I certainly agree with the Seattle Times editorial board in lauding the work of Public Health – Seattle & King County director David Fleming, who is stepping down today after seven years on the job. Under Fleming’s leadership, Public Health has been one of the most proactive and effective agencies in the region.
But what I do take issue with is the editors’ envisioned role for Fleming’s successor.
There is much work to be done.
The department faces an estimated $15 million budget hole this fall caused by federal budget constraints. The next director will have to balance fewer resources with the demands of a fast-growing, diverse population.
Fleming’s successor should pick up where he left off by advocating for policies and funding in areas where data show the highest need and investment can have the highest impact:
That’s right: the editors want Fleming’s successor to “pick up where he left off,” but with “fewer resources,” despite the increased costs of serving our “fast-growing” population. It’s no secret that his department’s budget squeeze contributed to Fleming’s decision to step-down—the Seattle Times reported as much. And yet in the same breath in which they acknowledge the important work that Public Health does, the editors simply state as fact that the new director will have to serve a growing population with shrinking resources.
More sound public policy advice from the something-for-nothing crowd.
But it doesn’t have to be like this. Whatever the loss of federal funds, the city and county could backfill this money with local revenue—assuming I-747’s stupid fucking 101 percent limit wasn’t gradually drowning local government in a bathtub. About 45 percent of the county’s general fund revenue comes from the property tax, yet as I have previously explained, thanks to the 101 percent limit on growth in regular levy revenue, the property tax can’t even keep pace with inflation, let alone population-plus-inflation (not to mention economic growth, with is the most accurate measure of growth in demand for public services). To further complicate matters, another 14 percent of county general fund revenue comes from the sales tax, a tax base (the sale of goods) that has been steadily shrinking as a portion of the overall economy for more than 60 years.
What we have here should be familiar to anybody who is willing to honestly discuss Washington’s state and local tax system: a structural revenue deficit.
The editors’ advice—always—is that government must recognize this new fiscal reality and reduce the size and cost of its operations to match its reduced revenues. But it can’t work. For even if you believe that this new fiscal reality is more appropriate than the significantly higher relative revenue levels state and local governments enjoyed just a decade and a half ago, our ability to fund government services will continue to fall. That is the nature of a structural deficit.
If the Seattle Times really cared about maintaining public health, rather than simply urging the new director to magically do more with less (year after year in perpetuity!), the editors would take the lead in urging the repeal of the 101 percent limit, and replacing it with something more rational. The original purpose of the limit back when it was first imposed at 106 percent (or inflation, whichever was higher), was to prevent shocking annual increases in property taxes. But it was not meant to limit property taxes over the long run—that is the role of the statutory cap that limits the total amount of state and local regular levies to $10 per $1,000 of accessed value.
Tim Eyman’s arbitrary 101 percent limit is a perversion of this policy.
If Washington were a high-tax state this push for lower taxes might be understandable. But we’re not. As a percentage of personal income, Washington’s state and local taxes are now some of the lowest in the nation. And dropping. In this context, there is simply no rational argument for maintaining a 101 percent limit on local property tax revenue growth that is gradually starving local governments of the ability to meet their citizens’ most basic needs.
Everybody knows that Washington’s tax structure is immensely unfair. It is the most regressive in the nation. And by far. But it is also unsustainable. And we could really use some editorial leadership to help move us toward a solution before it is too late.