City Hall

Murray: Support My "Methodical" Approach to Transit Funding, not Property Tax

Mayor Ed Murray lays out his argument for a "methodical" approach to funding transit, as opposed to an upstart property-tax ballot proposal.

By Erica C. Barnett May 9, 2014


Mayor Ed Murray's staff met with Ben Schiendelman of Keep Seattle Moving, the group that has proposed a property tax to fund Seattle-only Metro bus service, this week. Could Schiendelman end up supporting Murray's effort? Seems possible. 

But at a press briefing today, Murray said his more "methodical" approach to funding Metro—getting the city council, King County Executive Dow Constantine, and transit advocacy groups like Transportation Choices Coalition and Futurewise on board before unveiling his proposal—was more likely to succeed than Keep Seattle Moving's more combative, go-it-alone approach.

"We're not going to just drop [a proposal] on the council's head, which has been recent tradition; we're going to get something where they have a good sense of what it is and they can support it." 

This morning, a somewhat defiant (and at times defensive) Murray explained to reporters why he isn't supporting a proposed property-tax ballot measure to pay for Seattle-only transit, and why he'll instead be proposing a different "stopgap" local transit funding mechanism to pay for Seattle's Metro service—and potentially some transit lines that serve both Seattle and its suburbs—next week. (Tuesday, we hear.) 

Murray has been adamant that Seattle cannot, in the long run, go it alone on transit funding, saying that to fund Seattle service only, and thereby rejecting Metro's mission of serving the entire King County region, would result in a "Balkanization of Metro and, to some extent, the isolation of our city from the surrounding region." 

Today, Murray elaborated, saying that while he ultimately wants a regional solution—possibly one in which local cities that want to preserve transit service match Seattle funds to pay for bus lines that cross their borders—"we don't live in a little Hobbit village; tens of thousands of people leave Seattle every day to go to work" elsewhere in the county, and vice versa—"we also have to find a mechanism with Metro where we have some say in how that service is decided and driven.

"In other words, I'm not willing to raise money in the city and have Metro by itself and the county council by itself decide where the money should go."We don't live in a little Hobbit village; tens of thousands of people leave Seattle every day to go to work."

Noting that turnout in last month's election, when voters rejected a new 0.1-cent sales tax and $60 vehicle license fee to preserve Metro service, was incredibly low (under 38 percent) in King County, and lower in outlying suburbs than in Seattle itself, Murray said, "I don't think we actually know what the voters of King County think. I don't think this is about the revenue source. I don't think it's about Metro. I think it was about the decision to go to the April ballot, which I don't think was the best choice." 

Metro chose the April ballot because its temporary revenue source, a temporary $20 vehicle license fee, runs out this month and the agency will have to start making cuts in September. 

Murray doesn't have a whole lot of options to address the funding shortfall, estimated at around $50 million in Seattle alone, without going to the ballot, although he did say the city is "looking at how you could find savings at [the Seattle Department of Transportation] to build a bridge to keep needed bus service moving forward."

But, he said, he's unwilling to consider a property tax to pay for Metro service—the funding mechanism in a competing potential ballot initiative sponsored by a new group called Keep Seattle Moving—in part because he wants to preserve the city's limited property taxing capacity.

Thanks to Tim Eyman's I-695, property taxes can only grow 1 percent a year and are currently capped at $3.60 per $1,000 of assessed home value. That capacity, Murray said, is needed for other upcoming needs, including universal pre-kindergarten, a renewal of the housing levy, a renewal of the Bridging the Gap transportation levy, a potential public-safety levy, and a possible renewal of the parks levy if a separate proposal to create a Metropolitan Parks District, which would be funded by a property tax not subject to the cap, fails."The fact that we are having a pissing match in the progressive community in Seattle among transit supporters is really a bad moment in the city’s history."

And then there's the prospect of another recession, for which the city budget office has set some taxing capacity aside in case property values fall the way they did starting in 2008.

Of all those priorities, Murray said, universal pre-K is number one. "I can’t think of anything I will do as mayor that is morally more important than seeing that pass," Murray said. "That is why I don’t want to pile another thing on the property tax.

"There just isn’t enough capacity" to add transit funding to the property-tax mix, Murray said. "I am willing to draw the line and I am willing to be called the anti-transit mayor if it’s to protect the property tax." 

If the city doesn't propose funding transit with a property tax, that leaves a vehicle license fee, a sales-tax increase, an employee hours tax or "head tax," impact fees on developers, and a handful of other potential funding mechanisms.

In a statement a couple of weeks ago, Constantine had this to say about the property-tax proposal: "We welcome and encourage efforts that would protect bus service and avoid major disruption to our riders. ...While King County Metro works as a regional system that moves people across jurisdictions throughout the county, reflecting the truly regional nature of our economy, the notion of cities buying bus service is not a new idea."

We have calls out to Constantine, TCC director Rob Johnson, and Futurewise lobbyist April Putney.

(Schiendelman, a vocal supporter of former mayor Mike McGinn, who has endorsed his ballot measure, has made no secret of his disdain for Murray.)

"The fact that we are having a pissing match in the progressive community in Seattle among transit supporters is really a bad moment in the city’s history, and it shows a terrible example to the rest of the county about how we can get things done," Murray said. "People have a constitutional right to pursue the initiatve process, but I need to do what I think is best to preserve Metro service."

Speaking specifically about Schiendelman, Murray added, "I don’t know the individual in question—I’ve only met hism once, five years ago—but this is an individual that I’ve been told has never had a positive thing to say about me from the time that I was chair of the house transportation comm through last year’s election. I’ve always been willing to work with people who are willing to work with me ... but I don’t want to work with people who only want to attack me." 

Metro's September cuts include an estimated $6 million cut to Seattle service in September; those cuts will go into effect no matter what measure (or measures) goes on the November ballot. 


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