Whose Levy Is It Anyway?

A June 5 letter to Mayor Greg Nickels--signed by six out of nine city council members--announced the council's intentions to reduce Nickels' proposed fire facilities levy by $92 million, or 40 percent. (Nickels' $229 million levy plan is slated to go to voters this November, and would cost the owner of a $300,000 house about $100 a year in property taxes over nine years.)

Playing fiscal conservatives, the council wrote: "We believe a smaller ballot measure is necessary to reduce the cost per household during these difficult economic times." The council found a slew of savings by scaling back Nickels' overall plan--including nixing funding for a new station near the Alaskan Way Viaduct, eliminating a "wellness center" facility for firefighters, and, most significant, paying for the improvements with a bond (spreading the costs to taxpayers out over 20 years, instead of nine).

While it seems like the council is standing up to the mayor for once, Deputy Mayor Tim Ceis knows better. As Ceis told the Seattle Times, the letter is a "'good sign' that the council was taking the mayor's plan seriously."

Indeed, just like the cowed Democrats in Congress simply calling for a smaller tax cut than President Bush's (instead of calling for no tax cut, and thus calling bullshit on Bush's plan for a $4 trillion deficit), the city council is actually playing right into the executive's hands. In short, the council is now considering sending a major Nickels initiative to voters.

Here's the important question I don't hear the council asking in its letter to Nickels: Who besides the mayor is even interested in a fire facilities levy?

Firefighters? Nope. The union had to be dragged on board, almost scuttling Nickels' plan at the last minute. In fact, the union withheld its endorsement when Nickels sent his proposal to council. (The union is more interested in adding firefighters to stations, not fixing up stations.)

The public? Nope. Other than Green Lake neighbors getting angry last fall when Nickels threatened to cut funding for a fire engine during budget negotiations unless the council upped his staff budget, there's been no groundswell for firehouses.

Speaking of Nickels' fire engine hostage crisis, I'm gonna hazard a guess at what's happening here. Nickels' budget faux pas--in which he was caught bullying the council and jeopardizing public safety in order to increase his own staff budget--is now haunting Nickels' image. In short, threatening to nix a fire engine doesn't fit with Nickels' "I fixed potholes and widened sidewalks" persona.

Bottom line: Nickels is the only one asking for this fire facilities levy because he's looking ahead to his reelection, and he knows he needs to fix this pothole in his image. He's determined not to have a public safety liability come 2005. Nickels' firehouse levy is pure electioneering--and the council is falling for it. They oughta be asking who this levy is really for.

josh@thestranger.com

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