to build a bridge over the railroad crossing at Lander Street. Curry said his bus often gets stuck waiting for freight trains at that crossing south of downtown. But he’s not confident the levy would change that.
Curry said he might support an even bigger levy, if he knew exactly what it would do. “I would probably be more likely to say yes, I’ll support it, if it’s bigger and it’s honest and it says, ‘we’re going to get this done.’" he said. "But this doesn’t do that.”
Nitsch and Curry aren't against levies on principle. Nitsch plans to vote for the King County levy to fund early interventions for needy kids – that’s also on the November ballot. And Curry said he’ll vote for next year’s Sound Transit measure to expand light rail. They said they paid more property taxes in Washington, D.C., but Nitsch said she’s started to feel more “like an ATM” for local governments with the relentless levy proposals in Seattle.
Voters can count on seeing a number of levy proposals next year, with the presidential race expected to draw higher voter turnout. Seattle City Councilmember Nick Licata calls it “festival time” in a blue state like Washington. “People come out and vote for a Democrat and they’re more likely to be more generous in funding public services,” he said.
But Licata said the increased property taxes are becoming a hardship for poorer residents, especially amid all the concern over housing affordability. Licata and Councilmember Kshama Sawant sought to have the transportation levy draw on other funding sources instead of relying solely on property taxes.
The two also wanted to shrink the levy, something Licata says the council has often done successfully. Licata said two-thirds of the time the council has reduced the size of levies sought by various administrations.
Not this time. In the end, Licata and the rest of the council endorsed the transportation levy. “Apparently there was a feeling amongst the majority of the council members that street improvements and addressing our traffic problems took precedence over the negative impact it would have on people who are lower income, struggling to get by, and paying their mortgages,” he said.
If this levy passes, it would cost the owner of a $450,000 home about $275 per year (that’s the number offered by the campaign; see our graphic breaking down where property taxes on a typical Seattle home go). Public officials say these levies are the legacy of Tim Eyman, who successfully passed the initiative restricting property tax increases to one percent per year, unless voters sign off. But civic groups say levies should be proposed for specific building projects, not to fund the operations of a city department.
Paul Guppy is policy director for the Washington Policy Center, a conservative think tank. He opposes the levy for the same reasons as its other critics. Guppy said Seattle is hardly a hotbed of Tea Party activists wanting to starve government.
Instead, he said, “there are civic groups like the Municipal League that look at this from an objective point of view and they are really thinking not about politics but service to the public. And they’re raising questions about how this levy is structured, and that Move Seattle is so large.”
Seattle Transportation Director Scott Kubly said this levy will provide about a third of his agency’s budget over nine years. Over that many years, he said, it’s important to keep some flexibility as situations change. In fact, that was actually one of the recommendations of the oversight committee for the previous transportation levy.
For example, Kubly said, when the time comes it may make sense to put a greenway on a different street than was initially proposed. “As we go through the planning process with the community we may find that that project slips over or moves over one street,” he said.
Kubly said that’s why the levy commits to spending categories rather than projects. “That’s the balance that we’re trying to strike,” he said, “and I think that’s what you see in the ordinance that requires spending levels in these three categories: congestion relief, safety improvements and maintenance.”
Deviations from those categories require a three-fourths vote of the City Council. And Kubly said to help with public oversight, the city created its online dashboard where people can monitor spending on capital projects.
Some Seattle voters said their typical impulse is to vote "yes" on these levies, because they perceive the need as being so great.
Josh Bess is a psychiatrist; like Melissa Nitsch and Andrew Curry he also arrived in Seattle two years ago. Bess said when he got to Seattle, the housing prices gave him sticker shock, but the taxes were lower than they were on his previous home in Ann Arbor, Mich.
But along with the lower taxes in Seattle, Bess has noticed gaps in services like transportation and mental health that his patients need. So Bess said for him it’s not a hard decision to support the two levies on the November ballot.
“We have fantastic resources here, we have resources in people, we have resources in nature, we have resources in money. But everybody benefits from the things that these taxes go to pay for,” he said.
And property tax rates in Seattle and King County are low compared to the rest of the country. But Washington also has the most regressive tax system in the country – meaning those with the lowest incomes here pay up to seven times as much of their income in taxes as their wealthy counterparts.
Correction 10/19/2015: An earlier version of a graphic in this story misstated the additional property tax a median homeowner would have to pay if the Move Seattle and Best Starts for Kids levies pass. Because Move Seattle replaces the expiring levy Bridging the Gap, the true additional cost of the transportation levy is $135 for the median homeowner.