McGauley: The Case for Seattle County

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Seattle skyline. (Doug Trumm)

Growing up in the Old Northwest, I was used to townships and counties being small, arbitrary but generally orderly boxes that operate as the base unit of rural government. Around Indianapolis, the suburbs grew such that school districts, municipalities, and townships were generally contiguous, imbuing place into previously meaningless squares on a map. Indianapolis, the largest city, outgrew Central township and merged with Marion county in 1970.

King County is enormous, the twelfth most populous county in the United States despite roughly a third of the county being uninhabitable mountains. Large counties make good sense when public services need economies of scale in the sparsely populated Columbia plateau, or when a county can fully capture an urban area like Thurston, Whatcom, or Spokane. King County, however, sprawls while failing to encompass Greater Seattle.

A map of US counties and county equivalents, with the 100 most populous counties highlighted.  Clear difference in county size in Western vs Eastern US states, due to different organizing principles when created. (Wikimedia Commons).
A map of US counties and county equivalents, with the 100 most populous counties highlighted. Clear difference in county size in Western vs Eastern US states, due to different organizing principles when created. (Wikimedia Commons).

The City of Seattle, which is well on the way toward 800,000 residents, would be the fourth most populous county in Washington all by itself. With my experience in Indiana, I have wondered why Seattle wasn’t already a standalone entity, particularly as Seattle already operates independent of King County in many ways by virtue of being both large and old, providing its own electricity (Seattle City Light or SCL), libraries (SPL rather than KCLS), and parks (King County manages no facilities within city of Seattle, though the current parks levy does invest in Seattle alongside the rest of the county). Interestingly, SCL and Seattle Public Utilities (SPU) boundaries are not contiguous with the municipal boundaries, but neither are the King County water treatment boundaries, which highlights how we optimize rather than align jurisdictional boundaries.

Why change?

Seattle is the clear center of the region, but we are not a monocentric agglomeration (think Chicago). Our regional vision is for Bellevue, Tacoma, Everett, and Bremerton to be metropolitan cities alongside Seattle. Separating Seattle would structure our political subdivisions to better reflect this vision. 

Elevating the Seattle mayor to be coequal to county executives would should right-size our regional discourse and better place Seattle to interact with its immediate neighbors to the north, south, and east. For example, population, a crude measure of proportionality, would be more balanced four ways rather than three (Snohomish and Seattle at about 800,000, Pierce at 900,000, and King excluding Seattle at 1.5 million). Rather than one dominant entity surrounded by economic supplicants, giving Seattle and King coequal seats at the table both shift power away from a single entity while also elevating Seattle and King in our regional structures.

The current Seattle city boundaries are arbitrary, as are many county boundaries. Whether the boundary should be adjusted is an interesting question I will not delve into, but there should be a boundary. Even if we merged Central Puget Sound into one “city,” we would need underlying political units. We can call them boroughs to fulfill our destiny as the new New York City, but we would eventually reinvent the wheel under a new name.

There are very few urban problems that need to be tackled at the county level. The big problems facing our region–transportation and housing–cross county lines and require coordination with neighboring counties whether Seattle is contained within King or is standalone.

So then why not shift everything to the regional level and call it a day? In a word, subsidiarity. 

Subsidiarity

Subsidiarity is a framework in Catholic Social Teaching that was developed to find a third way between fascism/socialism and laissez-faire liberalism. “Subsidiarity is an organizing principle that matters ought to be handled by the smallest, lowest, or least centralized competent authority,” the Wikipedia entry states. Our federal structure that devolves all unenumerated powers to sovereign states rests on the same principle of Subsidiarity.

In an urban context, the principle would suggest we should attempt to tackle most issues at the neighborhood level and then work upwards for issues that cannot be resolved at that level. For example, zoning and land use decisions should generally not be at the neighborhood level for political reasons, while public works departments should generally not be at the neighborhood level due to economies of scale.

The framework, however, does not mean that every neighborhood is an independent city. Carnation is a standalone municipality because of its geography and should remain that way. Medina, on the other hand, is likely better organized as a community council within Bellevue, akin to the East Bellevue Community Council, rather than an independent city.

Why Seattle?

Why, then, is “Seattle” and “Not-Seattle” an important delineation in the hierarchy of competent authority? I posit there is a cultural and political break between Seattle and the rest of the region. I won’t dwell on the political science–I don’t understand why Seattle votes socialist while Burien, Bremerton, and Bothell do not–but the discontinuity is apparent.

A vibrant example that comes to mind is safe injections sites; disagreement is more about culture than science. Seattle and the rest of the region have sharply divergent views on how to move forward with improving public safety and public health and both entities should be enabled to follow their respective values. But the difference does not simply need to be around the hot-button issues of today. For example, let’s address public transit:

  • Technical differences: When pursuing electrification, Seattle can expand upon the trolleybus network, while Not-Seattle must focus on conversion to an electric battery fleet.
  • Structural differences: The suburban built environment is likely more conducive to various microtransit innovations, while Seattle has the density to focus on high quality fixed route transit and does not need to be distracted by the latest microtransit fad
  • Goal differences: Seattle would focus on creating a high frequency grid and maximizing the population within it, while the county would likely structure express service oriented to maximize productivity and local service oriented to maximize coverage, with an equity framework to address the inevitable tradeoff.

As shown in the structural differences, Seattle can strive to have its cake and eat it, while not-Seattle is differently constrained and needs to spend political energy grappling with. Differences in geography and built environment not only limit and guide our policy choices, but they also direct our political energies to address different dilemmas. 

What next?

Washington has a long history of carving new counties out of existing counties.

Map shows King County's 1852 boundary which included Kitsap and much of the Olympia peninsula. Jefferson and Kitsap counties have since been carved out of former King. Mason, Grays Harbor, and Clallam also nibbled at former King's edges.
King County stretched all the way to La Push in 1852. (Map created by the King County GIS Center Client Services Group, 2002)

Washington has created new counties through history, gradually evolving from one county to 39, but a new county hasn’t been created since 1911, so any next steps would be wildly speculative. Which city would host the county seat? Kent, alongside existing court and detention facilities, or perhaps Renton, as the bridge between South and East King? Do we also shuffle other boundaries? Skykomish to Snohomish, please!

Major assets would presumably be divided by geography, but it will not be a clean process. For example, the King County Metro North Base sits outside of Seattle city but serves Seattle routes; who owns it? Some assets will need to be duplicated. Seattle will likely consolidate city and county administrative facilities into a single downtown campus, requiring King County to stand up new administrative facilities elsewhere at considerable expense. 

Nonetheless, I believe establishing Seattle as a standalone city-county, independent of the remaining King County but closely integrated with King, Snohomish, Pierce, and Kitsap counties, would be a positive evolution for the region.


This is a two-part series weighing the pros and cons of Seattle becoming its own county. Here is Ray Dubicki’s article arguing against the proposition.

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AJ McGauley was a temporary transplant in the Seattle area, living in East King with his lovely wife for five years before returning to the great Midwest. Having lived in nine very different cities in the six years prior to moving to Washington, he discovered the wonky side of urbanism after reading The Urbanist and is interested in why cities grow (or don’t grow) in different ways. He worked for Sound Transit and can still be found riding transit for fun.

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Daniel Thompson

As one of my post-pandemic predictions on The Seattle Transit Blog I predicted the rift between East and West King Co. would continue to grow. I really think it is time to consider splitting King Co. between East and West.

First, KC is geographically huge, nearly the size of Rhode Island, and the population density between east and west is significant. Second, and more importantly, there is such a divide in ideology between East and West KC today, on transportation, transit, taxing, public education, police, law and order, zoning, business climate, homelessness, and just about every other major issue it makes little sense to combine East and West KC. Cites and even different neighborhoods are not allies, they are competitors, especially when revenue is declining.

Interestingly, the two articles and most of the posts on this issue all ask what is best for Seattle. On the eastside the feeling is the King Co. Executive and County Council are basically an extension of the Seattle City Council when it comes to policy, which I think is accurate, and there is real concern Seattle is spinning out of control politically.

There are benefits for both Seattle and East King Co. from creating a new county for East King Co. For example:

1. The first is taxing and revenue. Seattle has greater funding needs, and its citizens appear more willing to tax themselves for things like transit, and so Seattle shouldn’t have to worry about selling county residents on a tax. Right now, under ST subarea equity, any tax revenue raised in one subarea must be spent there, but not all subareas have the same transit needs or same revenue base. ST 2 and 3 were designed to allow the North KC subarea (Seattle) to run rail to Snomohish Co. and the South KC subarea, plus Ballard and West Seattle. But that taxing rate, and the explosion in East KC revenue, means the eastside subarea has more money than it can spend. Seattle is going to need more money for bridges as well, and generally has a higher cost per resident than other cities in the County. Seattle will need to put several tax increases on the ballot in the next few years if it hopes to maintain the progressive approach its council wants, and should be able to do that without county approval (or funding).

2. The state allowed a 1/10th of one percent increase in the sales tax to address homelessness. Since KC did not enact the tax by Sept. 30 cities were allowed to opt out of the county tax and keep the tax increase for their own housing programs. Nearly every eastside city opted out because they have so little faith in King Co. and Seattle to address this issue, and believe affordable housing is the key, especially after the protests, riots, and CHOP. (One of the articles stated Seattle is on its 5th mayor in 7 years). Instead Dow Constantine’s approach was to purchase distressed hotels in other cities like Renton and move the homeless there by the hundreds without any treatment, security funding, or requirements for sobriety, and so Renton enacted ordinances that will prohibit that in the future. Right now this divide on how to address homelessness is at the heart of the dispute over the director and direction of the new County homelessness agency, and reflects the divide in ideology between east and west KC.

We also have to consider working from home. In the past tens of thousands of eastside residents would commute into Seattle for work, and many from Seattle would commute to the eastside. This created a sort of mixing, and Urbanism was on the rise. Now Covid-19 has created a nest mentality, and working from home will mean there will be much less mixing between east and west KC for work. Where once Seattle was the only game in town when it came to entertainment that just isn’t true anymore, and many eastside cities have excellent restaurants and entertainment.

Certain functions like sewage or marine patrol or fire dept. coordination will be continued by interlocal agreement, but it makes little sense to combine Metro services for east and west KC since they have such different transit needs, and working from home will likely decrease travel between cities and within the county. I just think it is time to split east and west KC, and allow each to pursue the policies each wants, and the necessary funding, and that will make each council more effective and responsive to the areas that council serves.

apardoe

> Medina, on the other hand, is likely better organized as a community council within Bellevue, akin to the East Bellevue Community Council, rather than an independent city.

I would not claim that the East Bellevue Community Council, nor Houghton in Kirkland, are a model to replicate. These councils empower NIMBYs to prevent progress in their respective cities. The compromise made when East Bellevue was annexed was, in my opinion, a mistake.

Eric

The Seattle region should go by the acronym BEST which stands for Bellevue, Everett, Seattle, Tacoma.

Ray Dubicki

BEST Products was a late-70’s retail chain whose buildings were unique disaster-movie sets.

https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/best-superstores-architecture

I am okay with this acronym for the region.