Now that the construction boom that made the city of Seattle rich is starting to decline—and putting newfound pressure on homelessness spending—it’s time to ask where the money went.
After analyzing the city’s budgets over the last eight years, we found some answers.
How rich were we? Are we still rich?
The year 2013 was a clear turning point. Seattle’s general fund started ramping up from $800 million then to $1.1 billion now. That’s 30 percent growth. Overall city revenue grew, too, from $4 billion to $5.6 billion. But overall revenue also contains the money gushing through Seattle’s utilities. The general fund is where the political action is, and where the tough decisions are made. And yes, Seattle is still loaded compared to the way it was during the recession. But the city is spending pretty much all of it.
Which taxes made Seattle this money?
Business taxes, and sales taxes and new property taxes, in that order, all related to construction. These were the taxes that led the way. Forty million dollars-worth of tax revenues from construction in 2010 ballooned to more than $100 million this year, according to the City Budget Office.
So how did the city spend this dough?
Infrastructure: buttressing the Seawall, roads, and other growth-related investments.
Police officers: Mayor Ed Murray wanted 100 new cops on the beat. He got those cops, and then he wanted 100 more. That didn't happen. But permanent funding happened: In 2016, the city hiked business taxes, largely pay for this ongoing expense. With the Chamber of Commerce’s blessing.
Homelessness: It is very hard to follow homelessness spending through every annual budget process. But the Budget Office’s 2018 budget proposal reports that Seattle’s spending on homelessness rose from $39 million four years ago to $63 million in 2018. That’s an increase of 60 percent. Until the head tax, many of the commitments already made for homelessness were not secured by their own revenue source, meaning they were paid for by construction boom money. Meaning they could be at risk when the boom stops. The head tax did pass, but it only lasts five years before it must be renewed. And now the tax faces stiff opposition from people who want it repealed.
How did the politics of spending change over the boom?
The politics of spending changed a lot.
After several hard years of killing jobs - 294 in 2011 alone - and snipping away at expenses, in the 2012 budget year the Seattle City Council pushed back. It said no to more cuts and pulled money out of the city's Rainy Day fund to cover the $18 million crater in its budget.
If council members were gambling on a turnaround, they were right. In 2013 the money rolled in. Cash was back in the Rainy Day fund and spending resumed. Mayor Mike McGinn had a “new approach to address street disorder,” including money to address homelessness, and the council added more money for homelessness on top of that.
It was the start of a new pattern. Each year mayors put forward their own spending proposals, and the City Council usually added more spending on top of that.
In 2015, Mayor Ed Murray and the City Council allowed a $26.4 million budget gap. “Surprise” boom money arrived to cover it.
The following year, the city spent big on everything, including homelessness. The council added $7 million in social services spending. And then Mayor Murray declared a homelessness state of emergency, throwing an additional $7.6 million at the problem. At first, the goal was emergency housing, but last year the focus turned to permanent housing, leading to deeper investments, like $29 million in affordable housing bonds.
But today, with revenue from construction in decline, the Budget Office is telling the city it’s risky to spend on faith that more boom money will cover budget gaps. “A shift to slower growth could happen very quickly,” the director of the Budget Office wrote in a 2018 proposed budget summary. The same document acknowledges that homelessness is "the most significant policy challenge that the City is currently facing."