Too often, as taxpayers, we are told that a levy or extra fee is vital to the preservation of an important resource, service, or infrastructure. Having been on the government as well as private sector side, I am generally receptive to the request. But the levy and special funding requests have reached an avalanche every election cycle that leads the average voter to ask: What are all the taxes and fees we already pay really doing?
The follow-on question should be: Shouldn’t existing taxes and fees pay for the basic municipal services like transportation, police and fire, parks, and libraries? Utilities are fundamental as well, but they are funded separately from the general fund, through rates and fees.
All of this comes to mind as we enter into an election season in which we will hear a great deal about the need for city of Seattle voters to approve a $60 per year increase on vehicle tab fees to pay for one of those very basic local responsibilities: transportation services and facilities. A little background is needed to give the context for why I won't support the measure on the November general election ballot.
Beyond basic services, big cities tend to have other functions that are important as well, like arts and culture, environmental conservation, planning, and economic development. Mayors often leave their stamp on a city or demonstrate their commitment to an issue by creating a new office or department. Or they put new emphasis into an existing office or program. My old boss, Greg Nickels, did this with energetic local efforts on climate change, many through the city's Office of Sustainability and Envirnonment. He wanted to build momentum to force the George W. Bush administration to address global warming. Norm Rice developed the first Families and Education Levy and created the city’s Office for Education because he thought the city needed to be more engaged in public education.
Paul Schell created the Strategic Planning Office to integrate all of the departments’ planning functions into one office. Nickels moved the planners back to the departments and created an Office of Policy and Management, an effort to create a catalyst for development and special projects like the South Lake Union Streetcar.
Reorganizations and additions of new departments are not new or unusual. It is the norm. Problems arise, however, when the proliferation of these new activities begin to eat away at the basics — such as a road maintenance program. This is a good part of why we will continue to see efforts by the city council and the mayor to put levies on the ballot that really should be covered by existing resources. New programs and departments have constituencies that make is hard to eliminate a function once created. The average person on the street may not know it even exists, but interest groups keep a close watch during budget time.
Unfortunately, today's economy means that we must focus limited resources on those programs that we need to have and, for the time being, put the nice-to-have programs on the back burner. This is the debate we should be having at all levels of government, not how big or small government should be. Basic maintenance and repair should not have to go to the ballot.
This brings us to the debate about the $60 car tab that the City Council has put on the ballot in November, as the Seattle Transportation Benefit District's Proposition 1. The stated purpose is that it will provide the funding to catch up on deferred maintenance of our streets and get us two new street car lines — well, at least the planning for them. It will also help the city to make changes to the streets to help buses move faster and more efficiently. There is also a commitment to build sidewalks and bike lanes. Who could be against that?
It does sound great until you remember the promises of prior levies and until you begin to look ahead at commitments to existing infrastructure, which we must maintain.
Consider our backlog of street maintenance needs. Former Mayor Nickels pushed a series of funding measures aimed at attacking the maintenance backlog that had grown over the past 30 or so years. The reasons for this backlog, which largely continues, are as old as time. Chief among them is the tendency of elected officials to do new and innovative things and to neglect the more mundane needs of existing infrastructure. Politicians like to cut ribbons and create legacies. Patching up roads will never get your name on a plaque. To Nickels' credit, he wanted to focus on the nuts and bolts of this problem and he worked hard to get new funding to catch up. The Bridging the Gap program was born with voter support in 2006.
While I disagreed with some of the funding components of that program at the time, particularly the now-repealed “head tax” on employment as well as the “square footage tax,” I wholeheartedly appreciated the focus on the basics. Later in Nickels' administration, that back-to-basics approach was neglected and we know what happened in the 2009 election.
But let’s be clear: The Bridging the Gap strategy was an effort to catch up on the street maintenance backlog, which was creating a bow wave that threatened to eventually swamp the city’s budget.
Recently, however, the Seattle Department of Transportation told the SeattlePI.com's Scott Gutierrez that the Bridging the Gap levy was never intended to bridge the gap. Thus, we need the $20 car tab increase the city already passed with an additional $60 to truly bridge the gap. There is a problem, however: Only 29 percent of the revenues in Proposition 1 will actually be used to "bridge the gap," with the rest going to parts of the measures outside of street, bridge, and trail maintenance. So, if this is an emergency and we need the money right away, why is so little actually going to, pardon the repeat, bridge the gap?
If you’re feeling duped, you’re not alone. Much of the money is essentially a blank check for transportation planning for an administration that has shown little interest in getting the basics right. But it will be a boon to consultants. At the end of the day, will we have much to show for the extra money? There is no guarantee.
Witness bike lanes painted on streets that are falling apart. Roosevelt Way is a perfect example. While we have a new bike lane, which I like and use, the street is splitting apart. Worse, the new configuration forces cars to drive on top of the split in the street increasing the decay.
Doug MacDonald recently wrote in Crosscut that the current maintenance schedule for SDOT is over 500 years! This is not a new problem and will only get worse. That's why Proposition 1 is so dissappointing. And while potholes and decaying streets are a pain for drivers, they can be lethal to cyclists. Shouldn’t we focus our energy on correcting this first? Isn’t this fundamental?
There are other reasons to reconsider this package.
Given the state of the economy, the struggles of families to make ends meet, and the well-publicized increases in other fees and taxes, is this the right time to ask for people to pay for planning? There is no doubt that this package will be a boon to consultants. Just look at the parking studies that SDOT is conducting. They may end up spending an additional $150,000 figuring out how the parking rate structure is impacting parking availability. So far, they’ve figured out that where rates have been increased, more spots are available. Where they have decreased, more spots are available. They want to find out why. Maybe less people are coming downtown? How much money from the new car tab fees will go to similar “important” pursuits? It’s hard to say, since the package is so vague.
Let’s remember that other infrastructure projects will demand our attention. The waterfront seawall must be replaced. This is not a choice, and it will cost $300 to $400 million. This will likely be paid through another property tax increase. Even though I support doing this, did we really not know about this 20 years ago?
The City Council could have pushed for a more grounded package, one that really could have caught us up on the maintenance backlog. Unfortunately, the council has crafted a package that essentially creates a funding stream to be largely defined later. This is inappropriate. Send the council back to the drawing board.
This story has been edited since it first appeared.