Seattle Times editorial columnist Thanh Tan raises the issue of “good governance” in regards to Proposition 1:
The Seattle Times opposes Prop 1, and published an editorial Wednesday arguing it is not the only option to save parks. The League of Women Voters of Seattle-King County urge a ‘no’ vote because its members take issue with Prop. 1′s proposed governance model, which replaces the current parks levy with a new taxing district overseen by the Seattle City Council.
The Municipal League of King County recently came out with a ‘yes’ recommendation, though it noted that “as a matter of good governance, parks operations should be funded through the City’s General Fund. The Municipal League believes a YES vote is the best practical measure available for addressing parks funding shortfalls, but is concerned that approving this measure will result in a continued practice of reducing allocations for essential city services from the General Fund.”
And I agree 100 percent! As a matter of good governance, parks operations should be funded through municipal general funds. As should libraries. And basic road maintenance. And affordable housing. And universal preschool. And veteran and human services. And the new juvenile detention center. And so forth.
The problem is, thanks to I-747’s arbitrary and absurd 1 percent annual cap on revenue growth from existing construction, our general fund revenues simply can’t grow commensurate with our needs. As a 2012 report from the Seattle Parks Foundation clearly explains:
Initiative 747 reduced the allowable annual increase in the property tax from 6 percent to 1 percent per year, well below the rate of inflation. Another ballot measure, Initiative 776, restricts counties from collecting vehicle license fees. It should be noted that the voters of Seattle voted against both measures by substantial margins, but they passed statewide and therefore apply in Seattle. As a result of Initiative 747 alone, the City of Seattle’s property tax collections in 2010 are at least $60 million less than if the measure had not passed. The impact of the loss is compounded each year the limits remain in place, so annual losses increase by approximately $15 million per year, meaning that the estimated loss for 2011 will be at least $75 million. This estimate assumes the City Council would have limited the tax increase to the rate of inflation in the City’s labor costs (3.5 percent to 4.5 percent annually, which includes the cost of health care). If one assumes the City Council would have increased property tax to the statutory limit of 6 percent per year, the 2011 loss would be $126 million.
That’s not pro-Park District propaganda. That’s math. And that’s the reason why the city has been forced to increasingly rely on levy “lid lifts” to fund basic services like libraries and parks—not as a matter of good governance but as a matter of last resort.
So the “good governance” argument is bullshit, not because it’s wrong, but because we simply no longer have that option. Tim Eyman (and the feckless cowards in Olympia who reinstated I-747 after the courts tossed it out) have deliberately taken that option away.
The fact is, like the state (if to a lesser extent), Seattle has a structural revenue deficit. The cost of maintaining government services at a constant level largely tracks economic growth, yet our tax system does not. Regular property tax levy growth is bizarrely capped at 1 percent. Year after year, sales tax revenue shrinks as a portion of the overall economy as the sale of goods becomes an ever smaller piece of the economic pie. Yet there are statutory limits on the extent to which we can use special levies to make up the shortfall. A municipal park district would get around that, by allowing the council to pass through to the parks department otherwise untapped taxing authority.
So again, arguing that good governance would dictate that parks be funded through the general fund is like arguing that good environmental stewardship would dictate that we save the carrier pigeon from extinction. Absolutely true. But too damn late.
We need a Metropolitan Park District because that is the taxing authority we have. Vote “Yes” on Prop 1.