4 to Explore: A Northeast Neighborhoods Newsletter

1 Issue to Engage

1 Issue to Engage

Annual Community Survey 2018: We Love Hearing From You!

We Heard Your Voice and the results are HERE. Nearly 400 subscribers in Northeast Seattle completed our 14-question survey about local issues May 8-10, 2018.

As you may recall, we believe public officials should “conduct official surveys and release results to the public,” as we urged in our Crosscut column entitled, “4 Ideas to Make City Hall Listen.” While our annual survey is not “official,” we hope it advances discussions and clarifies important issues impacting our communities in Northeast Seattle. For our COMMUNITY SURVEY RESULTS, CLICK HERE. For a potentially annoying and definitely subjective summary of the survey, keep reading:

MYSTERIOUS Result: After 6 months of her leading our city, residents are still unsure of Mayor Durkan. When asked “Are you happy with the new Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan” an unusually high 50% said “Don’t Know.”

URGENT Result: One of the most pressing issues is City Hall’s proposal to spend $8 million to repave 35th Avenue NE. As if City Hall officials were literally deaf to the people who elected them, the project is poised to proceed even though only 12% support it, according to this survey (see discussion below about the validity of our survey).  In our view, Mayor Durkan should immediately revamp the project by completing only the crosswalk improvements. This would free up some of these tax dollars to address other urgent crosswalk and sidewalk needs throughout Northeast Seattle (65th Street, View Ridge, Lake City, etc) — and throughout the rest of our city. While Mayor Durkan might have been hoping 35th Avenue would be “too local” of an issue to impact her, a trifecta of forces changes the political calculus:  residents are still forming an opinion about her leadership, the media has recently published several reports of SDOT over-spending, and there is major opposition to the project. 35th Ave is poised to become a memorable litmus test for the Mayor in an area of the city that turns out the vote.

LOPSIDED Result: A whopping 88% of respondents said “real estate developers should be required to provide some parking spaces at their new buildings.” This flies in the face of City Council’s recent 8 to 1 vote to loosen the requirement again. (Thank you, Lisa Herbold, for bravely voting against it.)

You might remember the most lopsided result in our previous surveys: 85% of residents agreed that “real estate developers should be required to pay Impact Fees to help defray the costs of building new schools, fire stations, and sidewalks as the city’s population grows” (See HERE and HERE). Because it has been so clear Seattleites would like to see their Mayor and City Council impose Impact Fees, we decided to ask the parking question instead this year.

It’s important to clear up a false premise repeated by some to confuse the public: if the cost to build housing increases, do rents or home prices increase? No. Prices are set by the maximum the market will bear. In other words, developers do not voluntarily charge lower rent or home prices. When the costs to build increase, developers and investors make less “profit” (their return on equity decreases). The genuine concern then becomes, at what point would a developer not build, therefore negatively impacting supply?  Adding Impact Fees and on-site parking back into the costs to build need to be considered cumulatively, just like City Hall considers the cumulative impact of each property tax that they propose on us. (Ha! kidding about the property taxes; City Hall just piles those taxes onto residents.) Seriously, though, most other Puget Sound and west coast cities require both Impact Fees and on-site parking. Talented developers can cope and can leverage the fact that Seattle is still an extraordinarily desirable place to live, thanks to the hard work and spirit of existing residents. This debate will surely continue!

INTRIGUING Result: Among the qualities people want in their local government leaders, “Accountable” and “Fiscally Responsible” scored by far the highest, while scoring the lowest were “Experienced,” “Creative,” and “Environmentalist.”

For the other 10 survey questions, including “Do you support Environmental Initiative 1631?” and “Should Wallingford and The Ave be removed from the proposed upzones?” and “Should the City Council put Mayor Durkan’s Families and Education Levy on the ballot?”, CLICK HERE.

Thanks to the hundreds who completed the survey. We know it takes time and we are deeply grateful — especially for your thoughtful written comments that added context and passion to your choices.

Validity of the Survey (a.k.a. no good deed goes unpunished): 

  • Significant? The good news is that the survey is statistically significant among the universe of our readership (~7,000 subscribers). According to statistical tools, such as calculator.net, creative research systems, and surveymonkey.com, we exceed the magic number to achieve statistically significant results. The 387 respondents produce a 95% confidence level, with a margin of error of plus or minus 5 basis points. In other words (subject to the caveats below), we should be 95% confident that between 83% and 93% of the 7,000 subscribers (5 below and 5 above 88%) believe developers should provide off-street parking. In fact, most city-wide polls survey only 400 people.
  • “Self-Selection”? While 100% of our subscribers are above average and good-looking, we acknowledge that they might not reflect every adult resident of Northeast Seattle. Those who continue to subscribe to 4toExplore are “self-selected” in that they probably share my overarching concerns about the direction City Hall has been taking. Certainly my sense of humor is not sufficient to keep them reading. Moreover, this is not a pure “random sample” of our readership because only people with the time or interest completed it. Of course, even sophisticated, live telephone polls have this problem when many respondents interrupted from their dinner of salmon and coffee slam down their phones on the hapless surveyor.
  • Objective? We acknowledge that it’s difficult to craft surveys with pure objectivity. Opinions of the designer (me, in this case) surely seep into how questions are phrased. I tried to avoid loaded questions liked, “Come on, do you really want this stupid project to proceed?” But even deciding which questions to ask is subjective. We believe, however, that it’s better to try to ask reasonable questions and to listen to your responses, than not to ask at all.

The limitations of community surveys reinforces the point we made earlier: City Hall — with its financial means and public mission — should be the one to conduct and publish surveys for everyone’s benefit.  As we said in our previous issue of 4 to Explore, “a sustainable city is where elected officials listen to their constituents.  ‘Listening’ does not mean public hearings and blog posts to state concerns — listening means materially changing / re-crafting government policies and budgets to address the concerns of residents….”

If you were not able to take this most recent survey, share your kind thoughts by e-mailing Alex@4toExplore.org

1 Issue to Engage

A Sustainable City

As the spring weather brings forth sunshine and blossoms, it would be wonderful if City Hall could re-craft some of its more controversial policies to reduce the dramatic discussions dividing our communities. So many discussions are dominated by the “D” word: “Density.” Communities and interest groups battle each other every week over former Mayor Ed Murray’s backroom deal for real estate developer upzones. Our own Councilmember in Northeast Seattle carries the torch for that divisive policy.

If you’re a fan of legendary urban thinker/activist Jane Jacobs, you know that she viewed density (“concentration”) as just one of four necessary elements for vibrant communities (“exuberant diversity”). In her view, the other 3 elements were equally necessary: mixed uses, small blocks, and older buildings.

We also want vibrant communities to endure. Therefore, another overarching goal that transcends density is SUSTAINABILITY.

According to Wikipedia, “There remains no completely agreed upon definition for what a sustainable city should be…Generally, developmental experts agree that a sustainable city should meet the needs of the present without sacrificing the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

Think of a balanced diet that sustains us. To endure, you need a balance. Build, baby, build — construction cranes are the carbs. But too many carbohydrates can make you sick. And you can’t live on carbs alone. You need water and protein as the balancing foundation. Water would be core city services like streets, safety, and…water. Protein would be the people. And you don’t displace protein to make room for new protein; you slowly build upon the muscle that you’ve got. This analogy is making me hungry, so I’ll move on.

Seattle’s present course is not sustainable. Presently, there are many needs not being met by city leaders, even with a $5 billion city budget: we need more schools, better bus service, more affordable housing now (not waiting to build the affordable housing several years from now or waiting decades for expensive tiny units to age in place).

To add fuel to the fire, the upzones on steroids that incentivize rapid growth are not coupled concurrently with other services and amenities to sustain our Emerald City’s livability for our children and grandchildren. In other words, City Hall’s jolting land use policies are sacrificing the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

Here are some ideas to re-focus Seattle leaders on Sustainability:

  1. A sustainable city strives to sustain the people who live here already and does not push them out with higher taxes or real estate development upheavals.
  2. A sustainable city builds schools, parks, and transit as it grows. (BTW, public schools should not be considered a mere “amenity”; they are a constitutional necessity for an informed representative democracy.)
  3. A sustainable city gets developers to pay their fair share of the growth through Impact Fees, like those used by cities across the state and nation.
  4. A sustainable city gets developers to build affordable housing on site, instead of allowing them to exclude low-income families by writing a check to City Hall.
  5. A sustainable city focuses on ecology, not ideology.
  6. A sustainable city — one that really cares about the environment — preserves its trees and plants more; it does not turn a blind eye to profiteers ripping them out one-by-one across the city.
  7. A sustainable city protects and provides access to its waterways (For example, focus on preventing raw sewage from being dumped in Puget Sound or Lake Washington instead of grandstanding about issues outside of King County.)
  8. A sustainable city supports its existing assets (from the Port of Seattle and its middle class jobs to the charming houseboats that made the city famous on film).
  9. A sustainable city supports its small, neighborhood businesses (Many upzones hurt small businesses that rent their space because the triple net leases allow landlords to pass all increased real estate taxes to the families that own those funky, adorable businesses. Therefore, City Council should not sneak back the harmful upzone of The Ave in the U District! Save The Ave!)
  10. A sustainable city lives within its means. (Thank you, Mayor Jenny Durkan for recognizing that!)
  11. A sustainable city takes care of the basics first. (Yes, it matters that City officials building more buildings don’t know the capacity and vulnerability of our aging sewer lines.)
  12. A sustainable city prioritizes projects after asking residents to pony up a billion dollars to catch up on transportation infrastructure (Mayor Jenny Durkan should pause SDOT’s ill-conceived 35th Ave NE re-paving project by installing just the crosswalks for now because the entire $8 million re-paving lacks urgency, removes bus stops, and ignores the need to build sidewalks throughout the city where families, seniors, & school kids desperately need them now.)
  13. A sustainable city takes care of its vulnerable (including seniors and children with special needs).
  14. A sustainable city is affordable — by keeping steady the regressive utility bills that burden seniors and families with children — instead of allowing them to skyrocket by forcing ratepayers to subsidize other government ventures.
  15. A sustainable city ensures that profits earned in the city are reinvested in the city (instead of hidden offshore or paid to developers from Texas).
  16. A sustainable city employs common sense by replicating best practices from other cities instead of inventing hair-brained schemes on the fly.
  17. A sustainable city analyzes data on recent projects to inform new projects. (Where is the data on the expensive road re-do of Roosevelt Way NE before spending so much to re-pave / re-configure 35th Ave NE?)
  18. A sustainable city does not have leaders who allow their interest groups and campaign donors to demonize neighbors who take time from their busy lives to voice their for concerns.
  19. A sustainable city is where elected officials listen to their constituents — and “listening” does not mean public hearings and blog posts to state concerns — Listening means materially changing / re-crafting government policies and budgets to address the concerns of residents.
  20. Share your ideas at Alex@4toExplore.org

Sustainability is within our ability. And our city’s politicians can achieve true sustainability by living our most important constitutional value of representative democracy — listening to the people who elected you.

1 Issue to Engage

How to Make a Real Difference in City Government

As published recently in The Seattle Weekly.

HOW TO MAKE A REAL DIFFERENCE

As Tim Burgess’s service as an elected official came to an end a few weeks ago, I heard many city officials expressing gratitude for my former boss. They listed his many accomplishments during his brief service as mayor and during his leadership on the Seattle City Council. During the bittersweet farewell event, I believe I was not the only person there reflecting on what it means “to make a real difference” in city government. The answer could be a powerful guide for our new mayor as she enters the New Year.

Today, too many local officials speechify about national issues as if they were running for Congress.  They seem focused on anything other than the core mission of city government. That’s a shame because, as Tim Burgess said at the event honoring his public service, city government is where you are closest to the people. Keeping them safe, providing clean water, keeping the lights on, fixing the roads – a “high calling” of serving your neighbors.

So what makes a real difference?

First, City Hall needs to listen to residents rather than lobbyists. For more on that, you can CLICK HERE to read our piece called “Listen Up, City Hall!”  Then, each proposal needs to meet these tests:

  • The city program or policy must be proven to work based on the evidence. It’s not just throwing money at a problem because an interest group lobbied.
  • The improvement is institutionalized, meaning that it is codified and not easily undone by the next budget cycle.
  • The improvement changes a system or creates a ripple effect, positively impacting other programs.

Here are 4 recent changes that did not last in the headlines but are making a lasting difference:

1. Requiring Results For Homeless Programs.  While city leaders increase funding for homeless programs every year, it was the city staff committed to effectiveness and positive outcomes that made a real difference. This year they convinced city leaders to require results through performance-based contracts. House the homeless or we will reinvest the money in organizations that can. As Burgess said, “Business as usual is no longer an option. The scale of the human crisis that we face requires that we set high standards for accountability.” While some criticized certain homeless strategies receiving funds this year, that’s the beauty of requiring performance:  if a program doesn’t work, reinvest the tax dollars into other best practices.

2. Empowering the Police Chief to appoint her own Assistant Chiefs. Appointing Kathleen O’Toole as Police Chief was the best personnel decision in the last 4 years. But people leave. The more lasting change was codified by Burgess, a former police officer. Burgess recognized that a 35-year old policy preventing Police Chiefs from hiring their own command staff repelled the best candidates and handcuffed any chief’s ability to implement reforms.  So Burgess fixed the law by quietly crafting Ordinance 124415. Whoever becomes our new Police Chief will benefit and so will our city.

3. Demanding Efficiency from Seattle Public Utilities (SPU). For the first time in recent memory a Councilmember (Lisa Herbold) made a city agency reduce costs in order to benefit regular people. She also made those profiting from the city’s growth pay their fair share to connect to utility services, adopting the best practice seen in cities throughout the country.  While the effort fell short because utility rates are still increasing too quickly and the city still makes ratepayers (the people) inappropriately subsidize other government agencies, the Councilmember set a positive precedent for other city officials to find savings within the city’s $5 billion budget.  Freeing up dollars from inefficient or ineffective programs enables us to invest in what works and/or to reduce financial burdens on city residents.

4. Creating the Department of Education and Early Learning (DEEL). Crafting the Seattle Preschool Program, with its commitment to high-quality, was a nationally recognized accomplishment and is improving the lives of low-income children. But it was the creation of a new city department (DEEL) that forged a powerful continuum of learning programs to benefit Seattleites from cradle to college. The creation of DEEL smartly shifted the focus away from just supplementing a family’s income to providing life-long benefits through education. To thrive instead of survive. And the DNA of DEEL is a model for city government: DEEL measures and produces outcomes and sticks to high-quality, evidence-based programs.

Here are 4 more changes city leaders should implement to make a real difference:

  1. Expand the high-quality Seattle Preschool Program to close the achievement Gap.
  2. Charge Impact Fees (already authorized by State law) to help build public elementary schools and relieve overcrowded classrooms.
  3. Revive grassroots Neighborhood Planning so that residents have a real voice in our growing city.
  4. Reform the retirement system for new city government employees to free up dollars for public safety and homelessness prevention.

City government does not need to be hip or loud or ideological to make a difference; it just needs to work well.

1 Issue to Engage

Listen Up, City Hall!

As published recently in Crosscut.com and in last season’s newsletter.

LISTEN UP, CITY HALL!

Congratulations to the surviving city government candidates — and listen up!

Residents want to know how you will listen to them — rather than to campaign donors and interest groups…

Here are four ways you can empower all of City Hall to listen more:

1. Hold City Council Meetings at Night.
Should city residents be required to use a vacation day to tell City Councilmembers their ideas and concerns? Of course not. So why does City Council conduct its meetings from 9 to 5 when most residents are working or taking their children to and from school? Typically the only people able to attend Council meetings are lobbyists or activists spurred by those lobbyists. The “Busy Majority” of residents cannot attend because they cannot be away from their jobs or families.  City Council: please hold your meetings at night — and provide child care so parents and guardians can attend.

2. Activate a 3-1-1 Call Center Available 24/7.

Do what has worked well for more than a decade in cities from San Francisco to Chicago to New York: enable people to dial an easy-to-remember phone number (3-1-1) to request city services and report concerns — from potholes to policies. The City’s Customer Service Bureau is available ONLY on weekdays and Councilmember office hours for constituents are scant or inconsistent. Few can remember the City’s non-emergency phone number and it provides only minimal services. While the “Find It Fix It” technology works for some, a 3-1-1 Call Center open 24/7 will enable residents without access to fancy iPhones to receive the best customer service. A 3-1-1 Call Center will also make our communities safer by reducing the number of non-emergency calls to 9-1-1 operators. City managers and Councilmembers could use the 3-1-1 software system to track responsiveness and results for their constituents.

3. Free Councilmembers to Spend More Time with Neighbors.

What’s the easiest way to carve out time for Councilmembers? Free them from time-consuming research required to vote on frivolous or unnecessary Resolutions. The Council should immediately amend its own rules [Section V (A)(2)] to allow abstentions on most Resolutions, except those needed for the city budget, legislative work plans, and related Ordinances. Enable the “Work Horses” in City Council to ignore the “Show Horses.”

Here’s why abstentions are so important: Certain City Councilmembers love to spend weeks drafting and lobbying their colleagues to support Resolutions that have nothing to do with city government. But City Council’s own rules require Councilmembers to vote Yes or No. Example: international affairs. Will the United Nations really care what the Seattle City Council thinks about treaties with foreign nations? No. Yet Councilmembers are spending precious hours researching them. Let Councilmembers abstain from these distractions so they can spend more time listening to constituents.  Fewer TED Talks, More Sidewalks!

4. Conduct a Poll Every Year and Share it with the Public:

After all of those community meetings, here’s what City Councilmembers really listen to: polls. Unfortunately, politicians conduct polls only when they are trying to get re-elected – whereas they should have been listening to a wide array of residents during the previous four years. They also hog the polling data for themselves. Worst of all, they are beholden to the campaign contributors who pay the pollsters. So, let’s democratize the data.  Conduct official surveys and release results to the public as cities already do in California,  Missouri, and Canada.

Methodically asking residents across the city what they think can help to prioritize funding, assist journalists, and inform community groups. Surveys would not substitute for deeper debate and discussion with neighborhood groups and vulnerable populations, but gathering information from a well-crafted, professionally conducted phone survey of residents will enhance our public discourse.

Engaging with the residents of Seattle should not be a separate chore or box to check when elected officials need something.  Connecting with constituents is the essence of being an elected official

If you agree, send this website link of our Crosscut column to the City Council:

The link:
http://crosscut.com/2017/09/4-ways-councilmembers-can-actually-listen-to-their-constituents/

E-mail address that reaches all 9 Councilmembers: council@seattle.gov

# # #

1 Issue to Engage

4 Ideas to Make City Hall Listen

As published recently in Crosscut.com

4 IDEAS TO MAKE CITY HALL LISTEN.

Congratulations to the surviving City Council candidates — and listen up! Residents want to know how you will listen to them — rather than to campaign donors and interest groups — if you win.
Here are four ways you can empower the entire City Council to listen more:

1. Hold City Council Meetings at Night.
Should city residents be required to use a vacation day to tell City Councilmembers their ideas and concerns? Of course not. So why does City Council conduct its meetings from 9 to 5 when most residents are working or taking their children to and from school? Typically the only people able to attend Council meetings are lobbyists or activists spurred by those lobbyists. The “Busy Majority” of residents cannot attend because they cannot be away from their jobs or families.  City Council: please hold your meetings at night — and provide child care so parents and guardians can attend.

2. Activate a 3-1-1 Call Center Available 24/7.

Do what has worked well for more than a decade in cities from San Francisco to Chicago to New York: enable people to dial an easy-to-remember phone number (3-1-1) to request city services and report concerns — from potholes to policies. The City’s Customer Service Bureau is available ONLY on weekdays and Councilmember office hours for constituents are scant or inconsistent. Few can remember the City’s non-emergency phone number and it provides only minimal services. While the “Find It Fix It” technology works for some, a 3-1-1 Call Center open 24/7 will enable residents without access to fancy iPhones to receive the best customer service. A 3-1-1 Call Center will also make our communities safer by reducing the number of non-emergency calls to 9-1-1 operators. City managers and Councilmembers could use the 3-1-1 software system to track responsiveness and results for their constituents.

3. Free Councilmembers to Spend More Time with Neighbors.

What’s the easiest way to carve out time for Councilmembers? Free them from time-consuming research required to vote on frivolous or unnecessary Resolutions. The Council should immediately amend its own rules [Section V (A)(2)] to allow abstentions on most Resolutions, except those needed for the city budget, legislative work plans, and related Ordinances. Enable the “Work Horses” in City Council to ignore the “Show Horses.”

Here’s why abstentions are so important: Certain City Councilmembers love to spend weeks drafting and lobbying their colleagues to support Resolutions that have nothing to do with city government. But City Council’s own rules require Councilmembers to vote Yes or No. Example: international affairs. Will the United Nations really care what the Seattle City Council thinks about treaties with foreign nations? No. Yet Councilmembers are spending precious hours researching them. Let Councilmembers abstain from these distractions so they can spend more time listening to constituents.  Fewer TED Talks, More Sidewalks!

4. Conduct a Poll Every Year and Share it with the Public:

After all of those community meetings, here’s what City Councilmembers really listen to: polls. Unfortunately, politicians conduct polls only when they are trying to get re-elected – whereas they should have been listening to a wide array of residents during the previous four years. They also hog the polling data for themselves. Worst of all, they are beholden to the campaign contributors who pay the pollsters. So, let’s democratize the data.  Conduct official surveys and release results to the public as cities already do in California,  Missouri, and Canada.

Methodically asking residents across the city what they think can help to prioritize funding, assist journalists, and inform community groups. Surveys would not substitute for deeper debate and discussion with neighborhood groups and vulnerable populations, but gathering information from a well-crafted, professionally conducted phone survey of residents will enhance our public discourse.

Engaging with the residents of Seattle should not be a separate chore or box to check when elected officials need something.  Connecting with constituents is the essence of being a Councilmember.

If you agree, send this website link of our Crosscut column to the City Council and to the candidates:

The link:
http://crosscut.com/2017/09/4-ways-councilmembers-can-actually-listen-to-their-constituents/

City Councilmember and candidate e-mail addresses:
council@seattle.gov,
electjongrant@gmail.com,
info@teamteresa.org,
info@votepatmurakami.org,
info@electlorenagonzalez.com

1 Issue to Engage

Yes to Soda Tax; NO To Arts Tax

YES TO SODA TAX
NO TO ARTS TAX.

It’s important to compare these two measures, because they say a lot about how local officials try to implement programs with your tax dollars. Leadership matters.

We have studied both proposals and offer our opinions here. In short, we think the Soda Tax is a good idea and the Arts Tax is a bad idea. But we also provide some principles and helpful links for you to decide on your own.

Note: The Arts Tax is on the August 1, 2017 ballot.  The Soda Tax will appear on the November ballot only if the Soda lobbyists challenge the recently approved city ordinance by forcing a referendum.

For all of us concerned about the rise in property taxes displacing longtime residents and senior citizens, the Soda Tax (which taxes certain sugary beverages) is a smart, surgically focused alternative to yet another property tax levy. The Soda Tax will simultaneously encourage healthier habits while raising funds for programs proven to help kids such as Nurse Family Partnership.

On the other hand, the Arts Tax is ill-conceived and low priority. At a time when homelessness is on the rise and leaders are failing to adequately fund basic reading and math, the Arts Tax lacks clear goals and tangible outcomes. Because it will raise the sales tax, the Arts Tax will be regressive no matter what – the poor would pay a larger proportion of their income no matter what they buy.

Principles to consider when voting on any ballot measure:

  1. PRIORITY? Is the proposal addressing a need that is urgent?
  2. EVIDENCE-BASED? Is the proposal backed by scientific evidence and/or proven to work in other cities?
  3. WELL-CRAFTED and ACCOUNTABLE? Is the proposal effectively designed to achieve specific OUTCOMES (e.g. graduation rates) and to allow voters and independent experts to track results?
  4. ENDORSED BY INDEPENDENTS? Who is pushing the proposal — independent voices or only groups that will benefit from it?
  5. SMART FUNDING? Can we AFFORD the proposal? Is it COST-EFFECTIVE? Are the funding sources (taxes or fees) FAIR or are they regressive (i.e. the poor pay more)?

ARTS, SCIENCE, and HERITAGE TAX (a.k.a. Ordinance 18513, “Access for All,” King County Proposition 1, or “Arts Tax”) To read it, CLICK HERE.

1. PRIORITY? No.
Housing the homeless and expanding early childhood education are more of a priority now.  Just because it pulls on your heart strings, does not mean you should tax everyone in King County.

When vulnerable populations are asked what they need most to survive and thrive, is the answer greater access to arts programs? Also, if funding these programs for our public schools is so important, why does the proposed Arts Tax set aside only 10% for schools? [See Section 7(C)(1)]

We agree with King County Councilmembers Dave Upthegrove and Larry Gossett who voted against the Arts Tax because we need to deploy the County’s scarce resources to focus on more pressing problems such as homelessness. For a similar view from the Seattle Times, CLICK HERE.

2. EVIDENCE-BASED? No.
The Statement of “Facts” at the beginning of the Arts Tax merely proclaims that “King County residents would greatly benefit” from “meaningful opportunities.”

What evidence is there that the proposed program will lead to “healthier, more inclusive communities” and “higher graduation rates” other than the words printed on the paper? Even the statements about helping the organizations are suspect, such as “would ensure that arts, science and heritage organizations are financially healthy.” How so?

Good intentions do not ensure good results. And, if we really care about the results, King County leaders should go back to the drawing board and design an evidence-based strategy to achieve specific outcomes.

3. WELL-CRAFTED and ACCOUNTABLE? No.
Lacks Outcomes: Section 4 of the Arts Tax lists as its “discernable public benefits” only vague inputs such as “Providing performances and programs” and “Supporting collaborative relationships with other cultural organizations.”  Rather than counting the number of free tickets provided and performances attended, how will beneficial outcomes be demonstrated over time among the children and other vulnerable populations?

Poorly Written: The proposed ordinance is poorly written with undefined terms (“culture” and “demographics”), loopholes (for-profits can be funded), and unenforceable provisions  (Example:  “Organizations…should reflect the demographics of King County in their staffs, board, memberships, audiences and programs”:  Does this mean downtown Seattle arts organizations need to be staffed by the growing hoard of wealthy Amazon.com “brogrammers”?)

Good Use of Existing System: One positive of the Arts Tax is that it does not reinvent the wheel and create a new expensive bureaucracy that can siphon off the tax dollars over time, but rather uses the already established infrastructure of King County’s “4Culture” department.

Weak Oversight:  The Arts Tax establishes a “4Culture advisory committee” but does not specify what it is measuring. Even its composition is muddled with a poorly worded description:  “The size and operation of the advisory council shall be defined, and at least nine members of this committee must be recommended one each by each of the nine county councilmembers and confirmed by the King County council.”  Huh?

4. ENDORSED BY INDEPENDENTS? No. 
While there are many fantastic organizations supporting the Arts Tax, most of these major endorsers are also groups that will benefit from it. These include big institutions that don’t need the money but will receive much of the money, such as the Zoo.

King County Executive Dow Constantine, who is pushing the Arts Tax, has his eye on higher office. The cynical view of the Arts Tax is that Constantine is using it to “prime the pump” of wealthy donors for his run for Governor in 2020.

5. SMART FUNDING? No.
Regressive: At over 10%, Seattle’s sales tax is already among the highest in the nation. And sales tax is regressive: the poor pay a larger proportion of their income for anything they buy. The Arts Tax would, unfortunately, increase the sales tax.

Can Rob Peter to Pay Paul:  The Arts Tax will allow General Fund dollars currently supporting the arts, heritage, and science programs to go away — supplanted by the proposed tax. This is a classic budgetary shell game whereby net funding for arts, heritage, and science might not even increase.

Spreading Peanut Butter: Rather than focusing the investment on programs proven to work, the Arts Tax proposes a scatter-shot approach — spreading the “peanut butter” thinly and ineffectively over “hundreds” of organizations. Moreover, the Arts Tax would “use seed money to establish new cultural organizations”  — without any criteria as to their need, purpose, or effectiveness.

After dying in Committee (where bad ideas should die), the Arts Tax mysteriously came back to life. For Seattle Times coverage, CLICK HERE. It is very frustrating that the County Executive puts us in the position to “vote No on the arts,” but voting No on this Arts Tax is the right thing to do.

The good news is that solutions already exist:

  • the Zoo, aquarium, museums, science center, and other venues can already provide free admission.
  • Metro buses and Sound Transit can already provide free transportation.
  • King County’s “4Culture” department should already be focusing on equity outcomes and increased access. They don’t need to increase sales taxes to achieve this.

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SODA TAX (a.k.a. “Sweetened Beverage Tax,” Ordinance 125324, and Section 5.53 of the Seattle Municipal Code) To read it, CLICK HERE.

1. PRIORITY? Yes.
Low-income residents need help buying healthy food and the youngest children need high-quality education as their brains are developing.

2. EVIDENCE-BASED? Yes and No.
The Soda Tax is not perfect:  while the Birth to 5 programs are all evidence-based (proven to produce positive, measurable outcomes), the food access programs and some of the other education programs are lacking.

While the food access programs are not (yet) evidence-based, the evils of sugary drinks are.  According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC)“Frequently drinking sugar-sweetened beverages is associated with weight gain/obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, kidney diseases, non-alcoholic liver disease, tooth decay and cavities, and gout, a type of arthritis.”  Therefore, by discouraging consumption of sugary beverages, the Soda Tax could immediately improve health for many residents.

It would be prudent for the City to spend most of the initial dollars on the proven early learning programs while it studies how best to implement the food programs.

For evidence that Nurse Family Partnership produces positive outcomes (including crime reduction!), CLICK HERE and HERE and HERE. For evidence that high-quality preschool programs like the Seattle Preschool Program produce positive outcomes (including higher graduation rates), CLICK HERE and HERE and HERE.

3. WELL-CRAFTED and ACCOUNTABLE? Yes and No.
Throwing in the Kitchen Sink:  We believe ALL of the funding from the Soda Tax should go toward evidence-based, early learning programs. That would produce the most positive long-term impacts for the city. But as the dietary evils of sugary sodas were discussed, the proposal naturally emphasized access to healthy foods. Then subsidies for the first year of college were tossed in. This is mishmash was apparently necessary to gain the support of City Councilmembers whose priorities are clearly unclear.

Oversight: While more specific and organized than the vague oversight for the Arts Tax, the Soda Tax’s ongoing oversight has shortcomings. It creates a “Sweetened Beverage Tax Community Advisory Board”. (Rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it?)  But why is the Office of Sustainability and Environment (a.k.a. the Mike McGinn and Mike O’Brien Department) the lead agency? To create sustainability for itself? And why are there so few education-related experts on the 11-member board?

Evaluation: Fortunately, there is a saving grace for accountability: the Soda Tax requires an annual independent evaluation completed by academic experts and overseen by the City Auditor.

4. ENDORSED BY INDEPENDENTS? Yes.
Health and education experts support the Soda Tax, including the Washington Academy of Family Physicians which would receive no funding from the measure. City Councilmember Tim Burgess, a leader on the Soda Tax, is a retiring statesman and is well known for his commitment to evidence-based policy.

5. SMART FUNDING? Half Yes.
The early learning programs are already proven to be cost-effective, but it’s not clear whether the food access programs will be.

The good news is that, unlike the all-encompassing Arts Tax, the Soda Tax is essentially a user fee; it will tax only those who choose to buy the sugary products.

People seem obsessed with the tax itself because it’s a shiny new object. But at least the Soda Tax is not another property tax.  It’s more appropriate to focus on what the funding will do, rather than the novelty of the funding source.

Critics say the Soda Tax is regressive, but that’s valid only if you accept that it’s okay to drink sugary sodas. It’s not okay. The Soda Tax will discourage Seattle residents from buying something that is horrible for their health.  We agree this seems like a top-down, “Nanny State” approach, but it’s the same with taxing cigarettes. We cannot articulate it better than the 10-year old girl who attended the public hearing in June and said, “I can’t think of a better way to raise that money than a tax on something that has absolutely no nutritional value.”

CONCLUSION: It’s healthy to be FOR some measures and AGAINST some measures. We know some neighbors who see a tax and always vote NO because they distrust the government’s ability to spend their money wisely or they are feeling the pinch of ever-rising taxes. We also know neighbors who lead with their big hearts and want to help others on all fronts. But it’s okay to vote Yes on some and No on others. Consider the principles above and do what you think is best.

The Arts Tax vote is August 1.

  • For campaign website in favor of the Arts Tax, CLICK HERE.
  • For the official statement against the Arts Tax (Proposition 1), CLICK HERE.

The Soda Tax vote is likely November 7 if soda lobbyists force a Referendum to have voters reconsider the ordinance passed by City Council.

  • For campaign website in favor of the Soda Tax, CLICK HERE. For how Berkeley, California beat “Big Soda,” CLICK HERE.
  • For a website against Soda Tax, CLICK HERE.
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