Commentary: The Taxes That Made Seattle The City It Is Today
Two contrasting lives related to a growing metropolis and Washington State
Each phase in the life of a metropolis and its surrounding region triggers its own style of civic activism. King County, where Seattle is located, has added about 300,000 people since 2010, for a total of 2.23 million. It is home to Amazon, Microsoft and Boeing. By comparison, Kings County, New York City, also known as the Borough of Brooklyn, is up 78,000 in the same time period, to 2.58 million. Its biggest employers are hospitals, stores and an abundance of aid workers classed as employed in “social assistance.”
James Ellis, who died in late October at the age of 98, was a civic hero and catalyst for King County and the greater Seattle area’s growth spurt from the 1950s to the 1990s. He personified the civic glue that bound the city’s commercial blossoming and cultural effervescence. Although he never held government office, Ellis championed the cleanup of effluent-choked Lake Washington in the 1950s, then pushed the formation of the King County Metro Transit Dept. Next came bond measures to fund highway improvements, a stadium, fire departments, parks and a convention center.
With growth comes change—not all of it welcome. In and around Seattle, traffic jams abound, aging subdivisions are occupied by low-paid workers, schools struggle and the homeless cluster in the center city. Growth doesn’t really pay for itself. It provides just enough to try to keep up with … more growth.
Taxation is a reluctant admission of this truth, and not a fun or celebration-worthy event. The burden of paying never falls fairly. In the case of Seattle, the rest of the Washingtonians believe they are paying for at least some of its transportation infrastructure and don't want to do it anymore. Close analysis shows that when it comes to overall taxes and all kinds of transportation, that impression may not be accurate.
As a result, another type of citizen-activist, embodying the state’s antitax ethos, has been prominent. Tim Eyman, who has just announced plans to run for governor, has made a more-than-20-year career of tapping into Washington State’s antitax passion. According to Crosscut, a news website that covers the state, Eyman has found success since 1998, winning approval for 11 of 17 ballot initiatives. Of those, eight have been thrown out or partly blocked in court. Only two have been “unaffected by legal challenges,” wrote Crosscut.
Eyman’s most recent initiative, passed Nov. 5 in a statewide vote, effectively cut the automobile tax that would have helped fund more Seattle-area transit projects. The clumsy administration of the car-tab tax, approved by Seattle-area voters three years earlier, had ticked off a lot of people—overvaluing some vehicles above published book values and in some cases tripling the tax. The statewide vote limited the car-tab tax to $30 per vehicle; Seattle and King County are now suing to stop its enactment.
Ellis was a noble crusader for the community who licked envelopes with selfless humility. Eyman, who has on occasion campaigned on street corners in a gorilla suit, is the Abbie Hoffman of antitax crusades. His point is to get on TV. Each man symbolizes a passion inspired by growth and its downside. The city residents will be at odds with suburbanites. The drivers who never hop on the light rail will resent their car and state gas taxes. King County will find it harder to maintain the public spirit that has blessed Seattle thus far. And not everyone will benefit from more light-rail extensions.
Despite the gloom and doomsayers who worry that their city and county are morphing into a cluttered, overtaxed urbanized disaster, King County seems destined to be one of the most dynamic and livable regions in the U.S. for a long time. To assure that, public infrastructure should not be allowed to lag too far behind population growth. The taxes are a necessary evil that will divide and spark protests. There are no good alternatives but there is a splendid city for those who benefit from or enjoy it.
Deputy Editor Richard Korman looks forward to his next Seattle visit. If you have an idea for a column, please contact him at email@example.com.