Public safety accounts for more than half of the general fund in Mayor Ed Murray’s recently released 2016 budget proposal. But as the city moves forward on plans to build a new, $160 million North Precinct for the Seattle Police Department, voters are likely to see a tax levy in the next year or two to grow that pot larger.
The police department has needed a new north precinct for a decade, says the City Council Budget Committee Chair Nick Licata. The current station was built in 1984 to accommodate a staff of 154, but now houses 254. Despite the city's recognition of the need, the project stalled when the economy tanked in 2008 and the city had to cut expenditures sharply.
The ball started rolling again in 2012 when the Seattle City Council set an official 2016 move-in date, a goal the Department of Finance and Administration has since labeled as unachievable. In December 2013, the Council approved the purchase of property off Aurora Avenue. The City selected a general contractor, Turner Construction, just last July and the project team has been showing the Seattle Design Commission its plans.
In this year’s budget, the mayor added $4 million to, according to Finance and Administration Services Director Frank Podesta in an e-mail to FAS staff, “allow for the completion of the building’s design and obtaining permits next year.”
Current plans estimate construction will begin in 2017 and the precinct can be finished by 2019.
At $160 million, the new North Precinct is equivalent to more than a quarter of the already significant $600 million public safety budget. Proposals for the station, as a part of the 2016-2021 Capital Improvement Program, show that about $20 million of the $160 million total would be paid for with bonds and some real estate excise tax money. But a funding source for the vast majority of the project is labeled as “to be determined.” Commentary submitted with the proposal says the still-undetermined portion "is expected to be supported by a 2016 Public Safety ballot measure.”
It’s not breaking news that the mayor has been considering a public safety levy. In October 2014, he hinted that voters might see one in November of 2015, although his staff backed off that suggestion somewhat. With Murray on the hunt to make the police and fire departments more technologically savvy and bring the SPD into compliance with U.S. Department of Justice-mandated reforms, a levy would allow his office more flexibility on those initiatives while building the new precinct — without taking money from other parts of the city.
If construction on the precinct were to begin as planned in 2017 and not lighten the pockets of other parts of the city, the levy would need to run in 2016, as the the mayor's Capital Improvement Program proposal implies. But Murray’s Communication Director Viet Shelton said in an e-mail, “As far as I know, a possible levy is just that. Possible. ... Right now, there is no decision by the Mayor (and I can’t speak for council) on when a possible public safety levy may occur.”
In a budget meeting last Thursday, Budget Director Ben Noble acknowledged that the size and scope of not just the North Precinct replacement, but also a potential relocation of the Fire Department’s Pioneer Square headquarters, “could well require approaching the voters with a funding proposal.” When Councilmember Licata asked if that could be in November 2016, Noble echoed Shelton’s comments: “It’s a possibility.”
“My concern is the council needs to be aware of how these various levies line up,” said Licata in an interview.
The thing about Murray is that he has ambitious plans for the city, and not just when it comes to public safety. He’s already passed two property tax levies, one to fund pre-school and the other for more Metro bus service. Voters will decide on the Move Seattle levy for transportation improvements this November, which at $930 million nearly triples the next largest levy in Seattle history. And his game plan for more affordable housing is hugely dependent on voters passing a new housing levy in November 2016. All of this is on top of city levies that already exist, including for schools, parks, libraries, Pike Place Market and the over-budget seawall. According to Noble, the public safety levy would have to be north of $100 million – in other words, not chump change.
Licata has supported each of these levies. But he, perhaps more than his fellow elected officials, has clearly been haunted by the specter of “levy fatigue.” Earlier this summer he tried to shift some of the Move Seattle funding away from property taxes and over to an employer tax because he thought it would increase its chances of passing. That didn’t happen, so now he’s weighing future levies.
“It seems to me that if we go blindly into assuming that we’re going to have a public safety levy, we have to consider how that will impact how people vote on the housing levy,” he said. Even that scenario, he said is “based on the assumption that the transportation levy will pass.” If it somehow doesn’t, that would make for three major levies — public safety, housing and a presumably revised transportation measure – Murray wants to pass and only so much time to do it.
The other factor at play has to do with Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump. In what will surely be a contentious presidential race, Seattle’s most liberal, pro-tax voters are more likely to come out of the woodwork and probably more likely to approve large levies. Bumping a public safety levy to 2017 would risk losing those votes.
All of that means a lot is at stake for Murray on public safety, particularly, but also housing and his other hopes for the city. And just how many levy proposals may face Seattle voters in 2016 will become clear only after Murray and council members see how the Move Seattle proposal does in this November's election.