Joe Mabel, Wikimedia Commons
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.”
If Seattle treated White Center as a full-fledged part of the city — and how could it not? — it would lose even more. Assuming “the implementation of neighborhood policing and SDOT service levels that are comparable to other parts of the City ... the ongoing net impact of annexing Area Y would be $12.6 million. In addition, the City would need to assume $8.7 million in one-time costs.”
“Bottom line,” observed neighborhood blog White Center Now: “Too costly for Seattle to consider an annexation vote before 2011 — and even then, it’s not likely to be on the ballot before November 2011, if at all.”
White Center and the rest of northern North Highline remain firmly in limbo. Is the area more deeply in limbo than ever? Maybe not, says Seattle City Council president Richard Conlin, but it's certainly stuck there “as much as ever.”
Toward the end of 2008, King County, Seattle, Burien, and local fire and water districts signed a memorandum of understanding under which Burien could annex the southern part of North Highline, which includes more established single-family neighborhoods and fewer poor people, and Seattle could annex the northern part, including the multi-ethnic population of White Center. Last August, Burien put annexation up to a vote of the potential annexees. They said yes.
But Seattle wasn't ready to let people vote. Soon after the city signed the memorandum, the city council voted 8-1 against annexation, fearing it would cost the city money it didn't have. Besides, Seattle still had a lot of catching up to do in other neighborhoods where it had pledged to build sidewalks and the like. Subsequently, the state legislature agreed to give Seattle the same .2 percent additional sales tax revenue it had already provided to Burien and other cities annexing unincorporated areas with urban densities. City staffer Kenny Pittman, the point man on White Center annexation for the Nickels administration — and now the McGinn administration — explained that the legislation passed largely because of efforts by Rep. Ross Hunter, who was eager to get the cost of urban services off King County's back. Hunter himself suggested that a city council statement that Seattle would annex North Highline if the legislation passed was probably “worth a bucket of warm spit.”
Conlin suggests that it made sense to put off an annexation vote until 2011 for another good reason: McGinn and his team aren't exactly steeped in the issue yet, and Seattle's current budget has enough problems. Even after the economy rights itself, though, Conlin says the numbers should get more precise, but they will never show that annexing White Center will be profitable or even revenue-neutral. “I don't think the numbers are [ever] going to look a lot better,” Conlin says. But he argues that the question shouldn't be just one of dollars and cents.
So what's in it for Seattle? “It's a great, vibrant community,” Conlin says. And it would make sense to unite the business community along Roxbury so that it — with help from the Seattle Police Department — can better deal with the area's very real public safety issues.
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