City Hall

As Seattle-Only Bus Measure Moves Forward, Murray Says He'll Announce Competing Proposal Next Week

As supporters of a Seattle-only Metro funding measure collect signatures, Mayor Ed Murray says he'll announce his own temporary funding proposal next week.

By Erica C. Barnett May 8, 2014

Mayor Ed Murray—responding to a proposal to increase Seattle property taxes to fund Metro by a group calling itself Keep Seattle Moving—said today that he plans to announce a proposal next week to address Seattle's short-term transit needs "without overlooking the broader context" of other city ballot measures, including, in the next two years, a renewal of the housing levy, a new parks district, a property tax measure to fund universal pre-kindergarten, a renewal of the Bridging the Gap transportation levy, and a levy to fund public financing for city council candidates.

Keep Seattle Moving's proposal, backed by former mayor Mike McGinn, came as an immediate response the day after a King County Metro funding measure known as Proposition 1—a $60 vehicle license fee and a 0.1 percent sales tax—lost big countywide last month, but won handily in Seattle. 

The regressive taxes Murray is likely to propose—as opposed to the less regerssive property tax idea—are familiar: the vehicle license fee and/or an increase in the local sales tax. In 2011, Seattle voters soundly rejected a $60 vehicle license fee, supported by then-mayor McGinn, that would have paid for improvements to transit, bike, and pedestrian infrastructure. 

The ultimate goal, Murray said his statement, is to get funding authority from the state legislature to come up with a "long-term solution to funding transit region-wide." The legislature has failed, epically, over the course of two sessions and two special sessions, to pass a transportation package that would give Metro local transit funding authority.

Murray has argued that the Keep Seattle Moving proposal, which would fund Seattle-only bus service for King County Metro (a countywide agency that plans to cut service by up to 17 percent starting in September after Prop. 1 failed), is parochial (because it would only fund bus service within Seattle's borders, as opposed to suburban routes that also serve commuters to and from the city) and would take limited funding capacity away from those other urgent issues."While there is no question that the region has failed Seattle on transit funding in recent years, it is equally true that transit is a regional issue that requires a regional solution."—Mayor Ed Murray

And, as the Stranger reported, Murray has convinced two state legislators (Sen. Adam Kline, D-37, and Rep. Eileen Cody, D-34) who initially backed the plan, to rescind their endorsements while he comes up with an alternative that does not rely on a property tax.  

(Another legislator who endorsed the Seattle-only plan, wonky green Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon, told PubliCola that Murray did not contact him to talk him out of it; but Fitzgibbon did echo Murray's regionalist mantra, telling us: "If Ed comes up with a better plan to save buses, I'll support that. At the moment, [Keep Seattle Moving] is the only one out there. My preference," he concluded, "was and remains a regional solution, and I hope one emerges."  

Murray himself said in his statement today: "Seattle has always worked best when it works with the region. While there is no question that the region has failed Seattle on transit funding in recent years, it is equally true that transit is a regional issue that requires a regional solution." 

“We must be careful in our approach here: Seattle as the Lone Ranger on transit risks the Balkanization of Metro and, to some extent, the isolation of our city from the surrounding region. ... We can and should offer a temporary financing plan while we remain committed to a conversation with the Legislature and King County about a long-term, solution to funding transit region-wide."

This, of course, is the fundamental dispute between Murray and Keep Seattle Moving supporters, particulalry his former foe McGinn; during their contest last year, regionalism was a central issue, particularly as it relates to tranportation

On one side, those who support a Seattle-only ballot measure argue that since Seattle overwhelmingly supported Prop. 1 while suburban voters opposed it, Seattle should go it alone (and perhaps send a message to the suburbs). It's also hard to ignore that McGinn, and his staunch suppoerter Ben Schiendelman, who filed the new measure, have seized a political moment and wedge issue, potentially setting one (or both?) to run for office. 

On the other side, regionalism advocates (like Metro general manager Kevin Desmond) argue that Metro is a regional system that needs to serve people coming into and out of Seattle, not just people traveling within the city. We have a call out to Desmond, who told us last month that "there are no walls between cities. We even have bridges over lakes. ... Just thinking from the perspective of one city or another—that's not the way a regional transit system works."

Moving back to the issue of funding, Murray's statement continues: "A property tax is one financing tool, but it’s not the only one available. We must consider how our solution today affects our ability to finance other commitments using the property tax, including housing, libraries, parks, transportation infrastructure, preschool, education and other important city priorities. We should explore all options for how we best and most appropriately fund transit without overlooking the broader context.”

We have a call out to Murray, who was more blunt about his distaste for a Metro property tax on Facebook, writing that "the funding source is wrong" and that "I don't think we should put two goods [universal pre-K and transit] against each other." "I don't think we'll hit the [property-tax] lid particularly soon."—Keep Seattle Moving's Ben Schiendelman

Boneheaded though Murray's efforts to lobby his former legislative colleagues were (take a beta blocker, dude), the property-tax concern is legitimate. Currently, the city has 70 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value in unused taxing capacity. (The legal limit is $3.60 per $1,000.)

The city budget office wants to keep about 42 cents of that in reserve in case of a recession that, like the recent one, reduces property values (and thus property tax revenues), which would leave about 28 cents of unused capacity.

The actual property tax capacity will actually be somewhat higher, however, because both the Pike Place Market levy and the parks levy are expiring (that's assuming the proposed Metropolitan Parks District, a property tax that doesn't count toward the city's levy limit, passes—if it doesn't, there will likely be a levy renewal proposal sometime in the near future.) If both of those levies go away, the city will have 53 cents in unused property-tax levy capacity—more than enough to pay for the Metro proposal (22 cents per $1,000), universal preschool (an estimated 20 cents per $1,000) and public campaign financing (around one cent per $1,000). 

But that doesn't leave much wiggle room for other property tax proposals, such as an increased Bridging the Gap levy (a levy that pays for road repairs and maintenance, a big issue during last year's mayoral campaign) or a larger housing levy (whose proponents may, understandably, want to increase the size of the levy after seeing the successful doubling of the Families and Education Levy in 2011). 

Schiendelman says he isn't worried about Seattle's capacity to pay for all its potential levies. Because of all the construction that's happening in Seattle right now—including three new Amazon towers that are in the pipeline—he says, "I don't think we'll hit the lid particularly soon." 

King County is holding a final series of public meetings to outline the proposed cuts, which will start in September.  In a statement about the meetings,  King County Executive Dow Constantine said, "For the good of our people, our economy, our region and ultimately our state, this unprecedented coalition needs to stick together, stand strong, and keep demanding real solutions from our legislature."

Asked about Murray's statement today, Constantine's spokesman, Frank Abe, said the county executive "won't have anything more to say beyond his previous statement until an actual proposal is heard."

We've also asked what Constantine thinks about the Seattle-only measure. No reply yet. 

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