NORTH HIGHLINE UNINCORPORATED AREA COUNCIL: Property-tax talk; school funding demystified; more

By Tracy Record
White Center Now editor

The North Highline Unincorporated Area Council roared into fall with two mega-informative hours.

Thursday night’s meeting was led by NHUAC vice president Barbara Dobkin, in president Liz Giba‘s absence, with secretary Pat Price and board members Christine Waldman and Richard Miller.

HIGHLINE PUBLIC SCHOOLS BUDGET: Duggan Harman from the school district was at NHUAC to talk about the public-education funding situation – “what’s going on with the state,” etc. No, the problem has not quite been solved, he said, for starters. “We are still trying to unpack” the situation, he added, offering background on the case that has become known simply as “McCleary,” after the family that brought the lawsuit, and the fact that our state’s constitution says it’s the state’s “paramount duty” to fully fund public education. But by 2010, the state was only funding “70 cents on the dollar,” with the rest being picked up locally, he explained, and that led to the court fight. So the Supreme Court held the state in contempt, and finally, this year, “after three special sessions and in the dead of night,” the Legislature passed a bill. He noted that Highline and Seattle Public Schools – where he worked for more than 20 years – have different perspectives on the bill; he considers the changes “a good start.” Now, instead of a maintenance-and-operations levy, they can have an “enrichment levy,” which he says is “more like a bond,” and considers “transparent.” The state assumes that districts will pursue that levy, and that it will be passed. It’s capped at $1.50/$1,000 of assessed property value, or a certain amount per district student, “whichever is less.” Almost all the state’s districts will be going after the former, but the largest districts will be going after the latter, and it will not “be a level playing field.” And Harman is not sure this will wind up kicking in at the start of next year. He believes the tax rate in Highline will “drop by about 75 cents per $1,000 … not super-significant, but it will be dropping” … and the district will wind up receiving $35 million instead of almost $65 million that it’s getting under the different, current formula. Beginning teachers will get about the same salary they were slated to get previously; classified staffers. He debunked several myths, as he saw them, about the new funding formula. Another one involves special-education funding, and he says Highline will be “OK” under the change, while the Seattle district is looking at reductions. Highline’s not facing reductions immediately but might in three years or so, he said.

In Q&A: Voter-approved bond funding will be enabling another middle school to be built, and that will allow Highline to move 6th graders into middle school, which currently is only 7th/8th in the district, unlike most other districts. That will free up some capacity in elementaries, which currently are bursting at the seams, and that means that K-3 class sizes can be reduced to 17-1 in most if not all Highline elementaries; currently it ranges from 21-1 to 28-1. “The plan is to not depend long term on portables,” which will be phased out over time, Harman added. With that, they’ll have enough elementary capacity “for the next 10 years” or so; middle schools will get crowded sooner, and high schools will be OK for a while. Within 10 years, the district is projected to have 22,000 students.

What about the old Beverly Park campus? It can’t be used currently because it’s not hooked up to sewers and its septic system has failed; the work to connect it to the sewer system is scheduled to happen this school year. The elementary that’s going to be built will be at Zenith Park in Des Moines; the new middle school will be where the old Glacier High School used to be.

Asked about federal funding, Harman said there’s a concern about a noise-mitigation grant negotiated some years back by the FAA and Port of Seattle, which the district used around the rebuild of Highline HS – about $14 million. “The port’s still 100 percent behind it; the FAA’s decided ‘airplanes don’t make as much noise as they used to, so we don’t think you qualify’,” he said, so that money’s future is in question – it’s in a bill that has been caught up in political tug-of-wars.

Dobkin asked what happens to schools in North Highline if the area were annexed by the city of Seattle. Harman reiterated what’s long been the answer to this question – the city and school district are separate entities with separate boundaries, so nothing would change there. But if annexed, the area would likely become more dense, and Highline “doesn’t have the capacity” to handle that – they’re already facing that situation as the Midway area densifies, for example, so the district expects to be negotiating with several municipalities for impact fees, which they’re already getting from Kent. Would the city of Seattle contribute to Highline schools at all? Dobkin followed up. Harman said that the city’s Families and Education Levy might go in part to newly annexed areas, but that doesn’t directly fund schools.

Asked how citizens can advocate for equity, Harman said talking to your elected officials does help, and gave an example of how local representatives were contacted about a problem that needed to be fixed – and passed amendments that made millions of dollars of difference. But while the elected officials hear from people like Harman all the time, “they need to hear from voters,” he emphasized.

His e-mail is duggan.harman@highlineschools.org – contact him with concerns, questions, etc. “I’m more than willing to talk with anyone at any time about this … if we don’t get (education funding) right this time, it’ll be another 20 years before it comes up.”

COUNTY ASSESSOR: John Wilson also discussed the effects of the education-funding decision. “For us it’s a moving target,” he said, a source of frustration. His department’s computer system is old. King County property owners will see their tax bills go up – they “will pay significantly more so that money can be spent elsewhere around the state to equalize education.” They’re now waiting for districts to tell them which of the funding formulas (mentioned by Harman) they will be using. There might be a bit of a drop in 2019 from 2018. “But what we’re seeing is a failing of our property tax funding,” something he said has long been in the works. He mentioned Seattle’s “Will Rogers” approach to property taxes – the city “never met (one) it didn’t like.” They are finite, he said, and now leading to residents asking if they can afford to live in their houses any more, or do they need to sell and move – “we are basically ripping you out of that home of yours” when that happens. So he said they’re talking with King County Executive Dow Constantine about a “statewide homestead tax exemption,” which would require a state constitutional amendment. The money would have to be made up somewhere, though, he acknowledged.

At this time of year, they start hearing from local governments – and they have to make calculations that include 596 local levy districts around the county. He has a staffer who for 10 years has manually calculated those levy codes because of their computer system’s limitations. The state calls for property tax bills to be sent in mid-February, and that’s what they’re ramping up for now. “The challenge we have … we somehow need to modernize our tax system, and the way we provide services,” so that there’s a balanced revenue system “that doesn’t overburden you.” He said he’d been talking with Dobkin before the meeting about one of its long-voiced concerns, the tax-exempt public housing – on one hand, its tax exemption seems proper, but on the other, that burdens the community that as a result is not getting tax dollars, so a balance needs to be found for that. “We’ve got to have a better system” to be sure that people don’t pay too much, but also do pay their fair share.

In Q&A, the issue of tax fairness came up again; Wilson noted that our system goes back to the late 1800s, and has not significantly changed, though the economic base has changed dramatically. Because of its structure, even a record amount of new construction did not keep the county budget from suffering a shortfall in the same year the record was set. Same thing goes for gas-tax funding that’s helped with roads – it’s going down because even with more miles being driven, fuel efficiency has gone up, and less gas is being sold, so that’s another case of the tax system not keeping up with changes.

He also ruefully joked about how tax increases are not being explained clearly – the “how many lattes a month” is deployed too often and too inaccurately, to the point where you get a bill and say “wow, that’s 167 lattes!” – so they are working on a “transparency tool” that will help people make voting decisions with clearer information on the results of the decisions we’re making. They also want to create it in a way that will show renters how they’re affected, to get away from the inaccurate perception that renters blithely vote for property taxes because “they don’t pay (them),” which, Wilson said, is not true, as the increases are passed along in rent hikes.

In response to another question, he talked about how the Assessor’s Office tries to keep up with accurate assessments – visiting properties at least one every six years, for example. And he talked about how to accurately assess properties that have been remodeled, telling the tale of a West Seattle house that took out a relatively low-cost “remodel” permit but really tore down almost the entire house – except for one corner – and did work more like 10 times the value of the permit they had taken out.

Wilson was then if seeking equity in the tax system might lead to a new way of taxing higher-end properties. He said state law wouldn’t allow a tiered tax system but there are some other ways to look at it. He also mentioned having met with Seattle City Councilmember Lisa Herbold and discussing concerns about higher-end homes being built and allowed to stay vacant; that’s not a big problem here, he says. But, he said, his office has information on all 700,000 pieces of property in the county, including some government-owned properties that might be available for use for housing because the original intent for those parcels somehow fell away over the years. And, he said, modular housing could help. So they’ve been working with housing providers and companies building modular-type units that are “ready to drop on a site” for about $70,000 a unit – a fifth the cost of building something new. So there’s a site where they’re looking at installing more than 100 such units and taking more than 100 people out of homelessness and off the streets. He said they’re also being mindful of not overloading any particular community with this type of housing – “we have to get our suburban partners on the other side of Lake Washington more involved.”

Next question, about mixed-use development, led to Wilson acknowledging that “affordable retail” is important too, not just “affordable housing.” The city has a glut of street-level retail space but much of it sits vacant because of the price point. So they’ve been talking about innovative ways to use it. “We’re finding that small locally owned businesses – often owned by (members of) historically disadvantage communities – are often the ones being forced out first,” by chains, in most cases. “When you so homogenize the retail base, the only people who can afford to have shops in those are those running national franchises or banks … we have to be smarter about that.” He specifically mentioned the proliferation of Starbucks; an attendee said White Center’s new Starbucks specifically brought him and his wife into WC to shop. He stressed that while he’s not bashing chains, “there has to be a balance.” Also, Seattle has 44 Subway franchises, and 40 of them are for sale, he said a friend told him – while they are generally owned by local franchisees, they are taxed and treated like “multinational corporation” outlets, he noted.

You can reach him at john.wilson@kingcounty.gov – he says he personally receives and answers all e-mail.

CRIME STATS: Deputy Bill Kennamer brought the latest numbers – comparing July-August of this year to a year earlier. Auto theft is down a bit in White Center, 21 compared to 25; auto recoveries, which is where vehicles stolen elsewhere are dumped in the area, have dropped significantly, 12 compared to 21; commercial burglaries are down significantly, 3 compared to 9; assaults are about the same.

He said someone had asked him about the Westcrest Park stabbing earlier this week (a Seattle case) and while he had no specific information, he did have one note – when Seattle thinks a case is gang-related, there’s usually a regional bulletin issued, and there has NOT been any such bulletin about this case.

He also talked about keeping the White Center Bog area safe – it’s been cleaned up, and when people are caught trespassing there, they are told to leave.

A discussion ensued about the fate of various properties in flux – such as the former Dairy Queen, which is going to be a food-truck kitchen, the deputy said.

And there was a discussion about vehicle problems along local roads – if there’s one parked in front of your house, call the Abandoned Vehicle Hotline, he advised. He also said that he’s “pretty ruthless about RVs” that are parked where they shouldn’t be; in unincorporated King County, you are not allowed to park one anywhere except for a designated camper spot – wherever you park one, you are supposed to have power, water, and sewage.

The next point of complaint: Illegal fireworks being shot off year-round. Deputy Kennamer said enforcement can be problematic, as they generally have two deputies in the area per shift, and they have to be prioritized. In the bigger picture, it was noted that for fireworks to become permanently illegal in the unincorporated area, the County Council would have to change the law.

Myers Way came up too – “people don’t even call us any more” due to resignation over some of the unresolved issues, the deputy noted, but community advocate Gill Loring urged from the audience, “If you see something, call 911.” People shouldn’t hesitate.

SEOLA POND RESTORATION: Scott Delfay, a community organizer, took the podium to update the group. He said he had lived in Fauntleroy recently and noted that its creek is a “magnificent place” because of years of stewardship and the resulting work to get grant. Then in 2010, he bought property just east of the city-county line in Seola, on greenspace “that acts as a de facto neighborhood park.” North of 106th and along 30th SW, which is the boundary. It’s historically a peat bog, he noted, that would dry up in the summer, and held runoff because of all the construction around it. He explained that he had obtained $1,600 from Uncle Ike’s (whose proprietor was in attendance) in funding more help for work at the site, done by EarthCorps earlier this week, and they’ll be back in October. Asked if there is anything about his project online, he said he’s a “Luddite” but is hoping that he’s initiated something that’s gaining momentum as did the work in Fauntleroy. He said his church is the fiscal sponsor for what he’s doing. “This is meant to bring awareness of the pond, and hopefully get more volunteers.” To help and/or find out more, you can reach him at satomiscott (at) q (dot) com. He also noted that there’s a landowner on the Seattle side who can’t build on their parcels because it’s peat and he’s been trying to help coordinate a potential donation of that land as a park site.

NEW FUNDING OPPORTUNITY: Sarah Margeson from King County Parks/Natural Resources told NHUAC that a new program in Youth and Amateur Sports Grants has $1.5 million dedicated to serving unincorporated areas, “for capital project improvements and programming,” and community groups are eligible to apply too. She said that transportation, nutrition, and other needs can be addressed, and that it’s available for adult programs as well as youth. It’ll be launched at the end of this month, with an online grant-management system that she hopes will make it “pretty simple” for applications – you’ll find the links on this website once it’s available, and informational sessions are planned too (in Kent and South Seattle).

ANNOUNCEMENTS: NHUAC secretary Pat Price thanked the community for support of the Labor Day weekend White Center Library Guild Sidewalk Sale, which she says “did well” … Community advocate Gill Loring brought up a trash problem on 15th SW/SW 107th that’s been brought to the attention of various county departments, with none wanting to take accountability for it; Storefront Deputy Kennamer said he’s pursuing it too.

OCTOBER NHUAC MEETING: Deputy County Executive Fred Jarrett, King County Sheriff John Urquhart, and City of Seattle Homelessness Director George Scarola are tentatively slated as guests for next month’s meeting (7 pm Thursday, October 5th). Watch northhighlineuac.org for the agenda as that date gets closer.


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