Just three weeks after rolling out a proposal to increase Seattle residents’ property taxes about $135 a year to raise $275 million for homelessness over the next five years, Mayor Ed Murray, joined by King County Executive Dow Constantine and other county officials, announced today that he was scrapping that proposal in favor of a countywide 0.1-percent sales tax, which will go on the ballot in 2018. The measure would raise $68.6 million in the first year, according to the city, rising to $91.1 million in year 10. (Murray’s original proposal would have raised about $45 million a year, but the new, higher figure will have to be spread across the county and its 39 cities).
Standing in a room filled with many of the same city and nonprofit agency staffers who flanked him at the last announcement, Murray called the new-look homelessness plan a “regional approach” that unites the county and city in fighting what Murray called a “regional problem” that impacts cities across the county, from Seattle to Bellevue to Enumclaw.
It was a remarkable, and remarkably abrupt, turnaround for a mayor who had touted his earlier proposal as a data-driven, results-oriented approach to homelessness, mental health care and addiction. Based on last year’s Pathways Home report from Ohio consultant Barb Poppe, the proposal would have invested heavily in short-, medium-, and long-term “rapid rehousing” vouchers, and would have gotten the city into “new lines of business,” in Murray’s term, such as mental health care and opioid addiction treatment. Signature gathers have been out in force over the past two weeks, collecting tens of thousands of names to qualify the measure for the August 2017 ballot—a path Murray chose for his measure, at least in part, because it would allow him to circumvent the red pens of the city council. All reports are that the measure, known as Initiative 126, was polling well, but not great, and with the mayor facing election in November, the prospect of fighting a pitched battle over property taxes with homeowners disinclined to like him anyway couldn’t have been appealing. (A handout provided by the mayor’s office included several data points about Seattle’s relatively low property taxes that would be non sequiturs if they didn’t come from a mayor who tends to get defensive when criticized about property taxes.)
On the other hand, the political calculus also includes King County Executive Dow Constantine, who is trying to pass his own taxes this year—one old, a levy that funds programs for health care and human services for veterans and other county residents, and one new, a sales tax for arts, science, and cultural education. Speculation at city hall today was that Constantine didn’t want all three measures to be on the ballot in the same year—arts and culture and homelessness in August, and veterans and human services in November.
Neither Constantine nor Murray would directly answer questions about what changed between three weeks ago and today, instead falling back on boilerplate about realizing the need for a regional approach to homelessness. “The conversation got started with the city about how we can team up and do a better job to do a comprehensive approach, and really put together a plan that involves all of the stakeholders in the community,” Constantine said. “If you don’t plan, if you don’t take into account where you can get the most value, you end up measuring success by the amount of money you’re putting in and that is not the right way to do it.”
While Constantine was throwing gentle shade at the mayor’s abandoned proposal, two of the men who helped craft that measure were openly disappointed that the plan on which they both collaborated was headed for the shredder. Nick Hanauer, the lefty billionaire whose entrepreneurial expertise was supposedly key to the original proposal, said he felt “a little sad to not be moving forward with our city initiative,” and Downtown Emergency Service Center director Daniel Malone said that “giving that up isn’t something that any of us were ready to do lightly. But,” he added, we’ve settled on something that is even better, bigger, and bolder … and still has the same key emphasis, which is to house people.”
Murray (and Hanauer) also carefully sidestepped questions about whether opposition from property owners helped sink the proposal, and whether a sales tax, which is more regressive (that is, it falls harder on the poor) than a tax on property, was the right way to fund services for homeless people (who don’t pay property taxes but do pay sales tax. Hanauer seemed to deny that the sales tax is particularly burdensome, with an ill-conceived comment that “I pay way more” in sales taxes than a homeless person, “because I buy way more stuff!” Murray launched into a verbal assault on the state’s tax system, which doesn’t allow an income tax. Gesturing at the officials around him, many of whom were state legislators once themselves, Murray said, “Washington State doesn’t have progressive taxes. There’s just no way around it. … Because of our state tax structure, we don’t have the tools here to try and change that.” A fact sheet passed out by Murray staffers at the end of the conference said the average household would pay $30 more in sales taxes per year, and a person making around $11,000 a year (the median low-income person’s annual pay, according to the mayor’s office) would pay an extra $9.
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