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August 2004 - Issue No. 5
City Hall perspectives from Councilmember Tom Rasmussen

Welcome to the August edition of Point of View.

This month's newsletter provides an update on my proposed legislation to regulate costly income tax refund loans; information about the outdoor homeless meal programs in downtown Seattle; my thoughts about the University of Washington lease lid and my views on the most recent Monorail initiative. Finally, I'll let you know where I will be in the community next month.

I would appreciate hearing your thoughts on Point of View and any other questions or comments you may have. You can contact me by calling (206) 684-8808 or by e-mail by clicking here. Point of View subscription and removal instructions can be found at the end of the newsletter.

It is an honor to represent you and I look forward to working with you.

Best regards,

Tom Rasmussen
Seattle City Councilmember
Chair, Housing, Human Services and Health Committee
http://www.cityofseattle.net/council/rasmussen


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In this issue:


Legislation to Curb Deceptive Tax Loan Practices

In April, I expressed my concern about "instant" income tax refund loans, called Refund Anticipation Loans, (RALS). RALS can be expensive, unnecessary and confusing for consumers.

I am most concerned about the impact of RALS on low-moderate income people. In 2002, a report released by the National Consumer Law Center suggested that 55% of the more than 12.7 million people using these tax refund loans participated in the federal earned income tax credit (EITC) program which is aimed at helping low-income people. More than $525 million in fees were charged to borrowers. For more information on the EITC click here.

The City has an outreach and enrollment program called "Help for Working Families" (HWF) to help low-moderate income people to be able to afford to work and live in Seattle. HWF educates people about the EITC and signs them up for a variety of programs and benefits that they are eligible for such as day care assistance. The people the City is assisting through HWF are often the same people who are enticed to take out very expensive RALS.

No meaningful regulations exist in Washington State to ensure that people understand the terms and costs of these loans or the alternatives. Several states have enacted legislation to protect people from deceptive practices relating to RALS. New York is the only city to adopt a refund anticipation loan ordinance.

On Monday, August 16, I introduced legislation to regulate RALS in Seattle. My legislation requires those who "facilitate" such loans to disclose specific information including the costs, tax filing alternatives and the amount the consumer will receive from their refunds after fees and interest are paid. Violating these disclosure requirements could result in penalties imposed by the City. To view the legislation, click here.

I believe it is important for action to be taken to protect consumers now. Any state consumer protection legislation may be years away. Consumers should be able to make informed decisions and that is the purpose of this bill. The Seattle Times published a story about this issue on Monday, August 16. To read the article, click here.

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Protecting the Outdoor Homeless Meals Program

Last week, due to public safety concerns, Mayor Nickels restricted the operational hours of downtown outdoor meal providers at City Hall Park. The decision effectively ended evening meals for 300 people each day.

Many people, including myself, objected to this decision. I understand the public safety concerns, but believe the approach should have been to find another location for the evening meal program and to work toward finding a solution to the public safety problems at the park rather than end this much needed service for the hungry and homeless.

I am pleased that Mayor Nickels heard the concerns about ending the program and decided to allow the meals to continue at the Public Safety Building site until a permanent location can be secured.

On Wednesday, August 11, my colleagues Councilmembers Jean Godden, Peter Steinbrueck and I joined the volunteer meal providers at City Hall Park to show our appreciation for the work they are doing to help others. It is important to continue the meal program until a new location can be found. The City Council has prioritized human services and in particular, feeding the hungry in the last several budget cycles under difficult financial circumstances.

In the coming months, the City will work with meal providers to find a solution to safely continue these programs in downtown Seattle. In early September, I intend to invite City staff and meal providers to meet with Councilmembers to discuss future plans for the program. Seattle is a compassionate city and I am confident we will be able to maintain this service to help the most vulnerable in our community. To read more about the outdoor meals program, click here.

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A Balanced Approach to Lifting the University of Washington Lease Lid

It seems that almost everyone I know who lives in Seattle has some nostalgic memories and connection to the University of Washington and the University District. While I didn't attend "the U", I still went to "the Ave" in my college days to buy my hip-hugging bell-bottom pants at Bluebeards and the underground newspapers like "The Helix." Those were the days and I still love the U District!

Since the early 1970's there has been an agreement between the City and the UW limiting the amount of office space it can lease in areas surrounding the campus. The intent of this agreement was to protect residential neighborhoods and the University District retail area from encroachment by the UW with resulting loss of affordable housing and loss of neighborhood businesses.

Over the last 30 years the economic vitality of the University District has deteriorated and the University of Washington has grown into a premier national institution, with the need for more operations and office space. Given these circumstances, I think that the time has come for the City and the University to change how we will work together to meet the needs of the University, to revitalize the University District and to respect and address the concerns of residents.

For that reason I support the decision of the City Council and the Mayor last year to end the lease lid and instead enact measures to help revitalize the University District and encourage development consistent with the goals in the University District's neighborhood plan. Last year's decision is being reconsidered by the City Council because of procedural errors when the legislation was being considered in 2003.

In my meetings with residential neighborhood leaders and some merchants, several issues have emerged as priorities including a strong desire for more housing and mixed-use development that encourages street-level commercial activity and the concern about the loss of affordable housing as the community changes. I share those concerns and have proposed an amendment to the legislation lifting the lease lid and a Council resolution that I hope will address these issues.

The ordinance amendment I am proposing adds language requiring the City to monitor the potential displacement of people or loss of housing as a result of expanding the UW's leasing capacity. The City has made a commitment to encourage the development of housing in this neighborhood through zoning changes and other incentives. This provision will allow the City to track our net-gain or net-loss of housing in the University District. By tracking this type of information, we will have a better understanding of what may be occurring and how to meet our housing goals.

The resolution I am proposing directs City staff to evaluate and review zoning and development regulations that encourage pedestrian-oriented development and street level commercial activity. University District residents repeatedly cite their displeasure with single-use commercial buildings such as the Roosevelt Commons. These types of buildings do very little to encourage attractive street-level activities. There are ways the City can do more to help create incentives for developers interested in mixed-use projects (i.e. ground floor retail with residential units above) in the neighborhood. To view the resolution that I am proposing, click here.

I hope these two measures will help address some of the neighborhood concerns in the University District. I am confident that lifting the lease lid with provisions intended to fulfill the neighborhoods plans will benefit our entire community.

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A Few Words on the Monorail

King County Superior Court Judge Steven Gonzalez ruled last week that the Monorail Recall Initiative violates the Growth Management Act given the monorail project's designation as an "essential public facility" by the state legislature. Furthermore, Judge Gonzalez ruled that the initiative's intent was to circumvent state and city land-use regulations to effectively force a re-vote on whether the green-line of the monorail should be built. The bottom-line of his ruling suggests the initiative extends beyond the city's scope of powers and therefore cannot be placed on the ballot. The decision has been appealed and the appellate court is expected to hear this case on September 13.

Without question, the Council has an obligation under the City Charter to consider placing citizen initiatives on the ballot once they have been certified. King County Records and Elections certified Initiative 83 in July and beginning August 2, the Council has 45 days to deliberate and review the ballot measure. Some members of the public have interpreted the Council's decision to not take action until we have had an opportunity to better understand the legal implications of Judge Gonzalez's ruling and perhaps wait for an appellate court decision in September as a means of thwarting the initiative process and the monorail recall effort. This is simply not our intent. We need to understand the legal implications of putting I-83 on the ballot. Regardless of how individual councilmembers and the public feel about the monorail, it would be irresponsible to do otherwise. Moreover, given that a decision by the appellate court is expected on September 13, the Council would still have time within the 45 day window to act on the initiative.

I feel strongly that acting now on I-83 would be premature and unwise given the legal uncertainty surrounding this issue. As we learn more in the coming weeks, I am confident that this Council will take the most appropriate course of action with the interest of all Seattle residents in mind.

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Working in the Neighborhoods

I appreciate the opportunity to visit our neighborhoods and observe first hand the important work happening in our communities. For example my walks with people who live in the University District have helped me understand the community's vision for their neighborhood.

I hope you can join me at one of these events that I'll be attending in September. If there are other events I should know about or if you would like me to visit your neighborhood, please call me at (206) 684-8808.

  • Monday, September 6 from 11:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. - 2004 Labor Day Celebration at Lower Woodland Park, North 50th and Woodland Park North

  • Wednesday, September 8 from noon to 1:30 p.m. - Biotech Forum at City Hall

  • Friday, September 10 from 11:00 a.m. to noon - Tour of Harder House at 8504 Wallingford Avenue North

  • Friday, September 10 at 5:30 p.m. - Asian Resource Center 10th Anniversary Dinner and Auction

  • Wednesday, September 15 at 11:30 a.m. - West Seattle Chamber of Commerce Luncheon at Kenney Retirement Home

  • Saturday, September 18 at 10:00 a.m. - Groundbreaking for new segment of Burke Gilman Trail

Please contact my office if you have any questions about these events or would like more information about where I will be in the community in the coming weeks.

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Next Month in Point of View

Next month I intend to share my thoughts about:

  • 2005 Budget Process (Schedule and how you can share with me your budget priorities)
  • Priorities for 2005 Federal Grant Dollars in Housing and Community Development
  • Alaskan Way Viaduct Update

In August, we updated our newsletter distribution list and created a listserv to automate subscription and removal requests. If this edition of Point of View was shared with you and you would like to be added to our distribution list, please click here.

If you would like to be removed from the distribution list, click on the link at the bottom of the newsletter or send us an e-mail by clicking here.

Other questions or comments about Point of View?  Please email tom.rasmussen@seattle.gov or call (206) 684-8808.

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