James Vesely / Times editorial page editor
Tax, tax, tax, honked the goose about to be cooked
The astounding increases in taxes proposed by public officials up and down the region have been documented to the fare-thee-well, but not so, the basic question: Why?
Why is this the moment when a string of multimillion- and billion-dollar tax packages come looming for the fall ballots of September and November? Public officials are saying it's a matter of backlog — time to catch up with a lag in government services — a reason always given, as if forgiveness comes with forgetfulness about the previous round of taxes.
A more realistic reason so much taxation is coming at us is that none of the principal officeholders are up for election this fall. None has to campaign for office and support higher taxes at the same time. Both Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels and King County Executive Ron Sims are a couple of years away from facing voters again. There are no serious challengers in the one Seattle City Council seat on the ballot and the smaller, hard-wired King County Council is in an off-election cycle.
For public employees, it's a free year to talk about taxes and the needs of government and, frankly, to get the money while the getting is good.
Yet deep in their hearts, mayors, candidates and average Joes and Janes know something is out of kilter this year. The tax proposals are so big, or so clever, a public saturation point has been reached, say at least a dozen active citizens I heard from last week.
Voters are not happy when they are seen as chumps. In the Seattle effort to achieve the highest level of revenues, City Council decided to install an increase on parking-lot taxes of 10 percent and impose a head tax of $25 per employee annually on companies in the city. By splitting the public vote on street maintenance away from the related parking tax and head tax, the council is asking us to make two deposits. Buy the hot dog at one cash register and the bun at another and maybe the price won't seem so high.
All six liberal Democrats running in the heated 43rd Legislative District in Seattle told The Times' Editorial Board they oppose the mayor's $1.6 billion roads improvement levy on property taxes. That's what happens when you are up for election. The 43rd, taking in northeast Seattle, including Montlake, is the current seat of Rep. Ed Murray, who is seeking election to the state Senate. It's as liberal a district as they come, and generally eager to tax itself for urban accoutrements.
Seattle voters will also stand before a ballot request for two education levies offered by the teachers union to decrease class size at a cost of $40 million in property taxes over six years. Now watch this: Mayor Greg Nickels and former mayors Norm Rice and Charles Royer oppose the tax increase for education. So do each of the six candidates for the 43rd Legislative seat. The reason? The teachers essentially did an end run around the normal Seattle process of waiting your turn to hit up the voters. It's seen as a rogue campaign, complicating the message of this year's election theme — it's about transportation.
Seattle voters alone face the daunting $1.6 billion for roads, $40 million for teachers and roughly $500,000 for more buses for Metro — but across the county, similar levels of taxes are affecting voters.
In Bellevue, the decision was made to shift the cost overruns on City Hall to the parks and open-space funds. In Issaquah, a $6.5 million park-improvement levy will probably go to voters in November, the first park levy in 20 years. But those same voters fall under the county's transportation tax proposal and the renewal of the fingerprint lab tax (yes, there is one) on all county homeowners.
Ahead are the tunnel, the bridges and establishment of a wider taxing district, all coming in 2007.
Ahead also, is an answer to the question that has been building in Seattle for four years: How much will the property owners and voters take before they begin to say "no"?
James F. Vesely's column appears Sunday on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is: firstname.lastname@example.org
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