Seattle City Council Faces Big Fiscal Challenges

By Johnathon Fitzpatrick October 14, 2011 Published in the November 2011 issue of Seattle Met

Photo: Complot/Shutterstock

AFTER NOVEMBER 8 WE’LL HAVE A NEWLY MINTED SEATTLE CITY COUNCIL. But the veteran council members and newbies—if there are any—will face an economic crisis like no one could have imagined just a few years ago. In the middle of the last decade leaders made long-term goals such as the Ten-Year Plan to End Homelessness and a bike and pedestrian plan, now woefully underfunded. The city is facing an $18 million deficit in 2012. And economists predict a $33 million deficit in 2013, and in 2014, $39 million.

How does the council plan to make it up? Levies, baby. Lots and lots of levies. A law passed a decade ago in Olympia, limiting property-tax revenue increases to 1 percent per year, forever shifted how local governments raise money for capital projects and operate basic services. Voters’ faith in levies has been strengthened by a history of successful measures like the recent one for Fire Facilities, which upgraded or replaced 32 fire stations. And levy renewals—also requiring voter approval—have passed with little fuss, averaging 12-point margins of victory over the past 10 years.

Can Seattleites continue to trust their property-tax dollars are being spent right? “It’s a high hurdle to overcome,” says council member Nick Licata, who’s not up for election. We have to show people where the money is being spent very carefully.” Still, leaders are quick to acknowledge that, even with the budgetary Band-Aid of levies, many plans are far from completion. “We have so much further to go,” admits council member Mike O’Brien. “With a little bit more funding we can make even more great improvements.”

He better hope so. He’s up for election in two years.

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