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Memo to state officials: It’s the cities, stupid!

2011 July 20
by Cary Bozeman

Note: The following post originally appeared on Crosscut.  This C200 post hit on similar themes.

< Seattle, via Wikipedia Commons >

A few weeks ago I happened to be channel hopping and watched a panel discussion monitored by Joni Balter of The Seattle Times at a meeting of the Seattle City Club. The panel consisted of two members of the state legislature, a member of the governor’s staff, and a consultant for the Republican party. All seemed to be smart and informed people. The topic was the State of the State and how can we pull the state out of this economic recession and if so how long will it take, and what do we have to do to make it happen.

It was an interesting discussion but what amazed me as I sat and listened was that not one time did I hear the word “cities” come up in the discussion. (This is also true of the two candidates running for governor in their opening speeches.)

It continues to confound me that the leaders in Olympia don’t understand that healthy cities are the cornerstone of a economically healthy state. Seventy percent of our population live in cities. Cities are where the jobs are. Cities are where we educate most of our children. Cities are where we find most of the social networks that support our elderly, our poor, and our most disadvantaged. Cities generate most of the property, sales, and B&O tax that supports our state budget.

Yet when you see one of the governor’s finance people give a budget presentation, the various charts never point out the impact of cities on the state economy. Our economy is not driven by state government; it is driven by local government, cities, towns, and counties. This idea would seem obvious, but trust me it isn’t.

Having served as the mayor of two cities in the state, Bellevue and Bremerton, I have always been amazed at how little the legislature and the governor’s office understand the economic dynamic between the cities and the state, and how hard cities have to fight to be heard in Olympia. Most local governments end up having to hire their own lobbyist to give them a foot in the door to support legislation that helps cities and to stop legislation that hinders cities’ ability to grow their economy and support their citizen population.

The simple truth is that when cities win, the state wins.

So what needs to be done to help our cities, and therefore our state’s economy? Cities need the legislative tools from the state to create jobs, pave streets, and educate our kids. Cities have fought for tax-increment financing for years but have not prevailed. Since the demise of the car-tab fee, cities have not had the funds to rebuild their streets, so now every city in this state has a deteriorating street system. City councils have been given a car-tab fee authority but most have not had the political courage to increase the local car tab by even $20 a year.

Our state’s schools are now ranked below most of the other states in this country, and we should all be embarrassed and treat it as the number one priority for both our cities and our state.

I firmly believe the goal of the next governor and the legislature in the coming years should be the re-birth of Washington’s cities.


Cary Bozeman, currently CEO of the Port of Bremerton, has served as mayor of Bellevue and Bremerton.