The Metropolitan King County Council votes to put a larger Veterans and Human Services levy on the November ballot, but it dials back the amount recommended by Executive Dow Constantine.
Potentially adding to the region’s growing tax bill, the Metropolitan King County Council voted unanimously Thursday to place on the November ballot a Veterans, Human Services and Seniors property-tax levy. It doubles the size of the current levy, but it dials back Executive Dow Constantine’s proposal to triple it.
The council also redistributed the levy funds in Constantine’s proposal so that about half are dedicated to veteran services while human services gets 33 percent and seniors about 17 percent.
Constantine had recommended an equal split among the three programs, pointing to the projected growth in the number of the county’s seniors, who were included in the levy for the first time.
The levy also addresses homelessness, with half of the first year’s revenue, and a quarter of subsequent years’, directed to housing stability and construction of affordable units across the county.
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“In this renewal, I didn’t want to see (the focus on veterans) diminished,” Councilmember Rod Dembowski said. But he also praised the significant expansion of funds for affordable housing, calling it “the crisis of our time.”
The ballot measure will ask voters to approve a 10-cent tax for every $1,000 of assessed property value, or $45 per year for a $450,000 median-priced home. That’s up from 5 cents under the current levy or $22.50 per year, but less than the executive’s proposed 12 cents per $1,000 assessed property value, or $54 per year.
The levy would raise about $51 million per year and $343 million over six years.
The vote came over the objection of many of the county’s human-services providers and advocates for seniors and the homeless who argued for the higher levy amount that would raise $60 million more over six years.
They pointed to the region’s homelessness crisis and the number of people in need of mental-health and substance-abuse treatment, as well as the difficulty in finding housing and employment for the previously incarcerated.
But Monday, two council members who caucus as Democrats, Dembowski and Dave Upthegrove, joined three who caucus as Republicans, Reagan Dunn, Kathy Lambert and Pete von Reichbauer, to oppose the higher, 12-cent levy amount and change the distribution so veterans would continue to receive about half of the money.
Under a compromise reached Thursday, money from the senior portion of the levy will be used to house homeless senior veterans until a goal of 75 percent housed is reached or $24 million dollars spent. At that point, the levy revenue may be used for all senior services, not just senior veterans.
Although he voted to send the measure to voters, Dunn called the levy “a huge tax increase” and questioned whether it would further drive up the costs of homeownership and renting in the county.
“This is the kind of thing that creates homelessness. Landlords will pass on the increase to renters … We might think we are solving a problem, but we are creating one on the backside,” he said.
Several council members were troubled by the growing tax bill for county residents. Upthegrove noted Monday that just 42 percent of his district voted for the last county tax measure, the Best Starts for Kids levy in 2015, though it passed countywide with 56 percent approval. With the state’s recent approval of new property taxes for education and the big jump in taxes to pay for Sound Transit 3, Upthegrove said he couldn’t support a larger levy.
“There’s a huge, unmet need in the county in all these categories — veterans, seniors and vulnerable populations. No one disputes that. But these taxes disproportionally impact the working and low-income families in my district,” he said. His district includes Renton, Kent, Sea-Tac, Des Moines and parts of Burien and Tukwila.
Councilmember Jeanne Kohl-Welles objected to directing half of the levy proceeds to veterans. She pointed to county population projections that showed the number of veterans falling from 113,000 in 2015 to an estimated 96,000 in 2020 while the number of seniors 55 and older, about 536,000 now, is expected to grow to 576,000 in 2020.
“There’s overwhelming need in the county. I have a lot of trouble saying that one category of the King County population deserves more than another,” she said.
Councilmember Claudia Balducci said the levy would do “tremendous good” for the residents of King County. She praised the addition of seniors to the levy, noting that they have a higher rate of poverty and greater needs as they age than other populations.
But she also called on the council to work with other elected officials across the state to address Washington’s regressive tax structure that disproportionately impacts the poor.
The Veteran’s and Human Services levy has faced little opposition since it was first approved by voters in 2005. It was renewed in 2011 with 66 percent support.
Since 2006, the levy has contributed to the creation of more than 2,000 units of affordable housing and has helped thousands of chronically homeless veterans and others move into housing, according to a county analysis.
County officials say the levy has saved at least $7 million since 2012 in jail and emergency-room costs by providing housing, health care and substance-abuse treatment through a levy-funded database and housing-placement program.
In addition to new state and regional property taxes, King County voters will be asked in the Aug. 1 primary to approve Proposition 1, a 0.1 percent increase in the sales tax to expand access to arts, science and heritage programs for school children and their families. That measure is expected to cost $30 a year for a household with an income of $80,000.