Transportation / Politics
Can Seattle Property Taxes Fund Both Metro and Universal Pre-K? The Answer is Yes, But...
by Ansel Herz
on Fri, May 9, 2014 at 2:05 PM
In front of the cameras today at a city hall press conference, Mayor Ed Murray doubled down on his attack on "transit czar" Ben Schiendelman, who has filed a ballot initiative to save Seattle Metro by raising local property taxes.
"This is an individual that I’ve been told has never had a positive thing to say about me," Murray groused (again). "If folks only want to attack, I don't see how we can get to a place of collaboration."
The mayor added, “The fact that we’re having a pissing match in the progressive community among transit supporters is really a sad moment in this city's history."
Beyond the mayor's aggressive rhetoric, however—who started that pissing match again?—there's a fundamental policy argument between Murray and Keep Seattle Moving, as Schiendelman's initiative-backing group is called. The argument surrounds this question: Is the property tax the right revenue source to use for saving Metro?
So let's do some maths and figure it out:
Here in Seattle, we currently have 70 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value in available levy capacity. But Seattle's parks and Pike Place Market market levies are expiring this year. When they do, that will add 25 cents more in levy capacity.
For a grand total of: 95 cents! (Per $1,000 of assessed property value.)
If we pass "Plan C" to save Metro, Schiendelman says, it'll take up just 22 cents of that capacity—leaving 73 cents for funding universal pre-K or anything else our hearts might desire! We have plenty of levy capacity to do both transit and pre-K. Which means the mayor's concerns just don't hold water, Schiendelman says.
He even confirmed those numbers with Ben Noble, Murray's budget office director, not long after the defeat of Proposition 1.
And in a phone interview yesterday, Noble also confirmed those numbers with me. "The voters are more willing [to raise property taxes] and generous than folks had ever anticipated," he says. "Next year, you could do the transit thing at 22 cents, and do pre-K...On the face it, there’s capacity for both of those."
The mayor's office won't tell me how much they expect universal pre-K to cost in terms of property tax increases, but Schiendelman is working off an estimate of 20 cents.
So, if pre-K takes up 20 cents of capacity, that would still leave 53 cents of capacity. In sum, Murray's own budget director appears to contradict the mayor's concerns that we can't fund Metro and pre-K from property taxes at the same time.
But, Noble added, "The trickier question is the transportation levy is up for renewal is 2015. Housing comes up for renewal in 2017...You can see how it could get tight."
And Murray said in today's press conference that he expects, in the coming years, an additional Family and Education levy as well as a Public Safety levy.
On top of all that, "If we go into a recession—and at some point in the next few years we will probably be in a recession—we will not only run out of capacity, we'll have to cut the levies we have passed," Murray claims.
For Schiendelman, all of that is a red herring. "We do have room for everything," he insists. Recession and levy renewals aside, given Seattle's ongoing construction boom, assessed value is only going to increase, he believes. (He noted he was on his cell phone and walking past downtown canes as he said this to me.) "Every year we get new capacity to use," Schiendelman says. "But we're nowhere near it right now."
The mayor's office finally, after two and a half weeks, contacted Schiendelman and Keep Seattle Moving today to talk about its own soon-to-unveiled proposal to save Metro—raising the prospect of this "pissing match" soon drawing to a close.
Meanwhile, at his press conference this morning, Murray reaffirmed that the proposal may include cuts to Seattle's Department of Transportation. It's hard to imagine that slashing SDOT to fund Metro, instead of using a progressive tax like the property tax, will enhance the mayor's reputation on transit. Still, Schiendelman says, "If it's decent, we're happy to support it. We need to have a look at it first."