Month: July 2012

The New Waterfront: Guess Who’s Paying the Bill?

Last week, the Central Waterfront Committee (CWC) released a funding plan for upcoming changes to the waterfront as part of the mega-project to dismantle the Alaskan Way Viaduct and build a replacement traffic tunnel under downtown.

Through a series of public meetings, the city has already compiled a list of projects to beautify Seattle’s waterfront and “reconnect” it to downtown.  Of course, in keeping with the privileged status of property owners in Seattle, the final wish-list doesn’t include demolishing waterfront condos and hotels in Belltown, which are proving to be a more long-lasting barrier to the waterfront than the Alaskan Way viaduct.

Nor is the funding plan a complete or comprehensive budget for the waterfront improvements.  To quote the CWC’s Strategic Plan:  “Certain promising elements of the long-term vision, identified in the City’s Framework Plan, are not funded in this funding plan.”  Okay, so it’s really a partial funding plan.

Nevertheless, the total cost of this first phase of the developers’ wish-list is a staggering $1.2 billion.  Unfortunately, The Seattle Times, our local Pravda, misreported the figure:  “…$240 million, about half of which would come from a local improvement district funded by downtown property owners, with the rest from city taxpayers and private donors.”

Untrue.  The CWC’s report provides a handy—albeit misleading—pie graph entitled “Funding Sources” which shows the costs as approximately $1.2 billion.  The graph, reproduced on the Seattle Post-Intelligencer’s website, shows that 60% of the funding is “Secured/Pending.”  No honest person would group “secured” funds with “pending” funds unless they wanted to create the impression that more money has been set aside than has actually been allocated.  When we look at the breakdown of that 60%, we see that nearly half of it is the 30-year Seawall Bond that will be on the ballot in November.  Voters may still reject it; hence that money is not “secured.”

Of the remaining “Secured/Pending” funds ($360 million), only a tiny sliver of that ($70 million) has been officially set aside by the City of Seattle to be spent specifically on the waterfront.  The rest is $290 million budgeted by the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) for the fiscal years 2012 through 2017.  As anyone who follows state politics knows, state transportation funds are regularly reallocated by the State Legislature.  If Republican Rob McKenna beats Democrat Jay Inslee for governor in November, you can bet there’s going to be a huge fight over transportation funding in 2013, and the Seattle waterfront project could lose big-time.

That’s just one scenario.  Another, more certain outcome would be a decrease in gas tax revenue, which is the main funding source for the state transportation budget.  The glacial pace of the economic recovery, along with the increasing price of gas, has already lowered the state’s gas tax revenue, as more people are driving fewer miles every year to save money.  The WSDOT funds can’t be considered “Secured.”

The other 40% of the CWC’s pie graph is labeled “Future Funding” and it consists of a vague range of between $350 million and $570 million.  For simplicity’s sake, let’s use the higher number, since the CWC has admitted that not all projects are funded in this proposal, and because it’s the rare exception for development projects to cost less than their initial estimates.

Of this “Future Funding,” only $300 million (or 23% of the overall financing package) will come from the local improvement district—property owners in a still-to-be-defined area who will pay higher taxes to support the new waterfront.  This is far lower than the 50% cited by Pravda.  And since this will not be up for a vote, ever, it’s unclear why this wasn’t grouped in the “Pending” category, along with the Seawall Bond, or the “Secured” category, along with the WSDOT funds.  Maybe because the boundaries of the local improvement district have yet to be defined.  Residents of Belltown, Lower Queen Anne, South Lake Union, First Hill, and the International District should be trembling in their shoes, especially if they belong to the vanishing breed of renters clinging to older apartments in these neighborhoods.  Landlords will make them pay the tax.

Of the remaining “Future Funding,” about $120 million will come from “Philanthropy” (private donations).  Let’s ask the Seattle Aquarium, Seattle Public Library, the Woodland Park Zoo, and thousands of other nonprofits in Seattle who’ve been scrambling desperately for money over the past four years how they feel about the entry of another big nonprofit into the scrum.  Most of these organizations have had to cut staff, services, and programming just to survive.  This chunk is the single biggest question mark in the entire waterfront funding plan, and why it’s not marked “Fantasy Funding,” is anyone’s guess.

The remaining two chunks are miscellaneous funds that will come out city taxpayers’ pockets in sneaky, roundabout ways.  About $65 million is designated “9-year LID Lift or other City source” and this will either come from increased taxes on the local improvement district (another increase in rent) or, more likely, from a second city-wide ballot initiative in 2014, 2015, or 2016 (essentially a second rental or property tax increase for the entire city).

The other chunk is $85 million designated as “General Fund/Debt.”  This is money that will come entirely out of the City of Seattle’s General Fund or its borrowing capacity (city bonds).  Either way, it’s money that won’t be spent on any other city services or development projects.  And it’s on top of the $70 million the city has already set aside for the project.  So the total hit to the city’s General Fund is really $155 million, not $70 million.

And since the City Council and the Mayor have no willpower when developers ask them for money, these funds could easily have been grouped into the “Secured Funding” category.

So a more realistic pie chart would have shown $155 million in city funds grouped with $300 million in funds from a local improvement district as “Secured Funding,” which is about 37% of the total.  “Pending Funding” would be $580 million (the Seawall Bond vote and the WSDOT funds), or about 48% of the total.

Okay, so far we’ve accounted for 85% of the total. The remainder would be split between 5% “Future Funding” (the $65 million tax increase that will probably go up for a vote sometime in 2014-2016) and a sizable 10% chunk of “Fantasy Funding” (the “Philanthropy” piece).

So, overall, only 37% of the funding can be counted on, and all of that involves money out of city taxpayers’ pockets to finance a project that will overwhelmingly benefit local developers and downtown businesses.  No transit money—indeed, no transit projects, as far as I can see (the transportation projects are all road improvements)—are part of this deal, which means that the park-like aspects of the project will be enjoyed mostly by cruise-ship patrons, tourists, and rich people who can afford to live downtown.

And the 48% of pending funds from the Seawall Bond and WSDOT are also taxpayer money.  Only the fantasy funding, the 10% from Philanthropy, can really be considered private funds.  In spite of the propaganda from Pravda, politicians, and the TV news paparazzi, the money from the local improvement district can’t be termed “private” funding.  To call it “private” is to assume naively that local landlords will bear the cost of the tax increase and not pass it on to their tenants.  They won’t, and we all know it.

And this is just phase one, folks.  And it’s a prime example of developers raiding your pockets for their benefit.

What the Hell Happened to The Fourth Estate?

Is it the lack of a second daily newspaper in Seattle or our modern-day reliance on Internet blogs that has made Seattleites largely ignorant of local political issues? Or is it the dismal quality of our single, surviving newspaper and local TV stations?

Let’s take, for example, the impact of liquor privatization in Washington State.

People who voted to privatize liquor in Washington truly believed that prices would fall and the variety of hard alcohol available for purchase would increase. They believed the advertising paid for by Costco, the main backer of the privatization initiative, and they ignored the common sense arguments made by opponents. They even refused to think logically about the issue: could a local supermarket devote as much shelf space to hard alcohol as an entire state-owned store devoted only to the sale of alcohol? Of course not. (Hence, selection would be more limited under privatization.) Could adding another layer of middle-men who need to make their own profit lead to lower prices? Absolutely not. (Hence prices have risen.) Wow, that was not particularly hard to reason out. Yet people believed the advertising, right-wing bloggers, and the conservative editorial board of The Seattle Times—largely because alternative views were unavailable or hard to find.

Let’s look at an even more disturbing example, one with higher stakes. The current negotiations between the Department of Justice and the city over reforms at the Seattle Police Department have fallen into a media black hole. The general impression is that the Department of Justice has issued a report slamming the SPD over charges of using excessive force. But few people know about the status of negotiations between the DOJ and the city. Yes, those negotiations have been “confidential,” but in reporters could have asked a few very important questions: are we near a deal yet, is the DOJ taking a hard line, is the city winning any concessions, what role is the SPD chief or the police union taking in the negations, etc.

Instead, we get nothing, and a sense of frustration has settled over the city. The SPD has been confronted by hostile and uncooperative crowds at crime scenes and a recent gay pride celebration on Capitol Hill devolved into a pepper-spraying fracas between police and street-partiers. The very bland articles published by The Seattle Times website on these incidents are followed by hundreds of police-bashing comments from online readers.

So, in an effort to shed light on the negotiations, the DOJ and the city agreed to release several confidential documents this week. Unfortunately, those documents were accompanied by an absolute lack of analysis or decent reportage by the local news outlets that made them available to the public. The Seattle Times website ran an article entitled “Records show deep split between federal, city officials on SPD fixes” that once again refused to ask any substantive questions about the actual status of the negotiations or provide any analysis of the released documents.

Just providing a link to those documents is not enough. The average Seattleite would have to spend several hours reading through the documents to get an understanding of how the negotiations are proceeding. In the meantime, The Seattle Times, our local paper of record, will be damned before they’ll assign one reporter on their staff to read and accurately summarize the contents of the DOJ’s proposed changes and the city’s response.

Even a quick read of the letters and memos exchanged between the city attorney’s office and the lead DOJ negotiator, Jonathan Smith, reveals some disturbing problems not just with the negotiations themselves but also with the lack of journalistic oversight of local politics. For example, it appears that Mayor McGinn has not been sitting down at the negotiating table with the DOJ. The DOJ’s letter of May 23, 2012, complains that the city has not been sending representatives who are empowered to negotiate on the city’s behalf. The response to this letter is a May 31, 2012, letter from Mayor McGinn’s personal attorney, Carl Marquardt, that basically says Mayor McGinn is not willing to meet with the DOJ attorneys; instead, he will only meet with US Attorney General Eric Holder (who runs the entire federal department in DC) or his second-in-command, Thomas Perez—an act of childish petulance that reveals Mayor McGinn’s unwillingness to take on the responsibility of his job as mayor of a major US city.

The same letter suggests that representatives of the police department be present at the negotiations: “We do believe it would be helpful if both sides, including DOJ, had access to policing experts during negotiations…” and it concludes with the following sentence: “Finally, if we reach the point where negotiations are truly stalled, we would be willing to engage a mediator to facilitate a resolution.”

The Seattle Times reported in passing that the city and the DOJ brought in a mediator last week; it was a non-event for most of the local media. But, in truth, it was a last-gasp attempt to salvage a bargaining process that has failed largely because the mayor has refused to do his job. And, yes, the city council should also be part of the negotiations, but the mayor and his counsel have refused to cooperate with them. And Seattleites don’t know any of this, because our local media has refused to do its job.

It’s very easy to blame Mayor McGinn, but the true responsibility for the breakdown of negotiations lies with The Seattle Times and the local TV news outlets. If the citizens of Seattle realized that their mayor wasn’t doing his job, they would put pressure on the city to take the negotiations seriously. Instead, Seattleites are left in the dark, unsure of what’s going on and unwilling to trust the SPD in the meantime.

Real police reform can’t happen only within the SPD. Communities, citizens, and businesses have to take responsibility for oversight, feedback, and managing their expectations. But without a functioning information system, the citizen reform side can’t even begin.

Local media should be ashamed of itself. Local activists should be egalitarian when assigning blame for the lack of SPD reform: it’s not just the police department that’s at fault. And it’s not just the mayor. We should be flooding the media with our letters, emails, and comments. If our news outlets aren’t asking enough questions, then we should be asking them why not.

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