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Voters can expect all $930 million of Move Seattle next fall

For all the talk of dramatic amendments from Councilmember Nick Licata, the largest property tax levy in Seattle history, a transportation funding package, emerged relatively unchanged from the Seattle City Council’s Select Committee on Transportation Funding on Tuesday. Barring a dramatic change of opinion from council members between now and next Monday’s full council meeting, voters can expect to see the $930 million levy, known as Move Seattle, on the ballot in the fall.

Move Seattle covers a broad range of issues, including patches to the Ballard Bridge, massive repaving and wide-ranging efforts to ensure that freight movers, car commuters, transit riders, bicyclists and pedestrians all have better travel conditions.

Mayor Ed Murray and the Seattle Department of Transportation sent the levy to the council in May. Councilmembers had five meetings and public hearings on the funding source before passing 13 amendments on Tuesday. However, most notable were the two amendments and one ordinance that did not pass — all Councilmember Nick Licata.

In principle, the council unanimously agreed on two things: First, the size of the levy was a shock; second, it’s still a necessary investment. At issue, however, was whether pitching $930 million in property taxes was the best way to distribute the burden and whether the amount might exceed the appetite of voters this fall.

Licata’s ordinance would have introduced an annual $18 per employee tax on businesses (the council repealed a similar tax in 2009). It also would have added a tax on commercial parking spaces. The proposal was meant to work in tandem with an amendment to reduce the overall property levy to $600 million. Speaking in support of lowering the levy, Councilmember Kshama Sawant said it was not a show of opposition to the package, but a spur to exploring “more progressive” forms of funding. But when Licata’s first ordinance failed 7-2, his levy reduction amendment lost its teeth and also failed 7-2.

Continuing Licata’s no-good day, his amendment to forbid spending Move Seattle money on a streetcar also failed, this time 6-3. At a June 9 meeting, Licata and SDOT Director Scott Kubly got into a tense back and forth about this issue. Kubly argued for flexibility in how future administrations can spend the levy money while Licata worried about mission creep. But the council members, with the exception of Licata, Sawant and Mike O’Brien, seemed to take enough comfort in knowing SDOT would have to get approval from the council before expanding any streetcar lines.

The rest of the approved amendments consisted mostly of some restructuring and re-naming, increased oversight and minor fund shifting. Perhaps most significant Councilmember Tim Burgess’ amendment to run every project through the lens of the City’s Safe Routes to School program aims at making it safer for children to walk and bike to school.

Despite not getting the amendments they wanted, Licata and Sawant voted with the rest of their colleagues to send the levy for final approval to the full council next Monday. Since all nine council members were present Tuesday, it would take a very strange turn of events for the package to not pass next week.

Kubly and Murray were both positive Tuesday, Kubly calling the approval “exciting” and Murray calling it “a great signal to Seattle residents.”

But will it pass with voters in November? SDOT, the majority of the City Council, and the mayor’s office seem to think so, pointing to outreach efforts and Seattle’s history of passing property tax levies. However there has been a bit of pushback from various community organizations including the Wallingford and Magnolia  community councils, both of which feel underrepresented in the large levy.

Kubly acknowledged that, although SDOT officials feel confident, “there are no guarantees of anything.” If the levy doesn’t pass, SDOT will lose a quarter of its budget and the department, said Kubly, would have to cut back to the basics of paving and maintenance. With housing and school levies in the pipeline for coming years, this fall is viewed as the best chance for the city to get the transportation funding it wants.

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