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King County Executive announces measure to increase funding for homelessness services

Countywide plan replaces a citywide proposal

Several tents under a freeway overpass Joshua Rainey/Shutterstock

At a press conference at Plymouth Housing Group, King County Executive Dow Constantine announced a countywide effort to put a .1 percent regional property tax to expand services “for housing, homelessness, and related challenges.”

The measure, Constantine said, would increase resources and greatly expand upon existing programs for housing and critical services.

“We’re doing well with what we have, but it is simply not enough,” said Constantine.

The tax would raise $68 million per year, more than quadrupling the $18 million per year Constantine says is currently generated by the County’s Veterans and Human Services Levy, which is up for renewal this November.

Signing onto the measure, Seattle mayor Ed Murray announced he’s ending his plans to put a $275 million property tax levy on the August ballot to expand homelessness services. Murray, along with an advisory group, had been collecting signatures to put the measure on the August 2017 ballot.

The levy would have put nearly $200 million of those funds toward Housing First-style programs, increased staffing on outreach teams, and increased capacity for mental health and addiction treatment.

“We know that acting collectively must mean acting regionally,” said Murray at the conference. “The crisis is not bound by artificial borders, and our compassion cannot be restricted by political borders.”

Downtown Emergency Service Center director Daniel Malone, who, along with venture capitalist Nick Hanauer, co-chaired the city measure’s advisory group, says that they “key emphasis” of the measure will be the same: housing people.

“I must admit I am a little sad to not be moving forward with our city initiative,” said Hanauer. But he says that in planning the city plan, “it became rapidly apparent that a countywide approach made more sense.”

Later this month, said Murray, he’ll send an ordinance to Council to create an independent review board to make sure the city is “funding what’s supposed to be funded under best practices.”

Funding homelessness services through a property tax is tricky: Sales tax hits low-income residents the hardest. Constantine noted that a .1 percent sales tax is an option given to the region by the state legislature, but both Murray and Constantine noted that if they’re given more options they’re willing to explore them.

Murray acknowledged the tax burden, but says that the state’s tax structure doesn’t give them many options: “We don’t have the tools here to try and change that.”

Murray alluded to several measures in the past to get more progressive taxes in the state that have failed, including Initiative 1098, which would have placed an income tax on wealthier Washington citizens.

An income tax was declared unconstitutional in Washington State in the 1930s, and a 1984 law prohibited local cities and counties from imposing their own income tax. Challenges like I-1098 pop up periodically, though: Last November, voters in Olympia considered an income tax measure that could have challenged the ruling, but it was ultimately defeated.

A 2015 report found that Washington State had the most regressive state tax structure in the country.

Constantine said that despite both him and Murray hoping for help from the federal government, that help never came. The executive alluded to new threats to federal funding; recently, the City of Seattle filed suit against the federal government over threats to pull funding to “sanctuary cities.”