One obvious way out for a municipality facing deep budget cuts is to take some "motherhood" services that taxpayers love and create a separate taxing district for them. This gets some or all of the costs off the main budget, while also creating a protected, dedicated funding source for services, like parks and libraries, that are otherwise used as balance wheels to be cut deeply in downturns.
During the past year, advocates for parks were exploring such a maneuver, aiming at a vote this coming November for partial funding of parks through a property tax levy about the size of the recent parks capital levy ($75 a year for the average house). After initial interest, Mayor McGinn's office turned a cold shoulder to this idea — presumably having a different priority, likely bikeways and the related seawall, in mind for that coming election.
Frustrated at the mayor's opposition to this idea, Parks Superintendent Tim Gallagher last week quit, warning that parks would now face deep cuts and closures of some facilities. The parks levy is still under active exploration, and could be put on the ballot by the city council, over the mayor's objections.
Meanwhile, advocates for Seattle Public Libraries were also looking at such a finesse, aiming at 2011. The idea was originally hatched out of fear of the last Tim Eyman initiative, and what it would have done to local funding. When Eyman's initiative failed, the idea was put back in the oven for further baking. Now it appears to be back on the table, with City Council President Richard Conlin saying in his blog that he will begin an active exploration of a way to take the library out of direct competition for general fund dollars. Conlin wrote:
Such a funding source might involve creating a Library District (as King County as done), seeking a separate library services levy, or some other mechanism. We have already begun the research on options, and I hope to be able to bring a proposal to the voters in 2011 or 2012, depending on whether we need the state legislature to modify the statutes governing libraries before we can proceed.
Such a maneuver is not exactly what good-government folks like: creating separate, dedicated, less-accountable taxing districts. It's already been done (in a sense) with the zoo, to the consternation of some activists who want to pressure the city council and the mayor on zoo practices. Special taxing authorities can also be a trap for the function, if care is not taken at the beginning to create enough tax base for future needs. Such districts can make general city government less flexible as well as less attractive to taxpayers, with no pandas or Nancy Pearl librarians to appeal to the voters.
The idea also harkens back to an era in municipal governance of about 100 years ago. Alarmed at the tide of recent Catholic-Europe immigrants (like the Irish and the Italians) who were starting to outvote the proper middle class WASPs of American cities, these worthies tended to pull certain services out of general government, give them appointed and self-perpetuating boards, and shield them from the tide of ethnic politics. Typically, such protected services were parks, schools, libraries, and public works. There are remnants of those days in Seattle's Parks Board and the Library Board, the former purely advisory and the latter having hiring-firing powers but not budget control.
The special-taxing-district ploy puts a third option on the civic table for the coming intense debate of the city budget, which is facing a shortfall of $100 million over the next two years. One way to go is tax increases, with the city looking at a parking tax, a head tax, and higher fees for services, and the county looking at an increase in the sales tax and property taxes. Another way, about to be put forth by the Chamber of Commerce and business interests, is to cut more deeply before levying any new taxes, as reported by Publicola.net. The third way is to combine cuts and new taxes with creation of some "motherhood" taxing districts.
I would expect the council to look at the combination approach. Mayor McGinn will probably take a more radical approach, cutting deeply into some areas that are lower priority in order to have more money for the urban-amenities agenda he favors. Services like parks and libraries could strike this mayor as too middle-class and family-oriented for his more youthful constituency. And remember, at least in the Viaduct wars, McGinn demonstrated a distinct streak of fiscal conservatism.