The Market Foundation, one of the city’s heavyweight charities, is now one of Seattle’s newest political organizations. Using what its director calls $165,000 in "reserve" funds that could otherwise go to its programs to help provide housing, food and medical services to the downtown’s poor, the 26-year-old Pike Place Market charity has grown and funded a political arm called Citizens for the Pike Place Market.
Comprised of the foundation's leadership and run out of its Market offices, Citizens plans to use the charity donation to advertise and promote a budding Market construction campaign. The effort is aimed at approving $75 million in public funds for renovation of the century-old Market's infrastructure -- a proposal backed by Mayor Greg Nickels, but one that still awaits City Council approval for inclusion on the November ballot.
Marlys Erickson, the foundation’s executive director and campaign manager for the political committee that officially registered with the city and the state Public Disclosure Commission three weeks ago, says this is the group’s first official venture into campaigning. "We are assuming the Market levy will be on the ballot," Erickson says. "Expenses are already coming in, and we needed some money, so we’ve taken $165,000 from our reserve fund."
Generally, under IRS rules, charities can contribute to issue campaigns and ballot measures such as the likely Market levy plan, but not to individual candidates, such as in a mayoral race. Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission regulator Polly Grow says it is legal under city rules for a charity’s political arm to receive funding from the charity itself.
Though the foundation is generally characterized to donors as the benefactor of services to the needy -- including the Pike Market Medical Clinic, a day care and pre-school, and a senior center -- Erickson says capital improvements fall under the charity’s purview as well. In the last fiscal year for example, the foundation gave $577,000 towards the clinic's expansion, she says.
According to the foundation’s latest tax filing, in 2006, it received $943,000 in donations and public support for its programs (the foundation says its dozens of "corporate partners" include Starbucks, Nordstrom, Washington Mutual, Microsoft and Seattle Weekly). However, revenues of $1.3 million were exceeded by expenses of $1.8 million, leaving a $505,000 deficit, the foundation reported. The money the charity gave to its political arm this month is about equal to what it cost to run its childcare program back then.
“We look at the donation as if it were the zoo or the library in need of improvements," Erickson says, noting that those facilities are supported by their own foundations. "In that sense, we’re no different."