Seattle public safety levy? Somewhere on a back burner

Mayor Ed Murray suggested that levy planning might begin this fall, but it hasn't.
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Mayor Ed Murray

Mayor Ed Murray suggested that levy planning might begin this fall, but it hasn't.

Contrary to what Mayor Ed Murray suggested earlier this year, a tax levy to help cover public safety costs will not be among the topics that his office and the Seattle City Council discuss during this fall's budget-making process.

Murray mentioned the possibility of moving forward with such a levy during a news conference back on Aug. 20. "We are going to ask Council during the budget process to help us begin planning for a future public safety levy," he said. "We have fire and police issues that are going to cost, and cost a lot."

On Thursday, Jason Kelly, the mayor's press secretary, said that there were no conversations underway between the Mayor's Office and the City Council about planning for the levy. "There hasn't been any further conversation about when a public safety levy may be constructed," said Kelly. During the news conference, he said, the mayor "was speaking about significant unfunded needs out there, but not with an eye on a specific date when voters might be asked to vote on something."

The City Council is currently reviewing Murray's proposed 2015-2016 city budget.

The levy is not mentioned in a list of "budget actions" that Council staffers are currently examining, or in a paper identifying the police department's top budget issues for the next two years. Councilmember Nick Licata, who chairs the Budget Committee, was not available to comment on the levy on Thursday; neither was Council President Tim Burgess, or public safety Chair Bruce Harrell.

City budget director Ben Noble noted that there is $500,000 allocated in the mayor's proposed budget to do an assessment of public safety facilities "to give us the scope of the need and the potential cost." Noble said that once these costs are determined the city would develop a funding plan, which could include a levy, bonds, or some combination of those two sources.

When the mayor's earlier comments about the levy appeared in news reports, his staff took note.

"The article makes it sound much more likely than it is," Doug Carey, policy director in the city's Department of Financial and Administrative Services, wrote in an Aug. 21 email to Scott Lindsay, the mayor's special assistant on police reform and public safety. Crosscut obtained the email through a public disclosure request on an unrelated matter. Carey was referring to an article that appeared in The Seattle Times that day, which included Murray's quote from the news conference. "There are discussions," Carey wrote, "but if a decision is made to have a public safety levy, it would be at least 2 years out — and no decision has been made one way or the other."

"Mayor staff will be doing outreach to Councilmembers to correct the impression left by the story," Carey continued.

The city has a number of major public safety capital expenses on the horizon, such as building a new station house for the police department's north precinct. Kelly also noted the possibility of replacing the Fire Department's downtown headquarters and upgrading one of the city's animal shelters. Just before Murray brought up the levy in the August news conference, the mayor had been talking with reporters about a major computer system overhaul that the police department is planning. The upgrade is required under the terms of a police reform agreement the city made in 2012 with the U.S. Justice Department. Preliminary cost estimates for the computer system put the price at about $12 million.

"It's too early to get more specific about how those long-term capital needs might be funded," Kelly said on Thursday. He added: "I don't want to leave you with the impression that we're assembling a list that could be part of a future public safety levy, because that's not where the conversation is right now."

Despite a recent upturn in the local economy, the mayor has indicated that Seattle's general fund is stretched thin. The general fund traditionally covers the operating cost of basic city services like police, the fire department, libraries and parks.

Earlier this year, Seattle voters approved a new special taxing district to help pay for parks maintenance and community centers.

Funding measures also appear on the upcoming Nov. 4 ballot. One would institute a 0.1 percent sales tax increase and a bump in car tab fees to help pay for bus service in Seattle. There is also a pair of competing ballot measures that would put new pre-kindergarten programs in place, one that is backed by the mayor and the City Council would impose a property tax equal to about $43 per year for the owner of a $400,000 home, according to the city. The other does not identify new revenue sources to cover the costs it would create.

Expiring at the end of next year is the city's $365 million Bridging the Gap property tax levy, which has served as an important source of funding for Seattle's transportation maintenance expenses since 2007.


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