Urban Politics #62: Fall Levy Renewal Ballot

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By City Councilmember Nick Licata.

Urban Politics (UP) blends my insights and information on current public policy developments and personal experiences with the intent of helping citizens shape Seattle’s future.



  • Mayor’s Proposal
  • Your Input – Survey Question
  • The Original 1991 Levy
  • Proposed Seattle Center Portion
  • Proposed Neighborhood Portion
  • City And Center Survey Results
  • De-Coupling The Two Levy Portions

Mayor’s Proposal

The Mayor has proposed renewing a 1991 Levy this fall to provide funding for both the Seattle Center and neighborhood community centers. The 1991 levy expires this year; a renewal of it would not result in an increase in current property taxes. If approved by 50% of the voters, the new eight-year levy rate would be 15 cents per $1,000 of assessed value, the same as the current levy.

The Center originally requested $57 million of the proposed fall $72 million levy to complete their Phase II Redevelopment Plan. I informed them that I would only support the levy if its revenue were divided evenly between neighborhood centers and the Seattle Center, similar to what was done on the 1991 ballot issue. The Mayor, after hearing the same concerns from other Council Members, agreed to go with a 50/50 split.

The rest of this Urban Politics memo deals with the history of the levy, the needs of the Seattle Center and neighborhood centers, and conducts a poll on the fall levy. Please read all of this UP issue, before casting your vote, so you can be more fully informed. Thank you.

Your Input – Survey Question

The question before the readers of Urban Politics, is whether the fall 1999 levy’s two halves, the Seattle Center portion and the neighborhood portion, should be decoupled and each placed separately on the ballot. In the following sections I’ve provided a description of the 1991 levy, an assessment on the need to update the Center’s Opera House, which will be the main recipient of the Center’s portion, and other information that hopefully will help you make an informative decision.

Because of technical limitations, I cannot ask additional questions. I must limit this survey to a simple YES or NO response. I will not be claiming that the results are reflective of citizens throughout Seattle. In fact, if the Mayor were to ask the same question of his Schell Mail readers the results might be very different. But the twenty-four hundred UP readers, I believe do represent a cross section of concerned citizens whose opinions I will take into consideration.

Here is the question:

Question – Given what you know (from reading UP and other sources) would you support having the fall levy appear as two separate votes, one for the Seattle Center and another for funding neighborhood centers.

Response – NO (they should not be separated), YES (they should be separated),

— HIT REPLY & TYPE “NO” OR “YES” IN THE SUBJECT LINE — You may also respond by typing “UNDECIDED” in the subject line.

You may make additional comments in the “message” part of your reply, but because of the volume of responses, I will not be able to reply to all.

The Original 1991 Levy

The 1991 Levy, like the current proposed one, is technically a “Levy Lid Lift” and not a regular levy. This type of levy allows the City to tap its taxing capacity by focusing on the wedge of property tax capacity between the amount of tax that would be generated by the $3.60/$1,000 of Assessed Value rate limit, and the maximum amount of regular property tax revenue the City can take in any year, which is limited to 106% of the previous year’s regular property tax revenues. Access to that capacity requires a simple majority vote, and the funds can be used for any purpose.

The 1991 Levy was for a total of $50 million in taxes, of which $26 million went to the Seattle Center for major upgrading and rehabilitation. Improvements were made to the Coliseum, Northwest Rooms, International Fountain, Center House, Seattle Children’s Theatre, General Buildings, Opera House, and finally Open Space – which received the largest share. The remaining $24 million of the levy went to build 5 neighborhood community centers.

That levy expires this year and hence presents the City with the opportunity to “renew” it. Although the tax rate per $1,000 of Assessed Value is the same, because property values are now higher the levy total is $72 million.

1999 Seattle Center Portion

The heart of the Seattle Center’s Phase II Redevelopment Plan is renovating the Opera House, to be renamed the Community Performance Hall, to the tune of $110 million.

Center management sees the Opera House as a community building since it is the home of the Pacific Northwest Ballet, which has grown to one of America’s five largest ballet companies serving more than 15,000 subscribers and 250,000 viewers annually through some 100 performances. And the facility has also hosted the African American Comedy Show, Jazz & Blues Concerts, County Music Concert, and other local based concerts and civic forums.

The Center expects to raise $55 million from private donations for renovating the Opera House but the largest of these contributions are dependent on the City providing a significant match. Consequently the Center had originally requested $38 million from the $72 levy just for the Opera House. With their entire amount being reduced to $36 million, they had to cut the City’s contribution to $29 million to allow for funding $ 7 million of Flag Pavilion improvements.

Many of the working components (wiring, plumbing, etc) of the Opera House are 72 years old and in need of repair. In addition, the structural engineering firm of Skilling Ward Magnusson Barshire studied the building in 1994 and determined that it needed a seismic upgrade costing about $89 million in 2001 dollars. The Mercer Arena also needed a $19 million (2001 dollars) seismic upgrade.

Although both buildings had been through the 7.1 earthquake in 1949 and a 6.5 tremor in 1965, the engineering firm felt that the past ground motion was significantly less than what is anticipated for future quakes.

Center management determined that they could raise private funds for upgrading the Opera House by making important mechanical and design improvements once the building was gutted. In other words, they would use the seismic upgrade to improve the overall functions of the building and that would help raise a higher ratio of private money to public funds to pay for the overall necessary rebuild.

The rebuilt Flag Pavilion is to be renamed the Festival Pavilion. Originally built as a temporary facility for the 1962 World’s Fair, it is being “loved to death” by hosting at least 13 different annual ethnic celebrations, along with the Northwest Folklife, Bumbershoot, and an assortment of trade shows and community exhibits and banquets. The proposed rebuild would also result in a significant addition of open space to the Center Campus, since part of the Pavilion would be underground.

Improvements to the Mercer Arena were not included by the Center management for this funding cycle since the Center will not be receiving the $57 million that they had originally requested from the levy.

1999 Neighborhood Portion

The neighborhood portion of the levy is currently tagged at $36 million. Although the following allocation of funds may be slightly different from what the Mayor presents to the City Council on Monday (5/3/99) it represents the draft that was handed out to Council Members on Friday (4/30/99).

+ Open Every Community Center 7 Days a Week (17 Centers) = $7 million The City has a total of 24 community centers, only 7 are open seven days a week. The levy would be used to pay for recreational staff to keep the remaining community centers open 7 days a week all year round. This translates into over 7,000 additional hours of gymnasium capacity throughout the city.

+ Open Schools for Community Use = $ 0.5 million City would pay the School District $63,000 a year so that community groups may use school libraries, gyms, meeting rooms or performance facilities during non-school hours. The money would likely pay for janitor or other staff hours to open the facility after hours as needed.

+ Expand and Replace Community Recreation Centers = $ 20.5 million Five Community Centers would be affected: Jefferson, Yesler, High Point, South Lake Union, Sand Point. The funds would be divided between Capital Costs and Operations and Maintenance Costs. The division between them would vary from center to center. In an instance like Yesler, 94% of the money will be spent on Capital Costs, whereas all of the money at South Lake Union would be for M&O Costs.

+ Help Create Neighborhood Civic Centers = $ 2 million Ballard and Lake City would each receive a million dollars to expand their Neighborhood Service Centers by about 4,000 sq. ft.

+ Create an Opportunity Fund = $ 6 million The fund could pay for both Capital and M&O costs for helping communities either lease, renovate or purchase facilities that could be used primarily for non-gymnasium purposes. The projects identified would come out of the neighborhood planning process and would be expected to leverage assistance from partnering with community groups.

City And Center Survey Results

Both the City and the Seattle Center had commissioned surveys to measure voter attitudes. The City found that renovating the Opera House had the highest priority among voters for improving the Seattle Center. However, the City also found that other issues, like improving the Zoo, protecting salmon habitat, and creating new Sand Point facilities ranked higher than renovating the Center.

More specifically, the Center’s survey reported that 59% of voters felt that the Opera House served “the broad interests of the community and should be supported by public tax dollars.” This finding must be weighed against another that found 46% of the voters strongly agreed with the statement that “Property taxes are too high already, I would vote against any increase in property taxes.” So it is important for voters to understand that the levy is a renewal of existing property taxes and not an increase in them.

The Seattle Center’s survey found that 80% of voters hold a “very” or “somewhat” favorable impression of the Seattle Center. In addition, 55% of voters say that the Seattle Center needs “some improvements and renovations, while 12% feel it needs “major improvements and renovations.” But when the City asked if the 1991 levy should be renewed with the same 50/50 split between the Center and neighborhoods, 27 % said yes, 53% said more for the neighborhoods and 11% said more for the Seattle Center.

Determining exactly what the voters are saying through polls is a bit like reading tea leaves. So much depends on how the tea swirls in the cup. Ultimately the City Council must decide what is a reasonable request to place before the voters. Which brings us to the next and final section.

De-Coupling The Two Levy Portions

City Council Members have yet to review and analyze the Mayor’s levy proposal, although Council Members seem to be comfortable with the 50/50 split between the Seattle Center and neighborhood centers. And the details of each portion have yet to be discussed among the Council Members or subject to City Council staff review, so they may change from what the Mayor is proposing.

I have raised the possibility of de-coupling the two portions of the levy to allow voters an opportunity to vote for each separately. I believe that each portion makes a strong and reasonable case for public support. Admittedly the Seattle Center and neighborhood centers were combined on one measure in 1991 and both proposed portions in 1999 improve Seattle’s cultural facilities. However, there is no logical reason to couple them since each proposal contains a complete and independent package of public services.

Some political analysts argue that separating them weakens the chance that either could pass. They say that voters are more likely to vote for just one tax measure than vote for multiple tax measures. They point to the 1994 ballot experience of “Kids, Cops and Books” which saw two of the three-bond measures fail. The bonds for the Public Library and for Public Safety were defeated, while only the School’s Capital Plan passed.

I’ve reviewed the record of past bond measures as well and have concluded differently. For one thing, each of the 1994 measures exceeded $100 million whereas each portion of the proposed fall levy is less than $50 million. Voters just may take the size of the tax bite into consideration.

I think a better historical example is the 1986 ballot measure, where two separate but mutually supportive levies supporting the Public Art Museum and Low-Income Housing passed. And neither was over $50 million.

If we combine the two levies it is just as likely that both could go down if there is strong opposition to either portion. Resentful voters may reject a ballot measure if it combines a favorable item with another that they do not want. I think may have occurred in 1988, when the proposed Harborfront Park was combined with the Street Levy.

Bread-and-butter voters concerned with improving their local streets may have rejected the ballot measure because they didn’t want to pay for a downtown park. Likewise, pro-economic development supporters may have rejected the measure because they saw a street fund as being an ineffective economic tool if dispersed throughout the city. In the end, the measure only received 41% of the vote.

I am interested in hearing what you think. Please respond to the question above as to whether levies for the Seattle Center and the neighborhood centers should be decoupled.

And, thank you for taking the time to read over this material.

Keep in touch…



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Comment from Renay Maizes
Time December 14, 2011 at 1:07 am

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