MAKING IT WORK
Seattle City Councilmember Richard Conlin
The purpose of this newsletter is to provide information, inspire involvement, and make things work in this great city.
June 5, 2006, Volume VIII, Issue 5
WATER RATES APPROVED
On Monday, May 1, the Council unanimously approved new water rates for the 2006-2008 period. This is the first of four proposed rate increases that my Committee will review, with drainage, solid waste, and sewer rates all coming before the Council in the next few months.
Water rates represent about 20-25% of the Combined Utilities bill that Seattle residents pay, and the water rate increase is relatively modest. The Mayor proposed increasing a typical bill by 13.6% over the three year period, and the Council approved an 11.9% increase, somewhat larger than the anticipated inflation rate of about 8% over the three years. The proposed rate includes the cost of implementing the new agreement with the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe, which settles a lawsuit over the legal status of the Cedar River Watershed which could have jeopardized the City's control over its major source of drinking water.
The Council made a number of changes in the proposal, including reducing the projected costs for security systems, increasing the environmental education and maintenance staff at the Cedar River watershed, reducing the appropriation for relocation of utilities for the Alaskan Way Viaduct program to $4 million, and reducing other project costs.
Recognizing that recent water rate increases have been significant, the Council also adopted a resolution asking Seattle Public Utilities to review why rates have been increasing and develop ways to bring rate increases under control in the future. The study will examine the factors driving water rate increases over the last thirty years to determine the extent to which the increases have been caused by policy choices or mandated by law or other regulatory requirements. It will also develop ways to gauge the affordability of Seattle water to residential and commercial customers, including comparisons with other utilities and matching the growth in water costs to the growth in income and expenditures for households and businesses. From this data, the Council will then be able to determine strategies to assure affordable water, including reviewing future investment plans and targeting goals for water rates that SPU will be tasked with meeting. It is my intention to propose similar resolutions for the other three utility rates as the Council reviews them.
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PROPOSED LOCAL TRANSPORTATION FUNDING PACKAGE
On Monday, May 22, Mayor Nickels proposed a far-reaching and comprehensive plan to extensively renovate and rebuild Seattle's core transportation network. The plan calls for eliminating the current backlog of transportation maintenance within 20 years by paving streets, repairing and seismically upgrading bridges, increasing pedestrian and bicycle facilities, and improving transit and freight access. It will do this by generating $65 million the first year, which will be adjusted annually for inflation.
The funds will come from a property tax levy raising $46 million in the first year, a 10% commercial parking tax raising $13 million, and a $25 per FTE business transportation tax raising $5.5 million. The proposed annual expenditures include $19 million for paving, $13.5 million for bridges and structures, $6 million for signs, signals, and safety, $2.5 million for sidewalks and trails, $13.9 million for transit and freight corridors, $5.7 million for pedestrian and bicycle improvements, and $3.9 million for trees, landscaping and neighborhood services.
The Council will review this proposal over the next several months, and will decide on the size and scope of the final package. I believe it is our responsibility to take care of the billions of dollars of public investment in transportation infrastructure, and I applaud the Mayor for his thoughtful and visionary plan to manage that responsibility. While the Council is likely to consider changes in both the size of the package and the length of the levy, I hope that we will seek a realistic balance between the taxes that people can be expected to support and the very significant need for mobility improvements to ensure high quality streets designed and operated for transportation choices - pedestrian, bicycle, and transit facilities as well as automobiles, along with crucial elements that ensure freight mobility and our economic health.
More than half of the thousands of neighborhood plan recommended actions were transportation improvements - better maintenance, signage, street trees, traffic calming, pedestrian, transit, and bicycle facilities, and redesigned intersections and arterials. While we have funded parks, libraries, and community centers, this package fills the remaining major capital gap in meeting our neighborhood plan goals and making growth management work.
Seattle's maintenance of our transportation system has lagged since the 1970's, when the Boeing recession knocked a huge hole in the City's budget. When better times returned, transportation maintenance wound up being deferred in favor of other priorities, and by the 1990's the backlog had grown to a major gap. Councilmember Martha Choe commissioned a Citizens Transportation Advisory Committee to suggest strategies to address that gap, and the City has struggled to implement their recommendations for the last ten years.
Unfortunately, although the City has tripled the amount of general fund dedicated to transportation over that time period, the city has also lost more than two thirds of its dedicated revenue at the same time, so we have been running hard to simply stay in the same place. The Street Utility Fee was struck down by the Washington Supreme Court; The Vehicle License Fee and Motor Vehicle Excise Tax were repealed by initiatives that Seattle voters overwhelmingly opposed; while the legislature has raised gas taxes for major projects, the amount of the gas tax dedicated to local streets has decreased by 30%; and Initiative 747 (also overwhelmingly rejected by Seattle voters) limits the ability of the City to raise property taxes to 1% per year, far less than even the rate of inflation.
The result has been that even with increased general fund expenditures, Seattle has not been able to make significant progress on reducing the $500 million maintenance backlog or providing transportation improvements, although we have prevented the situation from deteriorating further.
When I became Chair of the Transportation Committee in 2002, I identified this as a major issue, and convened a Citizens Transportation Advisory Committee II (CTAC II) to advise us on how to respond to this new environment. The CTAC II recommended going to the voters with a property tax levy, and asking the legislature for additional tools to support local transportation maintenance. Unfortunately, we have received only very modest assistance from the legislature.
The Mayor's proposal builds on the CTAC II proposal and the recommendations of a follow-up panel, which suggested that the property tax should be augmented by sources that tap the resources of persons who drive in Seattle but do not live or own property here. This led to the inclusion of the parking and business transportation taxes in the Mayor's proposal.
Many citizens have devoted long hours of dedicated work to laying the groundwork for this proposal, and the Mayor recommends including a Citizens Oversight Committee to ensure continued stewardship in the future. Maintaining the transportation network and implementing neighborhood transportation improvements are not glamorous, high-profile issues, but they are at the core of our responsibility to take care of the basics - to make the city run. I am looking forward to working with my fellow Councilmembers to move a package forward that addresses these important priorities and is fair, equitable, and realistic in making our transportation system work for the 21st century.
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CROWN HILL PEDESTRIAN ZONE
On Tuesday, May 30, the Council voted to create a permanent pedestrian district in the Crown Hill neighborhood, by a vote of 6 (Conlin, Steinbrueck, Licata, Clark, Rasmussen, and Della) to 3 (McIver, Drago, Godden). The permanent pedestrian district extends along 15th Avenue NW from NW 83rd to NW 87th Streets. This finally completes action begun last year when the Council imposed a temporary pedestrian district in this area to prevent new auto-oriented businesses from being established contrary to the intent of the Crown Hill/Ballard Neighborhood Plan.
Unfortunately, due to a lapse in the interim zoning when 4 Councilmembers voted against its extension last month (see Making It Work, Volume VIII, Issue 4), Safeway has vested its application for a large gas station at the corner of NW 83rd St. and 15th Ave. NW. The neighboring Loyal Heights and Whittier Heights Community Councils and the 15th Avenue Merchants Association all opposed this gas station, fearing that it will generate dangerous traffic patterns and hold back land development potential in this urban village. The community asked me to develop this legislation to prevent the compromising of their vision for the future and the encroachment of car-oriented development on their pedestrian area.
The new permanent designation will prevent other possible land uses that could be problematic, and will also prevent Safeway from any future expansion of the gas station.
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NORTHGATE MOVING FORWARD
Implementation of the package of legislation passed in December 2003, designed to support the Northgate Area Comprehensive Plan moved forward at a rapid pace during May. This month, the Council approved the following implementation measures:
- Agreed to a redivision of property lines on the South Parking Lot to configure the city property as open space surrounding the planned Thornton Creek channel;
- Approved the creation of right-of-way for the new Third Avenue NW separating the housing development and creek channel from the King County Transit Center to the west;
- Agreed to rezone the South Parking Lot to facilitate the planned housing development;
- Authorized purchase of the former King County Park and Ride north of Northgate Way for a new City Park.
The Seattle Department of Transportation continues to work on implementing the Fifth Avenue Main Street plan, and the Stakeholder Advisory Group continues its work on the proposed Northgate Coordinated Transportation Investment Plan. A groundbreaking ceremony for the Thornton Creek Channel and the Northgate Commons housing development will take place on Wednesday, June 7. On Saturday, July 15, the community will celebrate the official opening of the Northgate Library, Park, and Community Center.
The Council will continue to track the progress of the work at Northgate in the coming months, as more major milestones take place.
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"In community we can dare to dream of an Earth that is governed by cooperation and responsibility -- an Earth in which more and less gifted, young and old, poor and privileged, join hands to seek the common good -- an Earth that engages persons in using their minds and their hands to shape destiny. If we do not assume the risks of dreaming such dreams of a sustainable way of life, they surely will not come to pass."
-- Sharon Sutton
"The way to multiply big problems is to neglect small ones."
-- Henry Simons
Citizen participation and engagement are critical for maintaining democracy -- fostering it is a key task of elected officials. It's my hope that this newsletter will inform you about issues, inspire you to get involved, and that together we can make things work better in this great city. Please send me your feedback, so we can keep things lively, interesting, and useful. And please forward it along to friends who might be interested. You can get more information or send me feedback through the City Council website at http://cityofseattle.net/council/
Your Seattle City Councilmember
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