King County Council sends Human Services levy to August ballot

In a debate between increasing the levy size and combating tax fatigue, councilmembers opted not to give their two cents.

the king county council dais with

King County Council meeting on December 11, 2017. (Matt M. McKnight/ Crosscut)

The King County Council voted to put the $564 million Veterans, Seniors, and Human Services Levy renewal on the August ballot, but rejected pleas to increase the levy to keep up with higher housing construction and operations costs.

First passed in 2005, the property tax pays for a wide variety of nonprofit and government programs and services for veterans and their families, seniors and low-income residents. The money focuses on housing, gun-violence intervention, domestic violence, homelessness and much more. It has paid for everything from a new HVAC system and kitchen at the Shoreline Veterans Center to free legal services for low-income residents in south King County.

But the unanimous final vote on Tuesday belied the debate within the Council and among city leaders around the county: whether voters would support paying a higher levy rate to maintain housing and service levels amid high inflation, or if the extra cost would kill the levy’s chances on the ballot.

King County Executive Dow Constantine proposed renewing the property tax at the same rate it was set at for its previous six-year collection period: $0.10 per $1,000 of assessed home value. Thanks to increased property values and to the new homes being built in the county, the renewed levy is projected to raise $200 million more than the current iteration.

The owner of a median-priced home in King County (currently $819,000) would pay around $83 a year — $17 a year more than the existing levy.

Despite the additional revenue, analysis by county staff found that the levy would pay for only half as many units of new affordable-housing construction and for the ongoing operations of 45% fewer existing units of affordable housing, thanks to the rising costs of construction, labor and just about every part of doing business. To maintain existing levels of construction and operations, the analysis said, the levy would need to raise an additional $58.5 million over its six years.

Before it gets to the ballot, the levy has to go through a wonky approval process in two government bodies. The first stop is King County’s Regional Policy Committee, an intragovernmental entity made up of county councilmembers, Seattle City Council members, and suburban city mayors and councilmembers.

Housing and human services advocates lobbied the committee to raise the levy rate, first asking for $0.15 per $1,000, then paring their request down to $0.12 per $1,000. At 12 cents, the levy would cost a median homeowner about $15 more each year above the 10-cent rate. Advocates say the extra funding would help maintain construction and service levels and enable wage increases and incentives to address the sector’s shortage of workers.

Although there was support from some on the committee to raise the rate, the Regional Policy Committee ultimately voted for the 10-cent levy. Opponents of the higher rate said they worried that voters might reject a larger levy, pointing to the Kent School District bond’s loss in April’s special election and the fact that while the countywide Crisis Care Centers levy passed, voters in most precincts outside of Seattle rejected the measure.

The full county council still had the option to put a 12-cent version of the levy on the August ballot, but doing so would require a supermajority vote to approve because it would not concur with the Regional Policy Committee’s vote.

A group of 15 human service providers and advocates testified at the May 2 council meeting to make a final plea for a larger levy.

“This levy is the largest source of dedicated funding supporting the needs of domestic violence survivors,” said Amarinthia Torres with the Coalition Ending Gender-Based Violence. “We agree it’s critical that this levy pass, and we believe that a couple pennies more to care for our most vulnerable neighbors is worth it.”

The higher ask resonated with Councilmembers Rod Dembowski, Girmay Zahilay, Jeanne Kohl-Welles, Claudia Balducci and Joe McDermott, who all voted for the 12-cent version of the levy.  

“We heard from [Department of Community and Human Services director] Leo Flor that there is no more capacity in the levy to do anything new at 10 cents,” said Dembowski. “If you don’t think there’s anything more to do in the next six years, then 10 cents is OK. … But I think there’s more to do in this community.”

Councilmembers Sarah Perry, Dave Upthegrove, Pete von Reichbauer and Reagan Dunn sided with the policy committee members worried about the larger tax’s chances at the ballot. Upthegrove said he once supported a 12-cent levy, but that his thinking changed during the process.

“Going to ballot with support of regional partners is one thing,” said Upthegrove. “Going to ballot with a property tax increase opposed by suburban cities puts at risk the underlying levy and I’m not willing to do that. … It’s not ideal, but I think the risk of losing this levy isn’t one that I’m willing to take given the opposition from the cities, given the results in the most recent elections.”

With a 5-4 vote, the 12-cent levy failed to get the supermajority it needed to move forward. The council instead unanimously adopted the 10-cent version, which will appear on the August 1 ballot.  

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