Will levy fatigue doom another run at Seattle car-tab fees?

As the city comes to terms with this year's failed car tab fee, officials are already looking for a new ballot measure. But the calendar is looking full.

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Could another car tab fee levy emerge?

As the city comes to terms with this year's failed car tab fee, officials are already looking for a new ballot measure. But the calendar is looking full.

Whenever a ballot measure fails in Seattle — admittedly a rare occurrence — city leaders huddle together to figure out why it failed and what kind of package could do better next time. This time around, the mayor and the council appear to differ widely in their analysis of the failure. The mayor believes the measure would have done better if it was larger and more focused on transit. Meanwhile, one city council staffer told me the whole thing seemed destined for failure from the start. His reasoning: at the same time council staff and SDOT were briefing council on the crisis of street maintenance and our inability to keep up, the mayor and the council were putting forward an initiative that only had 29% of its funding for streets. That deficiency, coupled with millions devoted to planning, seemed out of step.

Even opponents of the measure want to develop a better plan, but there doesn’t appear to be room on the calendar or in the taxpayer wallet to come up with something better. That, coupled with the mayor’s almost other-worldly analysis of what taxpayers will approve, probably dooms another car tabs boost in the near future.

The levy calendar is already chock full of increases and “renewals” in the next few years. In 2013, the Fire Facility Levy expires. And while this levy was passed with the specific goal of rebuilding and retrofitting fire stations and a new training facility, city leaders are already looking at other uses for a renewal. One project could be the renovation of the Seattle Police Department’s North Precinct building, which is far too small and essentially sinking into a bog. Will we see the Fire Facilities levy rebranded as a public safety levy, with money for facilities and programs that have been cut back in recent years? Bet on it.

In 2014, the Parks Levy will again be up for renewal. It will be interesting to see what is placed on the wish list. In general, the city tends to only fund capital projects with levies, but because we have built so many facilities over the past 20 years, look for maintenance and staffing to begin merging in. Also in 2014, the Pike Place Market Levy will be up. Will that capacity be used for the Seattle Center?

The Bridging the Gap Levy, which expires in 2015, will almost certainly be renewed, going on the 2014 ballot. This is where the city will have to explain how the prior millions were spent and why we need to continue this funding source.

And these are only the existing levies. There is still the much larger ticket item of replacing the city’s seawall, though it appears the city will wait until the tunnel is built before putting a package together for that. This will also happen in the 2014 – 2015 time-frame.

Against this backdrop, it is hard to see another car tabs package returning to the ballot. If it did, there would have to be some explaining about how it interacts with the other transportation efforts and levies around Seattle and the Northwest. For now at least, it looks like car tabs are dead. And not because it wasn’t enough money or not enough focus on transit. It died because of a lack or trust in local officials and because people are a bit overwhelmed.

It isn't very often that the city doesn't try to "renew" a levy. The Fire Levy would seem to be the ideal case for letting a levy expire and showing the taxpayers that one-time expenditures for infrastructure really do end. The most recent effort to let a levy expire was the Parks Levy, which then-Mayor Greg Nickels tried to keep off the ballot in 2008. The City Council and park advocates got it on the ballot anyway. The back story is that the mayor wanted to wait a year and come back with a much bigger levy package. There was never any plan to not renew. There never is.

So what's next for car tabs? The one benefit of this funding source is it avoids any more piling on of property taxes — though where the limit lies for the voter on property taxes is not easily known. People in Seattle want safe streets, sidewalks, and reliable transit and are willing to pay. Unfortunately, the mayor and council stumbled badly out of the chute with the new funding tool provided by the legislature. The voters did not trust that they were actually buying what was proclaimed on the yard signs: Faster Transit, Safer Streets. And now, quite possibly, the train has left the station. 


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About the Authors & Contributors

Jordan Royer

Jordan Royer

Jordan Royer is the vice president for external affairs in the Seattle office of the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association.