MAKING IT WORK
The purpose of this newsletter is to provide information, inspire involvement, and make things work in this great city.
MARKET LEVY PROPOSAL APPROVED
On Thursday, July 3, the Council Committee of the Whole unanimously approved placing a $73 million levy on the November ballot that will finance the cost of major repairs and infrastructure improvements at the Pike Place Market. Seven Councilmembers were present at the Committee. The Council will take formal action on the ordinance placing the proposal on the ballot at its regular meeting on Monday, July 14.
The Pike Place Market is operated by one of Seattle’s eight Public Development Authorities (PDA’s). These are public, nonprofit corporations whose Boards are appointed by the City but who operate as independent entities without City funding for ongoing operations. PDA’s manage buildings and other economic development projects that provide public benefits. The City can invest funds in places like the Market, but does not manage the day-to-day operations.
The Market is one of Seattle’s most venerable and venerated institutions, but has not had significant public investment for several decades. The levy will fund significant energy and efficiency upgrades and other improvements that will allow the Market to operate efficiently for several decades to come.
The funds will construct new restrooms, replace roofs, windows, and plumbing, install a new elevator, renovate buildings for earthquake, fire, and other life safety protections, and complete a number of other major repairs and upgrades. Eleven Market structures are included in the projects to be completed. The Market will supplement the Levy funds by raising additional funds for other projects that are not as urgent but will improve Market operations.
The Council adopted several amendments to the proposal. Most significantly, the Council deleted the $2 million proposed for reworking Victor Steinbrueck Park. While Councilmembers agree that measures are necessary to improve the safety of Steinbrueck Park, the Council was concerned that this proposal might not be appropriately linked to the other Market projects, and that the design has not been developed to a practical level. There are also questions as to whether additional police presence and other operational funding may be more effective in addressing the public safety concerns than redesigning the Park.
The Council also added provisions that strengthened public oversight of the projects funded by the levy, specified a communications plan that will keep Market businesspeople and customers informed about projects, and created a role for the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission in addressing questions such as conflict of interest that might arise.
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PARKS LEVY DEBATED
On Friday, June 28, the Parks and Green Spaces Levy Advisory Committee reported to the City Council on its deliberations about a possible 2008 Parks and Open Space Levy. The Committee voted 23 to 1 in favor of a package totaling some $140 million, and recommended (with no opposing votes, but with some abstentions) that the Council place this package on the ballot in 2008. If the Council agrees with this recommendation and this proposed size, the combination of taxes levied for Parks and the Market would be approximately the same as those currently levied in the expiring 2000 Parks Levy. Voter approval of the two levies would therefore result in no net change in property tax bills.
The Council will debate these recommendations at Committees of the Whole on July 14 and 21, with public hearings to be held on July 10 and July 16, both at the City Council chambers at 5:30 PM. The Council must vote on a final package and make a decision as to whether to go to the ballot this year by July 28.
The package proposed by the Advisory Committee includes:
- $34 million for Neighborhood Park acquisition in 19 areas identified by the Parks Department as not meeting Comprehensive Plan goals for open space, including 17 Urban Villages and two residential neighborhoods, along with acquisition of additional properties in seven natural areas and greenbelts.
- $83 million for park development, including improvements to 23 neighborhood playgrounds, parks on three reservoir lids, two new skate parks, converting three wading pools to safer spray parks, and 8 specific neighborhood parks; seismic renovation of two Parks-owned buildings, the Seattle Asian Art Museum and Langston Hughes Performing Arts Center; renovating and adding new field surface to four athletic fields; developing facilities at five major citywide parks; and constructing three trails, including completion of the Burke-Gilman Trail.
- $8 million for forest and stream restoration, community food gardens, and developing City-owned street ends to provide publicly accessible shoreline.
- $15 million for an Opportunity Fund to fund acquisition and development projects identified by neighborhood and community groups.
Seattle’s population is growing rapidly and will soon pass the 600,000 mark. The proposed parks levy adds open space that barely keeps up with our modest Comprehensive Plan goal of one acre per thousand residents. Our goal is to provide needed amenities that will implement our neighborhood plans and support livability as our population increases.
There is much anxiety about the economy, and the Council is carefully considering whether to put a new parks levy on the ballot. However, there isn’t any more land being made, and the longer we wait, the higher the price for precious open space will be. Seattle will weather this recession and prosper in coming years, which is when people will actually pay the modest $70/year that this parks package will cost the median homeowner. I believe that if we do choose to place this on the ballot, and if the voters approve it, future generations will thank us for our foresight, and for being willing to ask people to make the challenging, but responsible, choices that will keep Seattle a great place to live.
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MULTIFAMILY TAX EXEMPTION ORDINANCE APPROVED
On Monday, June 30, the City Council approved legislation making changes in the City’s Multi-Family Tax Exemption (MFTE), by a vote of 7 to 1 (Licata voting no, Rasmussen absent). The modest changes in the program are designed to provide more flexibility in ensuring that new housing will serve individuals and families that cannot afford market level rents. The changes are supported by low income housing providers, who believe that these proposals will help them to develop financial packages that will increase the availability of low income housing in Seattle.
The current program limits the property tax exemption to residences that have rents affordable to people making 60 to 70% of median income. Unfortunately, the current high costs of land and development have made it unlikely that new projects being developed will take advantage of this opportunity to provide housing to this market. The legislation therefore allows units affordable to those making 80 to 90% of median income to access the program as well. The legislation also extends the opportunity to use the tax exemption to 22 new areas, where there are significant needs for affordable housing, but where new development will not provide housing affordable at this level.
Some people have argued that the units built under this program will be more expensive than the average current rental rates in most neighborhoods. This argument confuses current rental rates with rental rates for newly built units. Without this program, these newly built units will more expensive, and will drive up the average rents in most neighborhoods. This program will provide some new units that will be at levels affordable to moderate-income workers, like firefighters and nurses. It will help to reduce the competition for the current stock of affordable housing, housing whose value will continue to increase as more and more people seek to enjoy the amenities of living in Seattle and to reduce their transportation costs by living closer in.
Providing affordable housing for low and moderate income residents is one of the most challenging issues that the Council works on. While it is one of the most important issues in Seattle, we have little or no control over the housing market. We must therefore work with the limited tools that we have to move the dial slightly in the direction of affordability, and make the best projections we can of the impact of the new regulations we adopt. This legislation is an example of a modest effort to expand the supply of affordable housing in new housing. It is the third iteration of this program – the first produced very few new affordable units, the current version performed somewhat better, and projections indicate that this version will be an additional improvement.
Some people argue that this program is so limited in its impact that it may not be worth continuing. I share some of those concerns, but the strong support from low income housing providers, the people who are actually providing housing for those most in need, was a key factor in persuading me to support it.
The program will not increase the amount of development, but will make some of the new units more affordable. It does not in any way reduce the amount of low income housing available. The City has made a major commitment to creating and supporting low income housing, and we will continue that work. This program does not reduce the funds for low income housing programs. In fact, it will increase the supply of low income housing by providing additional financial tools to low income housing providers.
The MFTE also does not cost the City tax dollars, and will not reduce the funding available for infrastructure in neighborhoods.
The goal of the MFTE is to encourage developers who are constructing new apartments to include some units that are more modestly priced, rather than building only high-end units. Seattle needs a wide range of housing options, and this program helps to create that and limit the proliferation of housing dedicated to higher income residents. It is a small step, but a positive one, in addressing housing issues.
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SURVEILLANCE CAMERAS IN PARKS RESTRICTED
On Monday, June 9, the City Council unanimously approved legislation establishing regulations for the use of surveillance cameras in Seattle Parks. The Mayor proposed a camera program last fall, but the Council declined to allow it to go forward until there were adequate provisions in place to address privacy issues. Councilmembers were also skeptical whether the cameras will actually be useful in deterring crime, but finally agreed to allow the Police Department to conduct a pilot program with appropriate safeguards for privacy concerns.
Councilmembers crafted an ordinance that allows this program to proceed for three downtown parks for a 21 month trial period, but with a set of clear limitations on how the cameras can be monitored and used that will provide significant privacy protections. Council also added an evaluation procedure that the Council will review after this trial period to determine whether the cameras have actually been effective and whether privacy has been adequately protected.
You can view a copy of Council Bill 116225 here.
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OPTIONS FOR SEATTLE JAIL
The City of Seattle has begun the process of siting a jail. The City has been forced to do this because King County has told Seattle and the suburban cities that the County is running out of jail space and will no longer provide jail beds, even though the cities pay the full cost for each inmate that King County houses. The City of Seattle has experimented with a contract with Yakima County, which has not proven to be cost effective.
Recently the King County Council indicated that they would like to reconsider the decision regarding the use of King County facilities. While we welcome this initiative, Seattle would need an extension of our contract for a meaningful number of years, and to date the County has only offered a two year extension. That would not be enough to allow us to stop proceeding with our search for a jail site.
The City is also talking with a group of suburban cities about the idea of jointly siting a facility. This would create some economies of scale. Seattle has told the suburban cities that we would only be willing to enter into such an alliance if the suburban cities identify possible sites in their areas. If they are willing to do so, then the universe of possible sites would be expanded. However, this would mean constructing a jail that would be about 50% larger than a Seattle only facility, so, if a Seattle site is chosen, the resulting facility will be larger than if the City constructed a jail on our own.
Right now, the City is considering four possible sites, two in the north end (on North Aurora near Bitter Lake and in Interbay), and two in the south (near the south end of the First Avenue Bridge and adjacent to the City’s Joint Training Facility, near Highland Park). These sites were selected as finalists from among 35 that were considered because they were large enough for the proposed facility and have good transportation connections to downtown Seattle. Based on a review of the operations of high-rise jails (such as King County’s downtown jail) and low-rise ones (such as the Kent Regional Justice Center), the City has determined that there are significant cost efficiencies from building a low-rise facility, thus requiring a relatively large site. No final decision will be made on a site until the City has definitive word from King County. If the City is able to come to an agreement with the suburban cities, there would be additional sites on the table.
No neighborhood is going to enthusiastically welcome having a correctional facility located nearby. However, it is possible to have such a facility with little or no impact on the surrounding community. A good example is the Kent Regional Justice Facility, which is located adjacent to both residential and commercial buildings. Any jail would be designed to minimize traffic, noise, and visual impacts on the surrounding community. The persons incarcerated under city laws are awaiting trial or serving short sentences for misdemeanors, and, even in the extremely unlikely event of a breach of security, not a major public safety problem.
The universe of sites under consideration will not be revisited until there has been a resolution of the questions concerning King County and possible suburban city participation. Before any final site is selected, there will be additional public process and a review of all of the environmental, transportation, and land use issues associated with each site. The City’s goal is to have a decision, if at all possible, by the end of 2008.
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POLICE CONTRACT APPROVED, CITY LIGHT SUPERINTENDENT CONFIRMED
On Monday, June 23, the Council unanimously approved the new contract with the Seattle Police Officer’s Guild (SPOG) which provides for significant salary increases along with the implementation of a series of improvements to the police accountability system proposed by a citizen panel. This agreement paves the way for follow-up legislation to increase the size and role of the Office of Professional Accountability Review Board (OPARB), which will now have seven members and take on new responsibilities in working on police accountability review and communicating with the public about these issues.
On the same day, the Council agreed to reconfirm Seattle City Light Superintendent Jorge Carrasco for a second four-year term. Superintendent Carrasco had been appointed to succeed former Superintendent Gary Zarker, whom the Council declined to reconfirm after reviewing the performance of City Light during the 2001 California energy crisis. When energy traders gamed the market in 2001, driving up prices and making huge profits, City Light turned out to be vulnerable because of poor management of its energy trading (managing the sale of surplus power when City Light has extra, mainly during the spring runoff, and the purchase of extra power when demand exceeds City Light's supply, mainly in the summer). City Light's financial planning was not adequate to manage the new market situation, and when the utility turned up short of needed energy, major energy purchases had to be financed by borrowing money, which led to rate increases of some 60% to keep the utility financially afloat.
These debts have now been paid off, and last year the Council approved the first rate reduction since 1985, recognizing that City Light has achieved financial stability.
Superintendent Carrasco was brought in to manage the utility's recovery under a new set of much more stringent and conservative financial policies adopted by the Council. Councilmember Bruce Harrell led a thorough review of City Light and the Superintendent’s performance, and concluded that most of the Council’s program had been implemented successfully, and that City Light management had improved, although there are several outstanding policy issues that are still pending completion. The Council agreed with Councilmember Harrell that the utility was making satisfactory progress under Superintendent Carrasco, and unanimously agreed to the reappointment.
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"All government – indeed, every human benefit and enjoyment, every virtue and every prudent act – is founded on compromise and barter.'
"They say that time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself."
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,
Your Seattle City Councilmember
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