Advocates will make a last-ditch effort this afternoon to convince the King County Council to more than double the size of the King County Veterans, Seniors, and Human Services Levy, on the ballot this November. But after weeks of debate, and numerous proposals and counter-proposals, the council appeared last week to have settled on a compromise: A levy of ten cents per thousand dollars of property value—double the size of the previous levy—divided evenly between programs for veterans, seniors, and other vulnerable populations.
The argument over the levy has boiled down to two primary issues: How large it should be (County Executive Dow Constantine and advocates have argued for at least 12 cents, and some advocates have pushed for even more), and how it should be divided. The council’s three Republicans, not surprisingly, have advocated for a smaller, 10-cent levy.
Ordinarily, the Republicans would be outnumbered, and the Constantine proposal would prevail. But the Republicans have two Democratic allies in council members Dave Upthegrove and Rod Dembowski, giving them a five-vote majority. Dembowski, unlike Upthegrove, has made it clear that he would be willing to support a 12-cent levy, but only if that 12 cents was divided 50-50 between veterans and other beneficiaries; the other Democrats argued that it should be split evenly between programs for veterans, seniors, and everybody else. (The Dembowski split would be achieved by taking the third of the money that goes to seniors and earmarking half of it for seniors who are also veterans.) After a number of convoluted machinations at the council’s budget and policy committee, the full council, and a regional policy committee that includes representatives from several suburban cities as well as Seattle, the proposal to reserve more of the levy exclusively for veterans failed, and the “compromise” version the council will consider today is ten cents, evenly divided.
Council members who supported a more even distribution of funds argued that it was a matter of demographics and equity. At last week’s regional policy committee meeting, county council member Jeanne Kohl-Welles pointed out that while the number of veterans in King County continues to decrease, the number of seniors is about to skyrocket. “By 2030, we’re looking at a one to ten ratio of veterans to seniors,” Kohl-Welles said, “so my argument is that the best approach to take would be [the three-way split]. Even at that, the veterans are receiving way more, proportionally, than are the demographic of seniors in our population.” At least one local veterans’ group agreed with this analysis. ”
“Excluding seniors from this levy would be doing a disservice to our aging veterans and those that don’t identify as veterans for a number of legitimate reasons,” such as Ryan Mielcarek, co-chair of the King County Veterans Consortium, testified. “This levy is carried on the backs of veterans and we know that. To that I say, ‘Hop on. We will carry you.'” Even at the lower, 10-cent level, the levy would double what the county will spend on services for veterans.
Suburban members of the regional policy committee, including Mercer Island City Council member Dan Grausz, argued that voters outside Seattle might reject a 12-cent levy as too large. “I would hope that what we an do as electeds is always remember that our paramount duty is to get a result, and that sometimes requires compromise,” Grausz said. Seattle council member Kshama Sawant, who also sits on the regional committee, shot back, “The paramount duty of all elected officials, especially today, is to listen tot your constituents and respond to their needs—not to the political calculations of other politicians. Political realities on the King County Councilare no more etched in stone than they are anywhere else. If you call their bluff and send a 12-cent measure to the King County Council, they will have to go on record and say why they oppose it. If they really want to vote against 12 cents, let them do it. I don’t think it’s my job to make it easier for them.”
Arguments that voters might reject the veterans levy over two cents seem implausible in light of the levy’s overwhelming popularity. In August 2011, seven in 10 King County voters supported the levy—a massive margin for a property tax.
Advocates for the larger levy have pointed out that although it would only add $9 to the median property owner’s tax bill—an average of 75 cents a month more than the 10-cent version—it would increase county funding for services by $67 million over the six-year life of the levy ($407 million compared to $340 million for the 10-cent version.) That’s $21 million more for housing stability programs, $15 more in new services for vulnerable groups, $15 million more for veterans, and $15.5 million more for seniors. “We’re leaving $67 million on the table,” Seattle city council member Debora Juarez, who also sits on the regional committee, said last week. “To me, that’s unconscionable.”
King County Council chair Joe McDermott told me Friday that although he would be willing to support a levy of as much as 15 cents, he falls on the site of the political pragmatists. “I see the increased need around the entire county for all of these services, but part of legislating is working with colleagues and compromising,” McDermott said. “What came out of the [regional policy committee] is a compromise, and that’s the compromise I think we should all be looking at” on Monday.
If the council fails to reach a compromise this afternoon, the “drop-dead date” to vote on a measure for the November ballot is August 1, although that would require an emergency declaration from the council.
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