Advocates hope voters will approve a levy that will help veterans, vulnerable populations and, for the first time, seniors.
Joe Conniff was the only one of his siblings to follow in his father’s footsteps and join the U.S. Navy, a point of pride for the youngest of seven and Massachusetts native.
But by his early 30s, Conniff found himself addicted to heroin and living on the streets of downtown Seattle, his military career and his life in disarray. If treatment or services were available for veterans, Conniff doubted he could access them because the Navy had dishonorably discharged him for using cocaine.
Then, an arrest on a drug charge in 2015 and a chance encounter in court with two state veterans-affairs workers resulted in Conniff’s being connected to an array of programs and services, many of them paid for by a King County levy specifically designed to help veterans, the homeless and other vulnerable populations.
King County Veterans, Seniors and Human Services Levy — Proposition 1
History: First passed in 2005 and renewed in 2011. The current levy expires on Dec. 31.
Cost: 10-cent property tax for every $1,000 of assessed property value, double the previous amount.
How much will the levy generate: Roughly $354 million over six years
What it does: Connects veterans, seniors and vulnerable populations, including the homeless, to an array of services, including help finding housing.
What’s new: If passed, the new levy will include funding for seniors.
That levy is up for renewal on the Nov. 7 ballot, listed as King County Proposition 1. For the first time since 2005, when it originally passed, the levy includes funding for seniors. It also is double the size of the previous measures, at roughly $354 million over six years.
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Voters are being asked to approve a 10-cent property tax for every $1,000 of assessed property value, instead of the previous 5-cent levy. That’s about $28 more per year for a $450,000 median-priced home, according to the Yes for Vets and Human Services campaign.
There has been no organized opposition to the levy renewal, though at least two King County councilmembers — who ultimately agreed to put the proposal on the ballot — raised concerns that voters are increasingly fatigued by other tax and levy votes in recent months and years.
Conniff, now a business owner who also works in the veterans drug courts that once helped him, is a wholehearted supporter. “I don’t really know where I’d be without those services,” said Conniff, 34.
The levy money will go to three funding categories: for veterans and their families, which can include widows and widowers of service members; for seniors 55 and older and their caregivers; and for vulnerable populations, a broad category that includes the homeless, survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault, people with disabilities, immigrants and refugees, troubled youth and LBGT people.
Reflecting the urgency of the county’s rising housing costs, the levy requires that at least half of the first-year proceeds go toward housing stability. In later years, that drops to at least 25 percent.
“We’re not just talking about housing. We’re really talking about the blend of capital to build housing, operations to keep it running and then services that can keep people housed or help them gain housing over time,” said Leo Flor, the county’s veterans and human services levy renewal manager.
That could mean actually building new affordable housing or other, more expedient options, like pursuing a master lease agreement. In that scenario, a nonprofit typically leases a group of units for a period of time, thus controlling who can rent them and ensuring the landlord has no vacancy.
The previous two levies have contributed funds toward the creation of 2,056 affordable-housing units, all rentals, since 2005, Flor said.
How the money will be divided involves a somewhat complicated formula that ensures veterans still get at least half of the total funds but, over time, increases how much money is available to seniors after certain housing or funding milestones are met. Some of the initial funds are specifically tied to housing senior homeless veterans and their families.
That’s become of particular importance as King County’s senior population grows: Nearly one in five King County residents are 60 or older, and about 60 percent of King County veterans are seniors 55 and older. Yet senior spending in the county hasn’t kept pace with that growth.
The Metropolitan King County Council, which put the levy on the ballot, is looking at how to spend the upcoming levy proceeds as part of a transition plan.
Money could go toward funding county senior centers or adding another mobile medical van, which provides primary and preventive care for the homeless.
Began 12 years ago
The veterans and human services levy was first approved 12 years ago, at a time when general-fund revenue for “non-mandatory services” — and human services are considered non-mandatory — was hard to come by, Flor said.
“Levies become the mechanism to fund those services” that may not be required but, Flor said, the county believes are necessary. The veterans and human services levy has also been a particularly flexible funding source.
In the past, the money significantly expanded the King County Veteran’s Program operations and provided holistic case management to veterans.
Since 2011, when the levy was renewed for the first time, the measure has funded an integrated mental-health care screening for mothers who participate in the Women, Infants and Children food and nutrition program. More than 12,000 mothers have been screened over the last six years; an average of 520 mothers get screened positive for depression and seek care, Flor said.
There are many veterans who won’t go to a VA hospital for help — maybe they were sexually assaulted while in the military, for example. But the levy pays for mental-health care through the Washington State Department of Veteran Affairs, which can help veterans and their families.
Conniff took part in an incarcerated-veterans program that connected him to services for people leaving incarceration. The levy helped pay for his room and board at the William Booth Center, so he was able to leave custody one month early and reunite with his young daughter.
Two years later, he’s found his footing professionally. Conniff and his partner make and package kale chips, made with ingredients from local farms.
Series of tax hikes
The levy renewal is landing on the ballot following a parade of tax increases for King County residents.
Two years ago, voters approved a new property levy to pay for the county’s $392 million Best Start for Kids program. Voters signed off on the $54 billion Sound Transit 3 ballot measure last fall. This summer, Washington state lawmakers pushed through an education-financing plan that means significantly higher property tax bills starting Jan. 1 for homeowners in Seattle, Mercer Island, Bellevue and other cities.
In August, two weeks after the veterans, seniors and human services levy was put on the November ballot, residents struck down a county sales tax increase that would have funded arts, culture and science initiatives.
Even before the failed August vote on the arts and science tax, King County Councilmembers Reagan Dunn and Kathy Lambert, both Republicans, had raised concerns about passing an additional tax along to voters.
Lambert, who represents northeastern King County, said human services is not a charter responsibility and worried the county’s infrastructure is being put on the back burner.
“This is a time to teach people to fish, to figure out why we are having the problems we are outside of Seattle and throughout the county … because six years from now we have got to do some other priorities,” Lambert said at the July 20 meeting where county councilmembers voted to put the levy on the November ballot. She and Dunn, nonetheless, agreed with the rest of the seven-member council to put the issue before voters.
Councilmember Claudia Balducci, speaking at the same July meeting, said counties increasingly have to rely on these levies, and “that will continue until we have a conversation in our state about the inequities in our (state) tax structure.”
Mike Heinisch, executive director of Kent Youth and Family Services and a supporter of the levy’s renewal, admits the environment is tax averse, as property taxes skyrocket due to the region’s lucrative housing market.
But, he believes, the measure will pass.
“I think people will say, yeah, it is what it is and we are tax weary, it is something we need and the voters of King County will say ‘yes’ to that,” Heinisch said