It’s budget time at City Hall again. While city general fund revenues now are at about $950 million — up 3 percent from last year — the increase is only enough to cover inflation. So there was little wiggle room to add services or new programs.
Nevertheless, the Seattle City Council was pleased enough with itself to issue a press statement saying its 2013 budget “invests our limited resources wisely and delivers results.” We beg to differ.
Here are just a few examples of how our leaders manage our city resources. We’ll let you be the judge.
The City Council and mayor recently authorized what will easily exceed $100 million in subsidies for Seattle Housing Authority’s (SHA) planned redevelopment of Yesler Terrace.
Keep in mind, the city approved upzoning the 28-acre site for a million square feet of high-rise offices and more than 4,000 expensive residential units and gave SHA the right to sell off half the land to private developers. With the lucrative returns from these land sales and added density allowed on the site, SHA easily can afford to cover by itself the full cost of the Yesler Terrace plan.
The largest chunk of city subsidies takes the form of Multi-Family Tax Exemptions (MFTE) — worth as much as $80 million — going to SHA’s for-profit partners, who are lining up to buy and develop the land at Yesler Terrace. Additionally, SHA will offer these properties at prices well below market rate.
Take a look at the first property SHA recently sold to Spectrum Properties: a half-acre portion of Yesler Terrace at 12th Avenue and Yesler Way, on which it will build 120 units of rental housing on that site. City leaders allowed them to tap $2 million in multifamily property tax breaks. And instead of paying $270 a square foot for that land (the going rate in that area), SHA sold it to Spectrum Properties at $135 a square foot. For a half-acre, that equals $3 million knocked off the market value. In total, Spectrum walks away with $5 million in subsidies.
Another 13 acres, long held in the public trust, will be “sold” this way, thanks to city leaders.
Between January 2010 and September 2012, the city’s MFTE program funneled more than $95 million in property-tax breaks to 43 developers. In return, it only had to set aside 20 percent of the units for those with incomes between 65 and 80 percent of the area median. That means monthly rents from about $1,000 for studios to $1,600 for two-bedroom units — hardly affordable.
And remember, every dollar of tax break to these developers means an extra dollar of property taxes the rest of us will pay.
What’s in store for 2013?
For starters, the budget commits more than $3 million to begin planning for what our leaders now euphemistically call a high-capacity transit system.”
What they don’t tell you is that this is nothing more than an extension of Paul Allen’s South Lake Union Streetcar, affectionately called “SLUT.”
Over a two-year period, the council will commit these monies to plan extension of that streetcar system up to Eastlake Avenue, into downtown and out to Ballard.
Oh, and our leaders also neglected to mention that if such a system ever is built, it will cost nearly $1 billion. The South Lake Union Streetcar’s final cost exceeded its original $45 million price tag by $10 million — for a little more than a mile of track. Annual operating expenses are $3.5 million, $2 million above original estimates, while revenues from ridership and advertising are running 30 to 40 percent below original estimates. And ridership is well below projections.
Our City Council was forced to float bonds to subsidize operations for the next 10 years until — it is hoped — it finally will pay for itself.
There are 20 bus routes in the area that do just fine, costing 30-percent less to operate and with many more riders.
And there’s always more
And we cannot ignore the continued plundering of the city’s transportation budget for the $270 million Mercer corridor. The west half still is years away from completion. As we’ve indicated in prior columns, three city traffic studies say it actually will make traffic worse when completed.
And let’s not forget millions in subsidies for the new, privately owned SODO sports arena. City leaders approved that deal knowing it likely will take all business away from our existing, publicly-owned Seattle Center arena. You know, the one taxpayers spent millions upgrading just 15 years ago.
Meanwhile, Seattle faces a billion-dollar shortfall needed to meet a backlog of neighborhood bridge and road repairs.
The Magnolia Bridge is now under 24-hour monitoring, in case it starts to collapse. This year, like every year for the last decade, fixing that bridge has been lined out of the budget.
And, at current rates of city (non)spending for sidewalks, it’ll take more than 100 years for parts of North and South Seattle to ever get them.
How, in this context, could any citizen of this city come to believe that our elected leaders are “investing our limited resources wisely and delivering results”?
JOHN V. FOX and CAROLEE COLTER are coordinators for the Seattle Displacement Coalition (www.zipcon.net), a low-income housing organization. To comment on this column, write to MPTimes@nwlink.com.