The annexation shuffle

The White Center area, just south of Seattle, remains in limbo. King County can't afford services to this highly diverse neighborhood, and both Burien and Seattle reluctant to absorb the costs. Ah, but what about the revenue from Roxbury casinos?
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Should White Center be annexed by Seattle, Burien, or no one?

The White Center area, just south of Seattle, remains in limbo. King County can't afford services to this highly diverse neighborhood, and both Burien and Seattle reluctant to absorb the costs. Ah, but what about the revenue from Roxbury casinos?

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 'ꀜcops are out there changing the decals on their cars.'ꀝ Can Burien afford this expansion of its population and its civic functions? 'ꀜWith the state sales tax increase that we're getting,'ꀝ Martin says, 'ꀜwe just about break even.'ꀝ

What will annexation mean to the new citizens of Burien? If you're a resident of the annexation area, Martin says, 'ꀜthe major services you expect to get are unchanged'ꀝ and you'll 'ꀜhave access to a much smaller and therefore more responsive government.'ꀝ Burien's new citizens will have a say in what their community becomes. 'ꀜThat's the real issue,'ꀝ Martin says. 'ꀜThe community gets to be what the community wants. . . . We don't know what their vision is yet,'ꀝ he says. 'ꀜWill we see two-story buildings on Ambaum or will they be six-story?'ꀝ

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. 'ꀜI drive Roxbury all the time,'ꀝ says Sharon Nelson, who represents the area in the state legislature. 'ꀜYou can't tell where the city of Seattle ends and White Center begins.'ꀝ 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. 'ꀜSeattle 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,'ꀝ 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, 'ꀜthe 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.'ꀝ

If Seattle treated White Center as a full-fledged part of the city — and how could it not? — it would lose even more. Assuming 'ꀜthe 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.'ꀝ

'ꀜBottom line,'ꀝ observed neighborhood blog White Center Now: 'ꀜToo costly for Seattle to consider an annexation vote before 2011 — and even then, it'ꀙs not likely to be on the ballot before November 2011, if at all.'ꀝ

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 'ꀜas much as ever.'ꀝ

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 'ꀜworth a bucket of warm spit.'ꀝ

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. 'ꀜI don't think the numbers are [ever] going to look a lot better,'ꀝ Conlin says. But he argues that the question shouldn't be just one of dollars and cents.

So what's in it for Seattle? 'ꀜIt's a great, vibrant community,'ꀝ 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.

Annexation would also bring Seattle the casinos on the White Center side of Roxbury. Legislation designed to pave the way for annexation lets the casinos stay open if White Center is annexed. And it lets Seattle tax them. Some think this revenue source is the real, if publicly downplayed, reason Seattle covets the new territory. (Seattle bans card rooms inside present city limits.)

Conlin realizes that some of Seattle's neighborhood activists would rather see White Center stay outside the pale. They argue that existing Seattle neighborhoods have been waiting generations for adequate infrastructure, and that adding White Center to the list would mean one of two things: White Center would go to the head of the line, forcing neighborhoods that have already waited decades for sidewalks and other improvements to wait even longer. Or White Center would go to the end of the line, making the promise of Seattle's deep pockets a cruel illusion (as has happened often in the city's past). Conlin doesn't buy that analysis. White Center is pretty well supplied with infrastructure, he says. It will demand social services for which it can't pay, but so what? In Seattle 'ꀜno neighborhood is self-sustaining.'ꀝ

Despite the 2008 memorandum of understanding, Burien has recently revived the idea of taking White Center and the rest of Area Y itself. In early March, the Burien City Council scheduled a vote declaring the city's vague intent to pursue annexation of north North Highline after it had digested the southern part. Late in the month, though, the council dropped the issue from its agenda.

Even the current annexation has been controversial. Not all Burien residents were eager to welcome 14,000 new citizens. 'ꀜPart of the community believes, and some of it strongly, that we shouldn't be annexing at all,'ꀝ Martin says.

A second annexation would presumably stir even more controversy. Does it make sense for Burien to even put a second annexation on the table? Martin says the argument against annexing Area Y is that 'ꀜ'we don't have general fund money to put into human services.'ꀝ He doesn't disagree. 'ꀜIf the question is whether or not we're in a position to dump millions of dollars into services, then the answer is an unequivocal no,'ꀝ Martin says. Does that mean it's not feasible for Burien to annex White Center and the rest of Area Y? "Not today." But 'ꀜtalk to me in three years.'ꀝ

Nevertheless, some White Center residents would much rather become part of Burien, a much smaller city in which their voting power wouldn't be diluted into insignificance. Others, including most social-service providers, would rather become part of Seattle, which has much deeper pockets — and more experience dealing with dense, multi-ethnic populations. 'ꀜClearly, there are people who want no part of Burien,'ꀝ Martin says. At the same time, some 'ꀜpeople up [in White Center] are bewildered that we didn't take it all at once." And some residents of North Highline want no part of either Seattle or Burien; they just want to be left alone.

'ꀜThe problem for them is 'left alone' isn't really an option,'ꀝ Conlin says. King County will provide less and less service. Sharon Nelson agrees that the county 'ꀜcan't continue to afford'ꀝ the urban services that White Center needs. 'ꀜWhen King County had more capital, we could work around it,'ꀝ Nelson says, but those days are over. The situation 'ꀜcontinues to be frustrating,'ꀝ but realistically, 'ꀜI don't see a resolution any time'ꀝ soon.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan is an author, attorney, and writer of many articles about Northwest environmental issues.