Ever since mayor Mike McGinn proposed asking voters to pay for a new downtown seawall last week, people have been wondering: Is he asking for too much?
The thinking goes that voters—supposedly overtaxed in a bad economy—would reject the proposal to pay for the $241 million waterfront project by hiking their property taxes. For instance, the Seattle Times writes in an editorial this week that McGinn “must consider the inevitable feeling in Seattle of too many money requests year after year — sometimes known as ballot overload.” From inside City Hall, the Seattle City Council chastised the mayor’s plan, arguing, among other reasons, that a property-tax hike now could jeopardize voters' willingness to renovate Seattle Center, invest in public safety, or pay for other expensive city projects. “We would like to work with you to make thoughtful and strategic decisions about what priorities we will ask voters to approve at the ballot box over the next four years,” the council wrote in a stern letter.
But despite how voters—or writers at the Times—may feel about the frequency of recent tax ballot measures, the actual dollars don't reflect a spiking tax burden if Seattle were to pass a seawall bond measure.
Here are the levies and local tax measures we’re paying for currently*:
And here are the levies and local tax measures we’d be paying if we approved the seawall and renewed the school levies*:
We made these spreadsheets to examine all the levies we’re were paying now—using the best information we could find (see below*)—and compared it to the amount we’d be paying if we renewed both the school levies on the ballot next month and paid for a new seawall in spring. Our findings indicate that voter-approved taxes would increase about 2.6 percent from the amount we're paying now. Taxes would go up an incremental $45 dollars per year for the average household.
This is hardly McGinn rolling into office with a huge tax hike—and the levy isn't likely to break. The Times is deploying a rhetorical boogieman—the specter of tax upon tax, piling up indefinitely, old taxes never expiring and new ones always added to the stack. That's not true. Although taxes have risen over the last few years—we raised sales taxes for Sound Transit and property taxes for the Pike Place Market—most are renewals. The parks levy was a renewal of $50 million less than the previous parks levy. The housing levy we just passed replaces the old one, with a cost increase, true, but to provide the same amount of housing as the 2002 levy, and both the school levies are also renewals (one costs a little more and the other a little less).
But the issue isn't how many levies it feels like we're passing: It's about how much more we'd be paying than we are now, which isn't much. Despite rehashed arguments the from the Times—for instance, when the paper opposed light rail on the grounds that we couldn't afford the additional taxes—voters were willing to pay for things the region needs.
Christian Sinderman, a leading local political consultant who has worked on many of the levy campaigns, says the electorate here is willing to approve a levy for a worthy cause, like the low-income housing levy last fall (which won with 65.8 percent), but reject a frivolous tax hike, like the “latte tax” in 2003 (which lost with only 31.17 percent of the vote).
“I don’t think the seawall is enough to make people throw up their hands,” Sinderman says. “I don’t think any legitimate proposal would be rejected by voters in the near future.”
Another political consultant familiar with the habits of city voters, Sandeep Kaushik, echoes the point. “Obviously, there’s anxiety about the economy, and the unemployment rate is high, and the number of these measures gives some pause,” he says. “But if there’s a compelling case for funding these priorities in the city of Seattle, voters have a strong tendency to say yes.”
Realistically, the seawall will probably pass if put to a vote—considering that the "replace it or die in an earthquake" argument is pretty compelling—but McGinn's bigger challenge could come in fulfilling his pledge to put light rail on the ballot in the next two years. But even then, voters probably won't reject a light rail line simply because it's another tax hike—we love light rail—it's only when the proposal seems like a wasted expense. "Big infrastructure projects like the monorail, the advisory on the viaduct, or McGinn's proposal for light rail could touch off a debate about the cost overruns, routes, and financing," Sinderman says. "The challenge would be, similar to the monorail, the financial details, the cost projections, and time line for construction."
“I think for years the Times has presented the argument postulating that Seattle voters will throw up their hands and say, ‘Enough is enough,’" says Sinderman, "but they haven’t been right yet.”
Additional reporting by Sarah Anne Lloyd
* We believe this chart includes all the local voter-approved tax increases currently in effect (but it's possible we missed a couple). The median home value we used for this chart is $413,238, as used for the for the Parks & Green Spaces Levy. Note that Sound Transit 1 & 2 are based, not on property taxes, but sales and vehicle taxes. Sound Transit estimates the cost per average adult is $69 per year.