What if there was a big election season, and Seattle didn't ask its citizens for a property tax increase? Believe it or not, our levy-loving city — there have been four in the last six years alone — is likely to be levy-less come this fall.
It's especially surprising given that a presidential election year, when turnout is strongest, is the friendliest environment for local ballot measures. High turnout means lots of younger voters, who generally favor tax measures.
Why would the city let this golden opportunity go by, even though there are so many causes needing money?
Can you say "light rail?"
"There's a very good chance Sound Transit will go this fall," says Richard Conlin, city council president and Sound Transit board member. The three-county agency wants a second try at extending the light rail line, which was defeated last November. And local leaders seem to be giving that plan the right of first refusal when it comes to securing ballot real estate.
Says Conlin: "If we have a Sound Transit issue on the ballot, we ought to be very careful about whether we put any other issues on the ballot." That sounds like no city levy to me.
Seattle politicians, who have much to gain from a light rail extension, don't want to jeopardize its chances by adding a money measure of their own to the mix. Taxing has its limits — even in Seattle.
Interestingly, even if Sound Transit decides to hold off for another year or two, the city may still end up without a ballot measure this fall.
That's because the three most likely levy ideas — Parks, Seattle Center, and Pike Place Market — are still jockeying for who's most deserving of attention. And it's getting late.
Renewing the popular pro parks levy would seem a promising idea, but the mayor is steadfast against it. While he likes what it has accomplished, he thinks there are better priorities going forward. Most councilmembers are inclined to support a renewal, but without the mayor's backing, it won't make the ballot.
Seattle Center is talked about. Certainly it needs a cash infusion. But, according to City Councilmember Jan Drago, "it's not ready yet." And no wonder. So much is still up in the air about the Center's future, including what to do about Key Arena (with or without the Sonics); whether the Center can tear down Memorial Stadium (now controlled by the School District); and whether Center House should stay or go. Much more needs to come into place before a plan can go before voters. Fall is likely too soon.
Finally, there's Pike Place Market. It's "ready to go," says City Councilmember Sally Clark of the $80 million upgrade plan. But that may not be enough to get it on the ballot. Because it's so iconic, there will be pressure to give it "coattails" and pair it with something like Seattle Center that would have a harder time going alone. But that would mean waiting until the weaker link is ready.
Tellingly, the mayor chose not to announce a levy for this fall in his recent State of the City speech. In the past, he has used that forum to launch money measures.
Seattleites are arguably fatigued with levy requests. After all, they've approved a whopping $735 million since Nickels became mayor. With an economic downturn likely upon us, there is a strong case to be made for taking a pause. Still, it seems surprising that a ripe opportunity to hit up voters might actually come and go without them even being asked.