Seattle has enjoyed plenty of gravy from its economic boom, but what happens when the fireworks end? The sustainability of the city’s fast-growing budget should be an important campaign issue.
One of the most provocative eye-openers for local policy discussions arrived quietly late last month.
It came in a report from the historic and respectable Municipal League, whose roots go back to 1910 and took inspiration from the Progressive movement. The first such “good government” league was founded by Theodore Roosevelt.
In Seattle and King County, the Municipal League has advocated for government transparency, fought graft and supported environmental cleanup. Its biggest loss, now lamented every day in traffic, was voter rejection of the 1970 Forward Thrust ballot initiative — a subway system that would have been heavily funded by the federal government.
Now the organization focuses on the city’s general fund, which finances everything from utilities and street maintenance to public safety, human services and the arts.
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Instead of proposing additional programs and services, the League poses a little-asked question: How sustainable is the city’s spending?
According to the League’s July report, Seattle’s government spending has grown 250 percent over the past half century, adjusted for inflation. It’s not only that the city’s population has grown: “More has come to be expected of government today, especially services that were once provided by churches and charitable organizations, the private sector, or not provided at all.”
These expectations have been lavishly funded, thanks to Seattle’s economic boom and rising levels of sales and property taxes, business taxes and voter-approved special levies, as well as federal money.
The Municipal League argues that none can be taken for granted. Some reasons for concern:
Federal funding for cities is especially at risk from the Trump administration.
Voters may tire of endless requests for more levies (see last Tuesday’s defeat of King County Prop. 1).
The region’s robust and diverse economy is recession-resistant, but not recession-proof. This is particularly true if a downturn or even a “growth recession” — going from 60 miles an hour to 25 — hit Amazon and tech.
In such a “perfect storm” of revenue sources being hit, the report says, “our policymakers would face an…