The objectives are clearly worthy. The case in favor is sound.
The timing, on the other hand?
That might be the crucial question on which the fate of Tacoma’s Prop 1 hangs.
Put more bluntly: Is now the time to ask voters to support a sales tax increase to fund better citywide access to the arts, culture and sciences?
Before we go any further, there’s an annoying truth that bears mentioning here. That’s also the question the adamantly tax-opposed types always trot out in situations like these.
From this vantage point it’s never the time for a new tax — which, as far as queries go, makes it about as helpful as the constitutional musings of Kanye West.
That’s not what this column about.
Rather, it’s about the real emergencies facing Tacoma — like affordable housing and homelessness, to name the two most pressing. And it’s about the legitimate fear that asking voters to pony up for the arts, culture and sciences next month might be thwarted by what voters, even here in progressive Tacoma, likely view as a hierarchy of city needs.
Prop 1 would levy a one-tenth of 1 percent sales tax for the next seven years, and generating roughly $5 million annually — at a cost of $13 a year for the average Tacoma household.
Tacoma Creates, as it’s been branded, shouldn’t be a tough sell.
But I’m afraid it might be.
It promises to do a whole host of meaningful things if approved by voters — raise all boats, to paraphrase Tacoma City Councilman Chris Beale.
There’s a reason it’s being championed by a diverse coalition of supporters.
It would bolster arts-and-culture education for Tacoma school children. It would greatly expand access to arts and cultural events for all Tacomans. And it would create neighborhood-based programs and cultural activities throughout the city — literally taking arts and culture to the people.
Most importantly, Tacoma Creates would place a much needed emphasis on equity, zeroing in on the undeserved parts of the city that don’t have the same kind of access to the arts that the tonier, whiter, more well-off enclaves of Tacoma enjoy.
In this, Prop 1 provides the promise of truly helping the “kids who fall through the cracks,” as Councilman Anders Ibsen said in June when the City Council voted 8-0 to place Prop. 1 on the ballot.
Or, as City Councilman Ryan Mello told me: “This isn’t your grandmother’s arts and culture measure.”
It’s hard to argue with any of that.
Still, for many, the question of timing likely lingers.
Well, for instance, just last month we learned that truly addressing the city’s affordable housing crunch will probably take in the ballpark of $70 million over the next 10 years.
To do that, Tacoma will need to put money into an affordable housing trust fund … which (spoiler alert) is probably going to take new taxes.
Then there’s homelessness.
The Dome District stability site, open since June 2017, has an annual budgeted cost in excess of $2 million. At last check, it had moved just 46 residents into housing — largely because permanent supportive housing is in such short supply.
The city hopes to shutter the sanctioned tent city in 2019, with a goal of moving its residents into expanded shelter space elsewhere. It’s a fine idea, but the task of transitioning residents of the unique Dome District operation to more traditional shelter providers could be tall.
Even so, accomplishing that would fail to get at the guts of the biggest lesson the city has learned in all this — that without adequate supportive housing options, we’re stuck in a holding (and sheltering) pattern that doesn’t address the underlying issue.
Getting at that issue will likely require — you guessed it — a substantial financial investment.
So, a new tax for the arts, culture and sciences then?
Answering that question sufficiently — and convincingly — is one of the biggest things Prop 1’s champions will need to do for the effort win at the ballot box.
Mello, for starters, says there’s a strong argument to be made.
He acknowledged he initially questioned whether the timing was right for Prop 1, or whether it would put an arts tax in competition against other important city needs. Now he sees Tacoma Creates as a proposition that “gets at the systemic issues” at the root of things like homelessness and poverty.
“This is a completely new way of investing in people, especially the people who need the greatest need and neighborhoods that have been dis-invested in for decades,” Mello said. “There’s sound data that demonstrates that kids who have access to these kinds of arts, culture and science programs after school, and during the summer, perform much better than their peers that don’t.”
“This is actually a homelessness and affordable housing measure, if you want to think long term,” he continued.
“I’m dead serious, and excited to my core about this.”
All of this brings us full circle.
Prop 1’s objectives are clearly worthy. The case in favor is sound.
Ultimately, that will be a question for Tacoma voters.
And what they decide will have lasting implications either way.