Earlier this year, leaders of the King County Library System were all in on asking voters to approve a property-tax levy to boost library funds by $75 million a year to close a projected deficit.
Meeting on Feb. 26, the library system’s board of trustees approved placing the levy proposal on the August primary ballot.
Two days later, a King County man became the nation’s first known fatality due to COVID-19.
Bowing to abruptly altered economic and political realities, the library trustees reversed themselves and rescinded the ballot measure last month in a virtual meeting.
“With these things, timing is everything. Now is not the right time to ask the voters,” said Lisa Rosenblum, executive director of the 50-library system, which, like most employers, has shut down during the coronavirus pandemic under Gov. Jay Inslee’s stay-home order.
Under normal circumstances in a presidential-election year, Puget Sound voters might encounter several local government tax requests. But in 2020, political considerations have been reshaped by the coronavirus crisis, which has killed more than 1,000 Washingtonians and left hundreds of thousands more without regular paychecks.
Neither Seattle nor King County will place measures on the ballot in August.
But in November, the city may ask voters to approve a bus service tax, and the county likely will propose a bond to renovate Harborview Medical Center. A so-called “Amazon tax” on large corporations in Seattle could qualify as an initiative, though the virus has complicated signature collecting.
But several other potential measures appear dead in the water. In addition to the county libraries levy, a county transit tax has been ruled out, and the odds are stacked against a county arts tax. Officials in Snohomish and Pierce counties also said they plan no countywide tax ballot measures this year.
Harborview project still in view
The best bet to reach the November ballot in King County is the Harborview measure, which County Executive Dow Constantine sent to the county council last month.
Backed by unions that represent health care and construction workers, the proposal would authorize a 20-year, $1.74 billion bond to build a new hospital tower and carry out other upgrades at the only Level 1 trauma center in Washington.
Constantine’s administration has estimated the measure would cost property owners an annual average of 8 cents per $1,000 of assessed value over the life of the bond. The annual average cost over that time would be $68 for a home of median assessed value (accounting for projected increases in value). In some years, the actual cost would be lower and in some years higher, based on the bond and construction schedule.
Per state law, such bonds must win 60% approval with turnout equal to or greater than 40% of the votes cast in the previous election.
“There’s no question the dire economic situation will make any ballot measure more difficult to pass,” Constantine said. “But this measure is precisely the generational investment that needs to be on a presidential ballot … This has been in the works for a long time.”
While 60% approval may be “a steep hill to climb,” Harborview has played a crucial role in responding to the coronavirus pandemic, Constantine said. The new tower would serve the same number of patients but with single-bed rooms, increasing the hospital’s surge capacity. Harborview today must leave some beds empty to prevent contagion.
“I’m pretty sure people understand why this is important,” Constantine said.
County Councilmember Claudia Balducci will vote to send the measure to the ballot, she said.
“People very well may say, ‘Not now.’ But they should have the opportunity to vote on it,” said Balducci, who chairs the council.
Libraries to wait their turn
In pulling back their tax proposal, King County Library System (KCLS) leaders acknowledge a public hospital like Harborview may have a better case amid a public health crisis.
“We don’t want to compete with a hospital district right now,” said Rosenblum. “If Harborview goes in November, we want to leave the field open for that.”
The pullback will leave the library system with tough choices. Other Puget Sound library systems successfully pushed levy measures in recent years, including Seattle Public Library’s seven-year, $219 million levy renewal approved by voters in 2019. It has been 10 years since King County’s system has sought a similar boost in property taxes.
Without the levy, King County officials say, libraries will face reduced hours and staffing, and will have less money for books, computers and classes.
The levy would have cost the owner of a $500,000 home an additional $90 in 2021. Over 10 years, the measure would have raised $750 million or more, depending on property valuations, said Nicholas Lee, finance director for the library system.
“It’s not that we don’t need the money,” said Rosenblum, adding the libraries will look to bring back the levy proposal in a future year.
Bus tax still possible
Not long ago, King County Council members were talking about placing a sales-tax increase on the August ballot to support Metro bus service, and Balducci had “high hopes” for the measure. The pandemic ended that conversation almost immediately, she said in an interview this week.
“This isn’t happening,” Balducci remembers thinking in late February, when she learned the virus was spreading. “We can’t ask people to do this. The world was changing.” She broke the news to transit advocates, describing the concept in an email as unrealistic.
The city of Seattle may still place a bus-service measure on the November ballot. Not doing so could mean sharp cuts, because bus service in the city is currently supported by a sales-tax and car-tab package set to expire Dec. 31. Meanwhile, the pandemic already is taking a toll at Metro. Ridership was down 70% in early May and sales tax collections are down during the pandemic. For those reasons, Metro expects to collect $265 million less than expected in revenue this year.
Despite the pandemic, Seattle City Councilmember Alex Pedersen thinks Seattle voters would agree, at least, to renew the 0.1% sales-tax component. The car-tab piece has been tied up in court since statewide Initiative 976 passed last year.
The city will need robust bus service in the next several years to recover from the coronavirus crisis, as workers seek inexpensive transportation options, he said. “Preserving and expanding transit is a top priority,” said Pedersen, who chairs the council’s transportation committee. “We still have time to get this on the November ballot.”
Mayor Jenny Durkan has yet to commit one way or another. In a statement, spokeswoman Chelsea Kellogg described the current tax package as an important tool. “We continue to look at all options,” Kellogg said.
Pedersen said a proposal should come soon. “The mayor is close to having something, I think,” he said.
Arts and culture takes another swing
The pandemic appears to have thwarted arts, culture and science boosters. They’ve been eyeing November 2020 since 2017, when King County voters narrowly rejected a 0.1% sales-tax increase that would have supported about 350 organizations, from Seattle Repertory Theater to the Seattle Aquarium and the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute.
“When we lost in 2017, there was a real reckoning,” said Manny Cawaling, executive director at Inspire Washington, an advocacy group. “We came so close, but we realized that barely winning wouldn’t be good enough.”
The boosters wanted to try again, with a stronger coalition. They persuaded the state Legislature this year to change the way sales-tax revenues can be distributed. Were voters to approve a 0.1% increase now, small nonprofits would receive more money, Cawaling said.
They planned to spend the summer building support at community events, expecting high turnout for the presidential election. “For three years we’ve been looking toward that November ballot,” Cawaling said.
Some organizations that would benefit are among those hardest hit by the coronavirus crisis, he said. Theaters have closed. Concerts are banned. “These programs are essential,” he said. “Now more than ever, people need to connect.”
Yet the idea looks doomed this year. Most organizations are busy struggling to keep the lights on and too busy to campaign. With unemployment spiking, voters may want to pinch pennies. “We have real challenges,” Cawaling admitted.
The measure would need to pass by Constantine’s desk, and the county executive is an arts booster. Constantine says he doesn’t think the proposal would pass muster with voters, however.
“Stranger things have happened, but I would be really surprised to see anything get momentum besides Harborview,” Constantine said. “I don’t think this is the right time.”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated with new estimates for the costs of the Harborview bond measure.