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Defragging King County

In a municipality dominated by Dems, the assessor argues for a radical idea: less bureaucracy.
The King County assessor's view of bureaucracy. (Scott Noble)

The King County assessor's view of bureaucracy. (Scott Noble) None

King County Assessor Scott Noble. (King County)

King County Assessor Scott Noble. (King County) None

I was never in the habit of reading King County Assessor Scott Noble's annual report messages, which were discontinued after 2001. The Economist's letters column, however, is another matter. So I was pleased to see in the March 29 issue — alongside missives from a former Costa Rican presidential candidate and a senior economist at the World Bank — a note from Noble himself, praising the 2003 consolidation of Louisville's government with that of surrounding Jefferson County, Ky., and decrying the fragmentation that currently obtains in King County. There are "166 taxing districts that overlap in 550 different ways, creating 247 property-tax rates," he writes, noting that this is one taxing entity for every 6,600 people — a ratio comparable to that in Chicago and five times greater than in Los Angeles.

Pleased, yes, but also a bit surprised: a Seattle Democrat essentially calling for a reduction in bureaucracy? Why, yes. Defragging local government has been a concern of Noble's since at least the late 1990s, when he wrote that fragmentation produces "an increasingly unmanageable and incomprehensible structure of governance," frustrating and alienating citizens, who react by forming new districts and fuel a "vicious cycle of reform and frustration." In fact, it's likely been on his mind since 1992, when he was first elected to the position, since "as Assessor ... I get hit with much of the heat on property taxes from people who don't trust this system," one which "it is not even reasonable to expect the citizenry to understand."

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer's Bill Virgin picked up on this story after Noble's letter appeared, offering his own property-tax statement as evidence and noting that there have been steps in the right direction — like the recent consolidation of a number of flood-control districts. And remember Metro's 1994 merger into King County? But my sense is that Noble would like a lot more simplification. In 2007 there were 20 school districts in the county, plus 27 each for fire and water, 14 for sewers, seven for parks, three for public hospitals, and one each for roads, libraries, cemeteries, and airports. Oh, plus 39 municipalities, Sound Transit, and the Port of Seattle. That last would apparently love to merge with the Port of Tacoma; but don't hold your breath waiting for Hunts Point, Yarrow Point, Clyde Hill, and Beaux Arts Village — let alone Kirkland and Redmond — to join up with Bellevue. So is there any chance of reforming our current "19th century local tax system and governmental structure, ill-suited to meet the demands of [the] 21st century," especially when we live in a world where, as Noble pointed out to me, developers are essentially trying to form their own private governments?

Perhaps Seattle won't follow in the footsteps of Louisville, Philadelphia, Indianapolis, Nashville, and, well, Butte, and become a consolidated city-county — imagine the Eastside suburbs' outcry — but what about going it alone, as do Denver, Baltimore, and St. Louis? The old Cedar County movement makes me think there are a fair number of people east of Microsoft, anyway, who wouldn't mind seeing the back of the Emerald City, and as Knute Berger wrote back in 2005, "if King County no longer works, the people will create something that does." (Presumably after a number of focus groups, community meetings, and at least 10 years of debate.) It would be ironic, indeed, if, after years of trying, the likes of Fnu Lnu ended up getting their way because of — rather than despite — those on the west side of the lake.

Seattle native Benjamin Lukoff's interest in local history was kindled at the age of six, when his father bought him Sophie Frye Bass’s Pig-Tail Days in Old Seattle at the MOHAI gift shop. His first book, Seattle Then and Now, was published in 2010. You can send him e-mail at lukoff@gmail.com or find him on Twitter at @lukobe.


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Comments:

Posted Thu, Apr 24, 10:38 a.m. Inappropriate

"...developers forming their own governments?": "...especially when we live in a world where, as Noble pointed out to me, developers are essentially trying to form their own private governments?"

Can you provide a little more context to that comment?
ddmiller

Posted Thu, Apr 24, 3:46 p.m. Inappropriate

Competitive Comparison: The diversity of governance units (GU), in an open society, should give rise to competition and merger and acquisition, government style. If we had a clearinghouse for the effectiveness of all these GUs, we could compare the various school districts, water disctricts, library districts, feng shui districts, and noxious weed districts, and then vote to consolidate inefficient districts under more efficient and effective districts. These could either be-inkind assimilations (say the Carnation Water Distric with the Woodinville Water District) or area integrations (e.g., the Seattle School District with the City of Seattle). In integrations and assimilations, like M&A; activity in the corporate world, you should end up with economies of scale and the ability to eliminate redundancy. I'd expect in our current governance structure we could save at a minimum 33% this way (roughly $5Billion to $10Billion a year I'm guessing). Indeed, this would seem to be an excellent task for the State Auditor to pursue -- a top level audit and comparison of all these hundreds of of GUs with some suggestions for improvement, not unlike the audit of the Port, except with less emphasis on criminality.

Stuka

Posted Fri, Apr 25, 11:32 a.m. Inappropriate

governance: Washington, and especially the greater Seattle area, has a long history of fear of general purpose governments (like Seattle) and of consolidated government, so we have opted instead for an astounding and complex layering of special districts instead of incorporation or annexation, and have formed special authorities for every conceivable purpose. Yes, we have about five times the ratio of governments to population as the national average. Ironically, while people thought this would reduce taxes, we may have ended up paying more because of overlap and inefficiency, and inability to coordinate across governments.
In the 1980s I worked with the Metropolitan Study Commission for a two-tiered metropolitan government, but the plan was too far out for voters or existing governments. The main risk of a truly regional government is the "tyranny of the majority" - imposing the values and plans of one faction on the entire region, while a fair degree of autonomy responds better to the diversity of citizen needs and interests. But ironically, a regional government would probably weaken the power of the city of Seattle, as it has only one-sixth of metropolitan population, but as the dominant center, it wields vastly disproportionate power.
DMorrill

Posted Mon, Apr 28, 12:24 p.m. Inappropriate

RE: "...developers forming their own governments?": Here's some context to the "developers are essentially trying to form their own private governments" statement: Noble was referring to the fact that Idaho legislators recently "passed a bill to allow developers to organize taxing districts to sell bonds to pay for roads, bridges and sewers."

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