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Defragging King County

King County Assessor Scott Noble.

King County Assessor Scott Noble. (King County)

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.

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