Seattle Mayor Ed Murray aims to move ahead with a plan to annex White Center now that the state Legislature has approved the help he wanted.
Residents of White Center and the rest of the unincorporated North Highline area could vote as soon as next year about whether to become Seattleites.
The Legislature agreed this week to redirect more than $7 million in state sales taxes to Seattle each year for six years if the city annexes the area.
The money would help the city cover costs associated with the annexation, letting Mayor Ed Murray move ahead with a plan that’s been on hold for a number of years due to inaction in the Legislature, he said Thursday.
“This is about unifying a community that’s been divided for too long,” Murray said Thursday.
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The annexation area abuts the Seattle neighborhoods of Highland Park and Roxhill.
For more than a decade, King County officials have been seeking annexation for densely populated but unincorporated communities surrounded by cities, and the North Highline area that Seattle may annex is one of the last “urban islands” remaining.
In 2009, Burien annexed the southern portion of North Highline and then-Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels sought to annex the northern portion. But the Seattle City Council said no. In 2012, Burien tried to annex the northern portion, but voters there said no.
Murray now hopes to complete what Nickels couldn’t. Seattle submitted notice of its intent to the state Boundary Review Board for King County in December. If the board signs off, the Seattle City Council would decide whether to send the question to the ballot in unincorporated North Highline. That vote would occur no earlier than 2017.
The City Council last summer supported the notice of intent, but four new members were elected in November, and there’s no guarantee the council will support annexation.
Between 17,000 and 18,000 people live in unincorporated North Highline, which is more diverse and less affluent than King County overall, according to county officials.
For example, White Center’s population in 2011 was 37 percent white, 24 percent Hispanic, 21 percent Asian, and 10 percent black, according to officials; 25 percent of residents lived below the poverty line, 13 percent were college graduates, 33 percent were foreign-born and 47 percent spoke a language other than English at home.
People in unincorporated North Highline have been receiving less robust services than their neighbors in Seattle and Burien because the county’s government is designed to provide regional and rural services, not urban services, said Karen Freeman, a county policy analyst.
“Cities have the appropriate funding tools to raise money for urban areas,” Freeman said, mentioning utility taxes, business-and-occupation taxes and sales taxes.
“Cities have a four- or five-legged stool. We have a two-legged stool — sales taxes and property taxes. We don’t have the right tools to serve these areas,” she added, saying urban islands lack sufficient policing, road maintenance and homeless services.
Murray said annexation makes sense for residents. The mayor said the area’s land owners would see their property taxes decrease.
“We can offer more services to an area that’s extremely diverse with a lot of new Americans,” he said. “There’s a social-justice issue here, too. We have a large immigrant population sitting there unincorporated. I think that’s just wrong.”
Justin Cline, who owns Full Tilt Ice Cream in White Center, said he would support Seattle annexing the area because “the county is doing the bare minimum.”
“Somebody has to annex it,” he said. “We’re not getting a lot. Roads, funding for special projects. The sheriff has been doing a great job, but he’s underfunded. We don’t have regular patrols here. There’s no structure to support local businesses, no outreach to homeless people in the area, no mental-health or drug treatment.”
Cline already pays his White Center workers what he pays workers at his Seattle stores, so Seattle’s higher minimum wage wouldn’t require an adjustment, he said, though it would affect other businesses there.
He does worry about the city neglecting White Center the way he says officials have neglected South Park, a blue-collar Seattle neighborhood nearby. That’s a concern shared by Barbara Dobkin, president of the North Highline Unincorporated Area Council.
“There are so many neighborhoods in Seattle right now with so many needs,” Dobkin said. “People around here wonder where our needs are going to fall in line.”
Public schools in the area would still be part of Highline Public Schools unless Seattle Public Schools sought to take them over, and White Center likely would become one of Seattle’s urban villages designated for dense new development, she said.
Dobkin said she thinks taxes and other costs would increase, not decrease. She said crime rates in the area are lower than rates across the Seattle border.
“There are more questions than answers,” Dobkin said, pointing a finger at county officials for allowing the area to suffer. “We need to have an honest conversation.”
West Seattle Blog wrote about the potential annexation after a city official recently briefed the Westwood-Roxhill-Arbor Heights Community Council on the issue.
Amanda Kay Helmick, who co-chairs the group and lives just over the Seattle border from unincorporated North Highline, is hoping the annexation goes through and said officials should be incorporating that possibility into their long-term planning for the city.
“Everyone here goes to White Center. People don’t even realize it isn’t part of Seattle,” she said. “But when you cross over, who do you call about parking, garbage on the street, a homeless guy who needs help? This would help build community.”