Who are we? The garbage police?

The city's latest waste initiative will ping homeowners who throw away too much food. It's time for Seattle to take a hard look at its priorities.
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The city's latest waste initiative will ping homeowners who throw away too much food. It's time for Seattle to take a hard look at its priorities.

When I was at Seattle Weekly in the early '00s, I wrote a column raising alarm about the extent to which the city would turn into garbage "Nazis" when it came to policing recycling. I was reassured that the city wouldn't bother digging into the garbage of individuals — they were after bigger fish, namely commercial and industrial clients.
Fast forward and the city is now going after the little guys too. Like the Big Brother of garbage inspectors, the Seattle City Council voted this week to begin issuing petty fines for people who put too much food waste in their trash. ($1 any time your trash is more than 10 percent food; repeat offenders could be charged $50.) Finally, a job for Richard Conlin!
While some might complain, another way to look at it is that for a few extra bucks, the city will allow you to skip the inconvenience of meticulously separating your waste into various bins and bags in the kitchen. I mean, how many recycling containers can you fit into an apodment kitchen anyway? Presuming your micro-abode even has one, of course.
Some commentators, like Danny Westneat, have worried less about the fines than the symbolism, meaning that if Seattle is focusing on this, they must have all the more serious matters under control. Of course, you just have to look at the condition of your street to know that's not true.
He makes a good point because this comes on the heels of news that, despite the glorious economic boon and crane boom, the city coffers are suffering. Surprising since the city makes a lot of its general fund money from taxes and feeds related to growth. It looks like growth isn't paying its way. And worse, it's making it more expensive for everyone else since it requires huge new investments in transit, social services, low income housing, parks and other stuff to help mitigate its effects.
We're also learning why many of us, despite living in a city of great prosperity, aren't experiencing any corresponding up-tick in the job market or our bank accounts. Jobs are being created, mostly by Amazon, but there's not a huge benefit for anyone else, except if you're in the hospitality business. Companies are hiring, but they're hiring specialists from elsewhere who are in demand everywhere. But other job growth is slow, Boeing's is flatlining, Microsoft is laying people off.
Mayor Murray recognizes that part of the city's revenue problem is structural, which is to say that we need a fairer more modern tax system to fund the city — one even he couldn't deliver in Olympia. King County exec Dow Constantine agrees there's a structural issue, and the county is in even worse shape with its shrinking franchise, rising costs and chronic budget cutting. Constantine and his right hand, Fred Jarrett, have done well, but it's a never-ending process of squeezing a lemon for juice with which to make lemonade. Pretty soon, all you have left is dry pulp. And approaching the public with less-than-perfect Plan B's — as they did with Metro funding — can blow up in your face.
Another problem is setting the level of ambition. This is something Murray has to be careful of, in my opinion. That is, there are not only many needs, but we are potentially creating new ones and using work-arounds to fund them — the new Parks District is an example. Funding universal pre-K is another in the offing.
If Seattle wants to be America's great progressive hope, it has to increase its revenues, but also keep its civic focus tight and its appetites within reality. Our eyes are perpetually bigger than our stomachs, but you don't want to trap the tax-friendly citizens into too many imperfect solutions that have the potential, at some point, to trigger backlash. Murray could learn a little from Mike McGinn in keeping some expenses down, which the former mayor had to do during a term that began on a recessionary note after the Greg Nickels years.
There are legitimate demands for increased spending, but you have to work both sides of the ledger — increase revenue and cut expenses where you can. You have to continue the war of attrition against the structural issues, which won’t be solved overnight.
One necessity is to continue to press Olympia for more local control over tax revenues — including local income taxes. Another is to look at some bigger structural efficiencies that go beyond performance-based accounting. Does it make sense to (again) think about merging Seattle and King County governments, for example?  It could result in greater control of transit, potential savings in law enforcement and might facilitate regional planning, along with other structural improvements.
In any case, the road ahead should be something more than endless helpings of progressive new spending with wildly imperfect or out-of-whack funding mechanisms. There also needs to be some tough setting of priorities. And a side benefit: If we control our gluttony, we might cut down on food waste too. Unless we need the money.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.