I was in downtown Seattle the other day and it was depressing. Few people, boarded-up shop windows, homeless people sleeping in doorways. I walked by two separate people who were being administered to by police and ambulances. The one bright spot was the opening of the new expanded convention center.
In many ways, downtown was the engine that drove the city of Seattle’s growth and expansion. It helped power the city budget from about $4 billion in 2015 to $5.9 billion in 2020.
Now we are near the tail end of a pandemic. Workers are still working remotely, so downtown offices are only 45 percent full. Tech companies announce new layoffs almost daily. Construction is slowing. Downtown and the city of Seattle are hurting.
The city of Seattle budget is projected to have a significant deficit in 2024, which fact may have motivated some council members not to run for re-election. Cutting budgets is hard work and brutal for elected officials. In an editorial (“Seattle’s phony budget crisis is no reason for more taxes,” 1/10/2023) The Seattle Times argued that the city does not need more revenue. I disagree. Given the expanded mission of the city, there is a substantial need for additional revenue.
The original Seattle City Charter mandates the city to provide five services: parks, library, fire, police, and transportation. All these services are constrained by city boundaries and its tax base. A temporary escape came when President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society funded a wide array of domestic programs in 1964-65. Through the Model Cities program, Seattle received millions of dollars in federal funds. The city awarded the bulk of those funds to nonprofits for “demonstration grants” of two or three years.
If the evaluation of the new services was excellent, the nonprofits lobbied the city to continue the service with city funds. These new services — in education, health, housing, and other social programs — were a large expansion of the city’s original mandate, but the federal funding for them was cut way back by the feds under Nixon and Reagan. These new services are based on need, and the city cannot control the supply of the people who qualify. Nor can the city force the nonprofits and jurisdictions who had original mandates and federal funding to provide service (mental health, substance abuse, disorder prevention, and treatment) in the quantities needed. Homelessness is another example where the cost to house the people is in the billions. Our country has a mobile society, and the city has a limited budget.
Welcome to the big squeeze, under which Charter-mandated basic services had to be cut back.
Since the late 1960s the city has gained some new revenue sources such as the jump-start tax. It has also used special levies for libraries and to create a park district. Funding Charter-mandated services through special levies and bond issues frees up revenue to help pay for the new social services. The city has also lost revenue with Tim Eyman’s property-tax-limiting initiative. And so, like the brooms in Disney’s “Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” the need relentlessly increases and outpaces existing revenue.
Our progressive city has undergone significant mission creep as it determines to solve national and regional problems on a constricted local tax base. The continued addition of new services expands the problem. Mental health, for example, is primarily a state and county responsibility. City funding has also been tapped for community college support and democracy vouchers. All are excellent (and politically rewarding), but it all adds up in our tax bills. Meanwhile, the city’s Charter requires that it provide quality Charter basic services as its fundamental function.
What to do? The choices will be: make cuts across the board, or make hard choices and set priorities, or find new money. Politically, these fights cannot be won without help from taxpayers and from state and federal governments well beyond the boundaries of Seattle. However, outside the city boundaries and in Olympia, Seattle and its problems don’t win any popularity contests.