If it's April, this must be Burien: On April Fool's Day, the city of Burien increased its population by nearly one-half, annexing the unincorporated area from the Sound to SeaTac known as the southern part of North Highline or, in current regional planning terms, Area X. Burien's northern city line now extends from just east of Puget Sound to just west of the Duwamish River, running east along the south side of 112th Street, then south to 116th, and back up to 106th just before West Marginal Way. Burien, which didn't become an incorporated city until 1993, has overnight gained 14,000 new residents and a half-dozen new parks.
Burien now has enough people to justify hiring a full-time city attorney, City Manager Mike Martin explains. Police cars that used to patrol unincorporated King County will now be patrolling Burien city streets. The week before annexation, Martin said “cops are out there changing the decals on their cars.” Can Burien afford this expansion of its population and its civic functions? “With the state sales tax increase that we're getting,” Martin says, “we just about break even.”
What will annexation mean to the new citizens of Burien? If you're a resident of the annexation area, Martin says, “the major services you expect to get are unchanged” and you'll “have access to a much smaller and therefore more responsive government.” Burien's new citizens will have a say in what their community becomes. “That's the real issue,” Martin says. “The community gets to be what the community wants. . . . We don't know what their vision is yet,” he says. “Will we see two-story buildings on Ambaum or will they be six-story?”
Less than two weeks before Burien annexed Area X, acting Seattle budget director Beth Goldberg told the city council's regional development and sustainability committee that for Seattle, annexing the northern part of North Highline — including the multi-ethnic residential and business districts of White Center — a.k.a. Area Y, just wouldn't pencil out.
Former King County Executive Ron Sims once called the highly diverse White Center the most urban place in Washington. He may have been right. Ironically, it lies in unincorporated King County, just across Roxbury Street from Seattle. Visually, it can't be distinguished from the city on the other side. “I drive Roxbury all the time,” says Sharon Nelson, who represents the area in the state legislature. “You can't tell where the city of Seattle ends and White Center begins.” Indeed, you can't. But you can figure out who picks up the tab for public services. Right now, that would be King County, which would dearly love to shift the burden to someone else. Logically, that someone would be Seattle. But in the current budget crisis, the city isn't eager to take on the additional obligation just yet.
King County would still love to jettison the area, with its need for urban levels of service and its skimpy tax base. Former Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels pushed hard for the city to annex White Center. (Some local activists not eager to join Seattle suspected ulterior motives, such as increasing the mayor's political base of support.) Current Mayor Mike McGinn said during last year's campaign that the city would give White Center residents a chance to vote on annexation this year. That won't happen. “Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn and the City Council have decided to delay an annexation of the White Center area until at least 2011 because paying for services there would be so expensive,” Emily Heffter reported in the Seattle Times.
Goldberg gave two cost estimates, one based on the Nickels administration's how-low-can-you-go scenario and another that assumed White Center would get the same level of service that the rest of Seattle enjoys. She added a caveat that not all costs had been calculated. The results weren't all that surprising: Seattle would lose money either way. Even at the low end, “the ongoing net impact of annexing Area Y would be costs exceeding revenues by an estimated $2.6 million. In addition, in the first year of the annexation, the city would have to assume at least $4.9 million in one-time costs.”
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