Who pays for this party?

Taxpayers are on the hook for WTO corporate love-in.

BRACE YOURSELF. It’s another Seattle Spectacle, and it’s your pocketbook that’s taking a hit.

We would think that after a decade of unparalleled economic boom times and consistent good press, the last thing Seattle would be burdened with is insecure civic boosters. Yet that’s Seattle’s peculiar fate. From the NCAA games to “world-class” stadiums, APEC to the US Open, Seattle leaders seem driven to prove—even when nobody’s doubting it—that we really are not just a small town any more. Ironically, this more than anything else proves that we are—or, at least, that our leadership is mired in small-town thinking.

At any rate, what this meant was that just when Seattle’s City Council—led by the nose by an irate citizenry—had the sudden burst of civic good sense to not sell the store for a 2012 Olympics bid, we were being set up for the World Trade Organization—a global body that all Seattleites, regardless of trade export leanings, will learn to curse. Because quite aside from the snarled traffic and police helicopters, the ugly fact remains that we’re paying for this transnational corporate party.

And we’ll continue to pay for it. The whole idea of the Seattle Spectacle is to convince the world to move here. The same ethic of mindless economic expansion that is what many people criticize in the WTO is also at play among the local politicos that lured the WTO here. Do we really want the international headlines? The extra business? The extra traffic? (Now that we’ve voted, via I-695, to make it impossible to deal with that traffic. . . .) And do we really want to spend possibly upwards of $10 million for the privilege?

Here’s your bill: Most of those millions will be spent ensuring that the public doesn’t get too close to the Spectacle. The US State Department’s classification of the WTO talks as a “National Special Security Event” makes costs spent on security by local government eligible for reimbursement by the feds. It’s almost certain that at least some of those costs will be repaid—but how much, and when, is less clear. We will probably be stuck for most of it.

The two jurisdictions most on the hook for WTO expenses are the City of Seattle and King County. The city is estimating it will spend about $6 million on the WTO. Almost all—some 95 percent—will be spent on police and fire. Beyond police and fire, other lesser elements in the city’s WTO budget include SEATRAN (traffic control); human services (ensuring that services for the homeless are not disrupted); parks (spiffing up downtown); and Seattle Center (providing venues and programming for WTO events).

The county’s expenses are also concentrated in public safety and fire protection. The King County Sheriff’s Office has estimated WTO-related expenses at $1,165,000. The County Council was told last week that the effect on the 1999 budget would be an additional $952,307; however, County Council member Brian Derdowski, a WTO opponent, estimates that the final bill for the county, including sheriff, fire, jail, and courts, will be “two to four million dollars.”

While the city and county will bear the brunt of the Seattle Spectacle, some other agencies will also be billing the taxpayers. The Port of Seattle is estimating $163,000 for airport security and another $175,390 for costs in its marine division (primarily events at the Bell Harbor conference center). Port officials, of course, have been heavily involved in promoting the WTO as part of their job descriptions of promoting trade business, as have state trade officials. Other state expenses include possible overtime for state patrol officers.

For all of these public expenses, there seems to be a touching, naive faith that the federal government—on whose behalf, after all, the locals are ponying up and preening—will come through and pay it all back. Not exactly. From the standpoint of the federal government, Seattle wanted these talks—so it should pay for them. Senator Patty Murray has added $5 million to the federal budget proposal earmarked to assist local governments with WTO talks, but the budget process is long and hazardous. So, for the city’s budgeting, it is assuming no money back in 1999 and only $1.5 million of the supplemental $3 million in the year 2000. Even that may be optimistic; when the city hosted APEC in 1993, it took up to four years to get partial reimbursement from the other Washington.

The other possibility for reimbursement is the Seattle Host Organization, which has been diligently raising money in the private sector and has a $1.5 million line item for local government repayment. However, with a month to go before the ministerial talks, SHO had only raised about half of its budgeted $9.2 million; at least some shortfall seems almost certain. It’s unclear what SHO payments will be cut back and by how much.

It raises an obvious question: If local corporations, the presumed primary beneficiaries of the Seattle Spectacle, aren’t willing to pay for the WTO, why should we?