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Originally published Thursday, July 3, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Joni Balter / Seattle Times editorial columnist

Do the city council members wear purple crushed velvet, too?

In this summer of economic angst, our homes are worth less and harder to sell. Food and gas costs are soaring out of sight. Vacations are turning into...

In this summer of economic angst, our homes are worth less and harder to sell. Food and gas costs are soaring out of sight. Vacations are turning into stay-cations — the in-vogue term for trips closer to home that don't cost a lot. We are van-pooling, taking the bus, biking, reducing spending.

Average citizens have changed their behavior in response to the harsh economy, yes, even in Seattle, which is faring better than the rest of the country.

But there is one place where they are still partying like it's 1999 — Seattle City Hall.

Down at Fifth and James, the logic seems to be: Hatch an idea for something we need or want, then don't flinch. Ask voters to raise their property taxes and they probably will.

Seattle needs more parks and open space, say most members of the Seattle City Council. How about a property-tax increase? That idea will be considered and likely placed on the November ballot by a council vote later this month.

Seattle needs to spruce up the Place Place Market, improve heating, cooling, make seismic upgrades and de-funk nearby Victor Steinbrueck Park, says Mayor Greg Nickels. So he proposes a $75 million property-tax levy. That plan probably will be tentatively approved later today and land on the November ballot as well.

Always with the increase in the property tax. What about a fresh idea that recognizes the financial plight of the average resident?

During robust economic times, Seattle voters have been champs. Over the last 10 years, they have generously approved millions of dollars for roads, bridges, community centers, libraries, open space, low-income housing, fire stations and city support of public schools. The housing and Families-and-Education levies are continuing taxes expected to be renewed before they expire. Now the council is poised to make the parks levy all but permanent.

This is a city full of do-gooders eager to invest in infrastructure, and let's face it, that is one reason the place is so livable. But the next time you gasp at your property-tax bill, first look in the mirror: 41 percent of the average tax bill comes from measures approved by voters in recent years, including public schools.

We pay our civic leaders to know the difference between good times and bad times, to lead and think creatively.

Nickels, to his credit, grasps the economic pinch on citizens and that is why he is not in favor of renewing the parks levy. He is, however, pushing to spend more on the beloved Pike Place Market. The City Council is hellbent on parks. Sound Transit may seek a sales-tax increase for expanded light rail.

Everyone loves the market and new parks and open space.

But come on, timing matters.

Most elements of the economic slowdown are beyond our control. We cannot slow the increase in price for gasoline and food. We cannot raise our own salaries. The mayor and council could, however, recognize people are having a hard time and take a break from constant piling on of the property tax.

They can, but they won't.

Years ago, Pike Place Market held a fundraiser to pay for a new floor and raise money for operations. Individual tiles were sold at $35 each, 45,000 of them, so people could feel connected to the market and help replace the crumbling concrete floor.

That was creative and required risk. It didn't raise a ton of money, but the current council could do the same kind of thing or a variation on it to lower public spending. How about a local improvement district covering part of the city, much like financing for the streetcar? How about a high-level fundraising effort? How about foregoing improvements to Steinbrueck Park? How about waiting a few years before automatically hitting voters up for more parks and open space?

The City Council is the council that can't say no. With its help, Seattle is pricing out working- and middle-class families, becoming more unaffordable by the day. It is time to slow down and give us a break.

Joni Balter's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is jbalter@seattletimes.com; for a podcast Q&A with the author, go to www.seattletimes.com/edcetera

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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