Lucky levy?

The $72 million tax increase for the Seattle Center Opera House and neighborhood community centers ain't no slam dunk.

A WIN SHOULD be as easy as getting the Fun Forest's cotton candy to melt in your mouth: There is no organized opposition to the $72 million levy to raise money for the Seattle Center and neighborhood community centers, the local economy continues to look healthy, and Proposition One has or will have received the endorsement of every significant local official and civic leader. Yet the levy's passage remains far from a sure thing among political prognosticators.

"Overall, I think it's a good levy," says City Council member Nick Licata. "But I don't know if it's lit any fires under anybody."

Libraries, the subject of last year's successful $196-million bond bonanza, have a more natural constituency than the construction of several community centers and the renovation of the Opera House. However, Proposition One was the topic of a very public balancing effort featuring Licata and several other council members. Although Seattle Center officials wanted the Opera House to get the lion's share of the pot, council members successfully demanded that neighborhood projects get half the take. The levy will fund a $36 million construction and renovation plan which will create five new community centers, upgrade several others, and provide some funding for civic centers in Ballard and Lake City. On the Seattle Center side, the Opera House sucks up most of the dollars but a new Flag Pavilion gulps down $7 million all on its own.

The council also agreed to limit the size of the levy to $72 million, neatly replacing the 1991 Seattle Center levy that expires after this year. This allows supporters to use the old saw that the new levy doesn't raise taxes but merely maintains the existing tax rate.

Fred Bucke, a rabid anti-taxman who owns a used car lot in Lake City, says the lack of public opposition doesn't mean Proposition One is going to win. "Just because a lot of people don't pay any attention [to ballot issues] doesn't put them in the position where they accept it," he says.

In fact, although various bond issues and levies are defeated regularly, the only recent city ballot issues that warranted a major opposition group were the two Commons Park levies in 1995 and 1996. Matthew Fox, the former leader of the anti-Commons organization, says the park proposal pushed a whole bunch of hot buttons not found in other ballot measures: The Commons would have displaced many existing businesses and required massive amounts of future funding.

And even with a highbrow project like the expensive Opera House fix-up (private donations are expected to pay for half the project's $110 million total budget; the levy will provide another $29 million and future City Council bonds another $7 million) just begging for a sucker punch, the 50-50 split between neighborhood projects and the Seattle Center cools the potential of public opposition. "I think the trend is clear that more and more city spending is being put into neighborhoods other than downtown," says Brian Livingston, administrator for government watchdogs the Civic Foundation. "As long as the trend is going that way, I think that's enough to get more ordinary citizens to vote for it."

However, a city-commissioned poll last June found lukewarm support for the levy proposal, with barely half of the respondents expressing support. Bucke says that voters are simply tired of being hit up with a new tax increase each year. "As soon as people are coerced in voting for one [ballot issue], like the library, their reward will be another one down the pike," he says.

The opposition statement to Proposition One in the city voters' pamphlet, written by Bucke and longtime schools critic Linda Jordan, blasts the city-only funding for the Seattle Center, a regional facility. "Seattle taxpayers should not have to bear the total cost of the maintenance, repair, and renovation of this facility over and over again," say the two tax-fighters.

But city officials have little confidence in countywide ballot measures. In 1991, the Seattle Center's funding needs were split into two bond issues, one presented to Seattle voters only and one contested countywide. Seattle voters said yes; the countywide measure tanked. That, and a subsequent failure to pass a joint city/county low-income housing bond, has made city officials skittish about dealing with the tight-fisted county electorate.

Proposition One campaign manager Dean Nielsen says there's support once people learn what the levy will provide. "All our polling shows that if people know what it is, they're inclined to support it," he says. "This campaign is about getting the message out to the voters."

And getting out a message requires money. Unlike candidate races, in which contributors can only pony up $400 each, donation limits don't apply in ballot issue campaigns. The campaign has raked in more than $18,000 in individual contributions in the last two weeks, and Nielsen reports a few whoppers since then, including $15,000 from Bank of America and $7,500 from Washington Mutual. With this type of cash intake, a sophisticated citywide mailing campaign is sure to follow.

If the proposition passes, it would represent a big boost for the administration of Mayor Paul Schell. Coupled with the big library victory last year, the mayor would have scored a win at the ballot box in the first two years of his first term. Expect to see him back for more money next year.

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