By Erica C. Barnett
The nine-member King County Council is expected to vote this afternoon to place the Veterans, Seniors, and Human Services Levy renewal on the August ballot, although the size of the levy was still up for debate going into Tuesday’s meeting.
The two options on the table are a flat renewal at 10 cents per $1,000 of property value—the plan King County Executive Dow Constantine sent the council for approval back in February. A levy renewal at that level would raise about $565 million over six years, but—due to inflation and increased construction costs—would produce only about half as much housing as the expiring levy and require 45 percent cut to housing-related services. The other option on the table is to increase the levy to 12 cents per $1,000, which would raise about $678 million over the same period. The higher levy would cost the owner of a median ($838,000) home about $17 more per year.
The levy pays for housing, domestic violence prevention, senior centers, and supportive services for low-income and homeless veterans, seniors, and other King County residents. Over the last six years, it has raised around $350 million. Placing a levy on the ballot requires a six-vote supermajority, which means that in order to pass a higher, 12-cent tax, at least six of the county council’s seven Democrats will need to be on board.
In a special meeting last Friday, the county’s 12-member Regional Policy Committee, which makes recommendations to the county council, failed to reach agreement on the appropriate size for the levy, with five members voting for the lower rate and four holding out for the 12-cent option. (Because county council members on the RPC get two votes each, a 5-4 vote in favor of the smaller levy option resulted in a 6-6 vote).
Originally, the RPC was supposed to make a recommendation at its regularly scheduled meeting last Monday. Instead of voting then, the RPC decided to hold off on a recommendation until after Tuesday’s election on another countywide property tax levy—the King County Crisis Centers Levy, which will build five mental health crisis centers across the county, restore some residential mental health care beds, and increase behavioral health workers’ pay.
“Sadly, there is a bond measure for the Kent School District that failed by almost the same percentage, if not more, than [the crisis centers levy passed by] I think that is a pretty good indicator that there are individuals in our communities that have tax fatigue and are not looking for adding any new taxes.”—Auburn Mayor Nancy Backus
That levy is currently passing with nearly 57 percent of the vote. However, both County Councilmember Claudia Balducci, who represents Bellevue, and Auburn Mayor Nancy Backus noted last week that the levy was failing in parts of rural and suburban King County—suggesting a lack of appetite for higher property taxes outside Seattle.
“Sadly, there is a bond measure for the Kent School District that failed by almost the same percentage, if not more, than [the crisis centers levy passed by],” Backus said. “I think that is a pretty good indicator that there are individuals in our communities that have tax fatigue and are not looking for adding any new taxes.”
“I have to say that I hear very clearly the message that Mayor Backus is sending,” Balducci said. “We need to look at what our voters are telling us.”
Last week, around the same time that the RPC was meeting, King County Executive Dow Constantine posted a “community survey” asking voters to pick which services to cut in light of a $100 million projected 2025-2026 shortfall Constantine said was “due to the state’s arbitrary one percent limit on property tax collection.” Constantine’s announcement noted pointedly that services for domestic violence and sexual assault survivors, gun violence prevention, programs for BIPOC youth, and public health clinics were all among the options on the chopping block.
In the legislative session that just concluded, lawmakers proposed, but did not pass, a bill that would have raised the cap to 3 percent. The bill never got a hearing. A fiscal analysis by legislative staff found that it would increase local tax revenues statewide by about $480 million during the 2025-2026 biennium. According to an analysis of the legislation by Constantine’s staff, however, a 3 percent cap would have increased property taxes for the median King County homeowner by $7.96 a year, an amount that would not make up for the $100 million biennial shortfall Constantine blamed on the legislature.
Alison Eisinger, the executive director of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, said it was absurd for Constantine to blame the legislature for the county’s budget shortfall, especially when he chose to leave money on the table by proposing a flat renewal of the levy.
“Are people supposed to think that government can actually be part of the solution if, on the one hand, government is saying we have a $100 million shortfall and we’re going to have to cut critical services, and on the other hand, they’re debating something that would cost the average homeowner pennies?” Eisinger said. “This is about elected officials not having the courage of their convictions and taking the necessary votes to let the public decide whether or not we are going to house veterans and seniors and support our communities.”
The services identified in the county’s survey are funded with the general fund, not the veterans’ levy, and the county can’t legally use levy dollars to supplant items that would ordinarily be paid for by the general fund; Eisinger’s comments were about the contrast between Constantine’s complaint about the county’s taxing authority and his support for the smallest version of the levy under consideration.
The last time the veterans, seniors, and human services levy was on the ballot, in November 2017, it passed with 69 percent of the vote.