This post has been updated with comments from city council public safety committee members Sally Bagshaw and Tim Burgess, and clarified to reflect the size of the potential sales tax increase.
If the King County Council fails to come to majority agreement on one of two proposed sales-tax ballot measures by July 26—or if they do, but it fails to pass—the power to put a sales tax for criminal justice will revert to cities, including Seattle, a staff analyst told the county council's budget committee yesterday.
Under both the county's tax proposals, the proceeds from a 0.2 percent increase in the sales tax would be split 60 percent-40 percent between King County and its cities; in Seattle, that works out to about $12 million a year. (More on that topic here). However, if Seattle voters passed a Seattle-specific sales tax increase, the split would be much more favorable to the city: 85 percent to Seattle, 15 percent to the county. The county council is also contemplating a 0.1 percent sales tax increase that would pay for a new juvenile justice facility. If that measure fails to make it past the county council, which seems potentially likely, the city could seek that money, too.
The possibility of a city ballot measure seems to be flying mostly under the radar at City Hall. Still, it's hard to imagine that the possibility of an extra $25 million or so wouldn't be appealing in a time of $50 million-plus budget shortfalls. Council public-safety committee chair Tim Burgess says that if the county fails to pass the tax increase, "that's a very viable option" for increasing city revenues. Sally Bagshaw, vice-chair of the committee, says she's "avidly watching what's going on at the county."
Yesterday's county council meeting included some heated words over the two potential sales-tax levies, which the county council is considering along with a separate 0.1-percent increase to pay for a new juvenile justice center, as well as a lengthy plea from King County prosecutor Dan Satterberg that the council move forward and put something on the ballot. The last time the council tried to pass a sales-tax ballot measure, they stalemated along partisan lines.
The first measure, proposed by Republicans Kathy Lambert and Reagan Dunn, would raise the sales tax 0.2 percent and offset some of that increase by reducing property taxes that pay for things like roads, the King County Flood District, and parks.
The second proposal, sponsored by three of the council's five Democrats, would simply raise the sales tax by 0.2 percent, with the stipulation that the county spend $9.5 million a year from the unincorporated areas property tax levy (which currently pays for roads) on criminal justice in the unincorporated areas.
Calling his proposal "pretty moderate," Dunn said it was a response to taxpayers who feel "overburdened right now. ... If we can fund criminal justice, save the flood district, and keep it relatively revenue neutral for the average taxpayer, then I'm all in."
Dunn's remarks prompted a scathing lecture from council member Julia Patterson, a Democrat.
"Unfortunately, council member Dunn, the proposal does none of those things," Patterson said. "It does not save the King County Flood District—in fact, it cuts the King County Flood District by 45 percent, is what it does."
Dunn's proposal would also reduce the unincorporated areas levy by 12 percent in 2011, increase the percentage of county roads (currently 50 percent) the county can't afford to maintain; eliminate the parks expansion levy approved by voters in 2007; and reduce the voter-approved automated fingerprint levy, which helps the sheriff's department investigate violent crimes, by half.
Patterson also pointed out that Dunn's tax proposal would benefit homeowners at the expense of the county's poorest residents—renters. (The measure would save an average homeowner in unincorporated King County $116 a year, would be revenue-neutral for homeowners in cities, and would cost renters an extra $56 a year.)
"It rolls back taxes for King County residents who own property—in other words, it rolls back taxes for the people in King County that are doing better," Patterson said. "It actually increases taxes on the poorest of the poor in King County. It's a reverse Robin Hood proposal, is what it is."
The county faces a $60 million deficit in 2011 and an $80 million deficit in 2012. Without a tax increase, King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg told the council yesterday, the sheriff's department will have to cut police service to unincorporated King County by 30 percent, and the prosecutor's office will have to cut 36 deputy prosecutors.
"All they [will be able to] do is try to keep up with violent crime," Satterberg said. "Anything else that affects our quality of life, anything else that affects our economy, will go by the wayside. I don't mean to sound hysterical or overly dramatic. I don't need to."
Either proposal needs five votes to pass. Council member Larry Phillips, a member of the five-Democrat majority, has expressed concerns about raising the sales tax during an economic recession.