(Also published on partner site West Seattle Blog)
Story by Tracy Record
Photos by Patrick Sand
White Center Now/West Seattle Blog co-publishers
Just because White Center (and vicinity) voters said no to Burien doesn’t mean they’re ready to say yes to Seattle.
That was abundantly clear during tonight’s standing-room-only annexation “conversation” at Dubsea Coffee in Greenbridge, barely a block south of the city-county line.
Some in attendance loudly voiced skepticism and outright distrust of the city’s motives and even suitability.
Others asked simple questions about what changes annexation would bring.
The city’s longtime point person on annexation, Kenny Pittman, led the discussion, saying he wanted to offer “basic information” and answer questions, and promising more meetings and “outreach.”
He’s been working on the annexation issue for 12 1/2 years, he told the crowd of 50+, which included White Center community advocates and entrepreneurs.
He recapped why it’s on the front burner now – as first reported on our partner site White Center Now, Governor Inslee has signed a Legislature-passed bill that will divert millions of sales-tax dollars to Seattle to cover the costs of taking on the added residents and acreage.
Early on, he said annexation isn’t going to happen overnight:
If the city seeks and gets Boundary Review Board permission and the county sends it to voters in what remains of unincorporated North Highline, the earliest vote would be November 2017, and a “yes” vote then would lead to annexation taking effect in early 2019. Or, the timeline could be a year behind that, Pittman said.
Arriving late due to a transportation snarl, Karen Freeman from King County Executive Dow Constantine‘s staff underscored what the county’s message has long been – that the area must be annexed, because the county is not equipped, nor intended to, provide urban services.
Some wondered why White Center couldn’t become its own city. That was studied, said Freeman, but there just wasn’t a big-enough population/tax base for that to work.
That answer did not go over well with everyone.
But the informal presentation, and Q/A, ran to the basics, too. Such as – who would provide services, if county residents became city residents? The North Highline Fire District currently serves the area; its fire station on SW 112th would become a Seattle Fire Department station, said Pittman, and services would be provided as needed from north of Roxbury as well (West Seattle has five fire stations; South Park has one).
The Seattle Police Department would add officers, Pittman said, mentioning the number 40, at one point. Several outspoken attendees clearly believed they would be needed, repeatedly mentioning concern over Seattle’s crime rate, and the fact that some Seattleites are augmenting police with private security. Safety isn’t just a matter of police, Pittman countered, saying watchful neighbors are vital too, even where he lives (which, he volunteered, is in the Thurston County city of Lacey).
For schools, the area would remain with Highline Public Schools, until and unless HPS and Seattle Public Schools sought and reached some sort of agreement, which would then require approval by the Puget Sound Educational Service District. That sort of agreement is not currently being sought, it was stressed: “At this time, we are not looking at that at all.”
Pittman suggested that North Highline would get extra educational services as a result of annexation anyway, because of what the city has added on, including the Families and Education Levy, and the new Seattle Preschool Program.
He also declared that property tax would be lower after annexation, and acknowledged that would sound impossible, given the current complaint that people in Seattle are passing tax levies nonstop. The reduction, Pittman suggested, would be because residents would no longer be paying special levies for basic services such as roads, fire, and libraries.
That last point is one of contention, because King County Library System’s brand-new White Center Library is opening soon, a library for which WC community advocates and library supporters fought long and hard, built years behind schedule. The city and county are talking now about its fate, but at the very least, KCLS might continue managing it for a while after annexation.
Other questions – What would the transition for businesses be like? The question came from Proletariat Pizza proprietor Mike Albaeck:
The city has a business tax, Pittman acknowledged, though it’s not charged to those making below $100,000 a year. A business license is required. And while some might be concerned about Seattle’s so-called $15/hour minimum wage, it’s not up to that level for anyone yet, and small businesses currently are paying $12/hour, said Pittman.
He added that it’s not just a matter of paying and getting nothing in return, the city offers economic development. And that’s when a skeptical attendee spoke up passionately, saying White Center isn’t just “the unincorporated area,” it’s a small town, one of the last “blue-collar neighborhoods,” with a lot of pride. “I don’t want to see a Starbucks on every corner,” she declared, accusing the city of “ignoring us … forever.”
She was countered by longtime White Center resident and former Chamber of Commerce leader Mark Ufkes, who said he’s been talking with Pittman for the dozen or so years that Seattle annexation has been an on-and-off possibility.
But, he warned, if Pittman was going to be the only Seattle rep evangelizing annexation, “(it) will be voted down.”
More skepticism followed. The first questioner declared she considered the Seattle City Council to be “weird.” (The council would have to sign off on sending annexation to North Highline voters.)
Questions about zoning veered into concerns that developers would “run amok” as they are perceived to have done in Seattle, and would densify the area. What would happen to zoning? Pittman was asked. Freeman suggested that was a bright spot, as Seattle has a community-planning department, which the county does not have, though it did just hire a planner to work on Vashon Island issues.
Pittman added that the planning would involve adjacent neighborhoods as well, such as Highland Park and Roxhill, as had been requested by the nearest West Seattle community council, Westwood-Roxhill-Arbor Heights CC (here’s our coverage of the recent meeting at which that was discussed; Pittman had spoken there about the annexation process’s status).
Members of the North Highline Unincorporated Area Council, the potential annexation area’s lone community council, were there tonight, and asked pointed questions too.
(corrected) Another attendee wondered if Seattle would increase the amount of low-income housing in White Center. Pittman said the area is not and would not be a “dumping ground.”
How would annexation affect transit? an attendee asked. The county is responsible for it, but the city has been paying extra to buy additional service, Pittman mentioned, funded by the Seattle Transportation Benefit District‘s sales tax and car-tab tax.
What about parks and the birds they draw? Pittman replied that they would be transferred to the city.
Seattle would not take over all utilities, though – the areas served by sewer and water districts would keep that service (some of the potential annexation area has water service from Seattle Public Utilities, and that would continue).
A mix of information and consternation continued until the meeting closed at 6:30 pm as promised; Pittman thanked everyone for taking time “on a beautiful day” to show up and speak up.
WHAT’S NEXT: No schedule yet for the promised additional meetings. Pittman said the city will have a website and other ways of obtaining information. You can also watch the Boundary Review Board’s site for meeting agendas – proposed Seattle annexation would have to show up there, and go through board hearings and decisions, long before getting to voters.
P.S. A Seattle Channel crew recorded the meeting; we’re checking with SC to find out about plans for broadcast/webcast.