First he said that Seattle voters would vote in favor of a new homeless levy if one were put on a ballot. Then he got strongly behind such an effort. Then he said passing the $275 million ballot measure was more important to him than his own re-election. And now he’s walking away from the whole thing.
In an abrupt about-face, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray announced on Monday that he is abandoning his $275 million proposed property tax levy to fight homelessness and will instead partner with King County Executive Dow Constantine to put a 0.1 percent county-wide sales tax increase on the 2018 ballot to fund regional services.
“We know homelessness is an emergency not contained in Seattle. We know that acting collectively must mean acting regionally. Crisis is not bound by article borders and our compassion cannot be restricted to political borders,” said Murray at a Monday press conference, flanked by Constantine, local progressive billionaire Nick Hanauer—one of the architects of Murray’s original levy—Downtown Emergency Services Center Director Dan Malone, and several King County Councilmembers. “Rather than propose a local property tax, we have the opportunity to make a more dramatic impact.”
“During my first year as mayor three years ago, the number one thing I heard from suburban mayors was [about] transit; now it’s homelessness,” said Murray.
According to handout circulated by Mayor Murray’s staff, the proposed increase in county sales tax would generate an estimated $67 million per year (Murray’s original local property tax levy was pitched as bringing in $55 million annually). The average household would pay “approximately” $30 more in sales tax per year. In what seemed to be a preemptive defense of swapping one tax increase for another, Murray stressed—and reiterated—that Seattle’s tax rates put the city in the “middle of the pack” of the 39 cities in King County.
Both Murray and Constantine were light on specifics in terms of what the county sales tax increase would fund exactly, stating that they would convene a joint task force of regional leaders, service providers, and other stakeholders to develop a plan in the coming months. “We will develop a comprehensive proposal, with the right people around the table – including our dedicated housing and homelessness service providers and the community,” said Constantine.
Constantine framed the new sales tax as complementing the existing King County Veterans and Human Services Levy, which he hopes voters will renew. He added that, if the levy is renewed, he will work with the King County Council to “accelerate funding of the housing portion” of the levy.
Murray said that he will be sending legislation to the Seattle City Council later this month that will create an independent review board that will track the city council’s and his own progress on addressing homelessness.
Asked whether this move was in response to opposition to property taxes from Seattle home and land owners, Murray insisted it was not. “We’re hearing a lot of negative comments about the Sound Transit taxes but people in Seattle voted in the 80 and sometimes 90 percentiles for Sound Transit,” he said. “The polling that I have seen continues to show support for a property tax measure.”
Both Murray and Constantine defended the proposed county sales tax increase—against charges of it being regressive from reporters due to the disproportionate impact on people with lower incomes—by pointing to the state tax system and the limited sources of revenue that they can draw from. “It is regressive by its nature,” said Murray of the state tax system. “We don’t have the tools here to change that.”
“It is a closer fit to the actual problem to have a region-wide funding source that is paid for by people across the region,” said Constantine, later conceding that the proposed sales tax increase is “not perfect.”