A Citizen’s Lament: Seattle Could Become a City That Failed


I was born in Seattle, so the following hurts to say.  But it’s true.  Seattle is now the city that has failed. Here’s why I have reluctantly come to this conclusion, plus a suggestion or two on remedies.

The main complaint I have is that the city’s elected leaders are failing to provide basic services we should expect.  Libraries, public safety, transportation, and schools —  are all failing to get the long-term basics right.

One example is Seattle’s libraries.  The public libraries cannot get organized to offer curbside pickups, even though many other libraries have been doing so for weeks. Restaurants can do curbside service, so why not the library?  Perhaps the difference is the 2019 voter-approved seven-year $219.1 million library levy that ensures that their funding will not be interrupted and no jobs lost even if the libraries do not serve their customers. The Library Board needs to insist that we receive the services we are paying for.

Next, consider the police and the City Attorney.  There are many issues here, but one is our failure to respond to property crimes, where Seattle now leads the list of major cities with high property crime.  When my son’s car was stolen the police could hardly have cared less.  When burglars entered my neighbor’s bedroom at night, no arrests were made. The City Attorney’s website posts news releases covering many topics, but hardly a one about basic public safety. 

Transportation?  The West Seattle Bridge and Magnolia Bridge are poster children for deferred maintenance. It certainly seems basic that we be able to get to jobs, to schools, to health care, and yet without bridges Seattle just does not work.  The city’s website says that the $930 million Levy to Move Seattle that voters approved in 2015 aimed “to take care of the basics,” but now we now know that it fell far short. 

Public schools?  We encouraged our children to enroll their kids in Seattle public schools, only to be profoundly disappointed. Bullying went unreported; teacher turnover brought three different teachers to the kindergarten classroom in one year.  The District’s response to the pandemic was pathetic.  On-line learning was slow to come as the District chose to deny services to the many out of fear that a few would be left behind.

When online services did commence and computers were donated, the content failed to inspire, especially compared to other districts. When our granddaughter did complete work on the online app selected by her teachers, the only feedback she would get would be a “heart” indicating that a teacher had seen it, rather than any meaningful feedback. Now our grandkids appear headed to parochial school.

Money for basic services? Here, Seattle is failing even though its revenues have skyrocketed. As the Times’ Jon Talton reported recently, “economic expansion allowed the city to increase its budget by 40% between 2013 and 2017.” Population growth has helped fill the city coffers, as have the building boom’s tax yields.  Again quoting Talton, “a 2015 report found that a typical high-rise contributed $3.5 million in one-time construction revenues and $6.6 million in ongoing annual revenue.”

So what to be done? Here are my thoughts.

  • Make more of the city council positions elected at-large (currently 7 of the 9 seats are elected by neighborhood districts).  There is room for some local districts, but the balance has swung too far. We need more elected leaders who think long-term and care about the whole city.
  • Free up police resources for other uses, such as investigating property crime, by assigning only one officer to some patrol cars.  
  • Tell School Board candidates what you would need to put your kids in the public schools. Measure the schools’ success not just by the achievement gap, but also by a rising percentage of the city’s school age kids who attend public school.
  • The city council should put a tax measure and bond issues on the ballot that really will create a streets and bridges infrastructure that we will be proud to hand off to next generations. The package should put less reliance on federal funds that are not secured. Right now, the City could issue long term bonds at rates less than 3%. 
  • No more donations to the Library Foundation until we can check out a book.
John Rose
John Rose
John Rose is a past King County Budget Director and the retired CEO of Seattle-Northwest Securities.


  1. Your last sentence is right on the money. The unavailability of the library has me grinding my teeth because I use the library a loT. And I can afford to buy a book if I really need it. But what about the people for whom the library is their only resource for borrowing books, reading periodicals and using the internet? This situation is completely unacceptable and, as far as I can tell, there is no good explanation for why it’s happening.
    The public school situation is the same. Parents who can’t afford to send their children to private or charter schools have been abandoned by the weak and slow response of Seattle Public Schools to the problem of online education. I have a friend who teaches in the public schools and has a son enrolled in a charter school. She is dismayed by how little time and effort she is expected to provide to her students compared to the amount of online learning her son receives. Widely available and excellent public education is one reason this country has thrived in the past. We need to do better for our children today.

  2. Seattle Public Library is advised to look north to Sno-Isle Libraries (Snohomish and Island Counties) for tutelage on how to provide exemplary library services during the pandemic.

  3. The problem is the lack of any real, organized constituency for basic services, while there are strong organizations for social services and unions. The basic-services push used to come from law firms, developers, and middle-class-reform groups like the now-meek Municipal League. The only way I could see to remedy this imbalance is to have a pragmatist group of 4 (of 9) city councilmembers, the two elected at-large and one each from district 4 and 5. Another way would be to assemble a Jim-Ellis style coalition of citizens who want a Big Get, such as West Seattle Bridge, Magnolia Bridge, and effective police reform.

  4. Seems like Seattle went from the Emerald City to Somalia on the Sound! That 3 billion dollar lawsuit stemming from the killing in the Chops/Chad No Man’s Land clouds the city’s future more than the never-ending grey skies of winter. Emmet Watson is rolling in his grave while I am thankful to have lived there 40 years ago before the blight really set in. Perhaps your protesters could get together and do something constructive, like run the mayor of town as the protesters are doing in Portland?


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