Newly elected Seattle Mayor Ed Murray delivered his first State of the City address Tuesday afternoon in a packed chamber at City Hall. He highlighted the pride and spirit of community that is embodied in Seattlites, and also went over the significant challenges he and the Council will face over the next four years. He covered a variety of topics, from transportation to income inequality, and offered a few jabs at opponents. Click here for a full video of the occasion.
Murray started by recollecting the joyful chaos he encountered at the Seahawks Super Bowl celebration parade, in which an estimated 700,000 people crowded Downtown. He said this spirit is found day to day citywide and Seattle should be proud of its diversity. Government should encourage this by acting as a collaborator, not “hit the pause button on progress”, and local leaders should “embrace new practices [and] new ideas”.
His main three concerns for the four-year term are social and economic justice, an affordable Seattle, and climate change. We are at a crossroads, he announced; we can become high-class and expensive like San Francisco and New York, or we can address the squeezing of the middle class and reinforce the backbone of our economy.
On income inequality, Murray emphasized that the growing gap between rich and poor has dire consequences for a democratic society. He is continuing with his drive for a citywide $15/hour minimum wage after starting with all City of Seattle employees. This needs to be balanced with retaining jobs and maintaining purchasing power, but he offered no specifics on this point. With the nearby City of SeaTac already requiring $15/hour, the highest in the nation, the region has an opportunity to lead the rest of the county in guaranteeing a living wage for all. Related to this, Murray spoke about the alarming trends in housing costs. 47 percent of renters pay more than 30 percent of their income in housing, which is the standard threshold for determining affordability. He plans to form a citizen advisory committee to address issues of homelessness, commuters being pushed into the suburbs, and the racial imbalance of homeownership (51 percent of whites own, while only 27 percent of blacks do). Unemployment is much higher among minorities, and 46 percent of black children live in poverty compared to 4 percent of white children. To help combat this, Murray is pushing ahead with his plan for universal pre-school to begin this or next year.
“Climate change is the most significant challenge humanity has ever faced”, he continued. 2013 was one of the hottest years on record, and Washington water supplies may be at risk if dry winters continue. There is a social obligation to protect low-income and elderly people who are most at risk for natural disasters (see Hurricane Katrina and practically the entire developing world). The city needs to build a holistic carbon monitoring program instead of relying on isolated program metrics. He announced that a new standard report card for environmental performance will be first released on Earth Day, April 22nd. The threat of sea-level rise on the Downtown waterfront and in the city’s lowlands makes the rebuilding of the 50-year old seawall a priority. Also on the waterfront, Murray is committed to working with the Washington State Department of Transportation and Seattle Tunnel Partners to make sure the Highway 99 tunnel gets done despite serious setbacks.
Transportation is responsible for 50 percent of carbon emissions in Seattle. Progress is being made on this front, with Seattle being only one of five cities in the nation to have more than 50 percent of its residents commuting by anything but driving alone. Murray’s goal is to make that 75 percent. To do that requires continuing to broaden the array of modal choices. The upcoming bike share rollout will help (he noted it is only U.S. program to start in 2014), and the South Lake Union Streetcar has had three times the expected ridership. With the opening of the First Hill Streetcar later this year, the two lines are expected to carry 31,000 riders daily with only five minute headways. The Metro bus system is in crisis, and he urged all residents to vote for the sales tax and fee that will stabilize bus funding; Murray poked at the state legislature, from which he recently retired, for failing to act on this issue. This summer he wants to start a citizen conversation on modernizing the Seattle Department of Transportation and develop an integrated strategy for improving the city’s network and street maintenance backlog. Murray also supports establishing a Metropolitan Parks District to ensure stable funding for parks and community centers and relieve a $260 million shortfall for upkeep projects.
He also invites citizens to the Neighborhood Summit on April 5th, which will help rebuild trust between neighborhoods and city government. (I’ll see you there.) The city’s urban village strategy, which directs growth into a few locations, has been successful and needs to continue to make Seattle a walkable place with work, shopping, and entertainment only minutes away by foot.
The city will improve its relation with businesses and especially entrepreneurs. Outreach to new businesses in all economic sectors is needed to make Seattle a friendly place to work. Murray noted that immigrants are twice as likely to start businesses, so he wants to fully fund and staff the city’s immigration office. He said the city is working on a resource guide for restaurants that will combine all relevant regulations and health codes on one website by next year. And he also plans a summit focused on the city’s industrial and maritime sector, which employs 90,000 people and contributes to Washington’s status as the most trade-dependent state in the nation.
He briefly touched on the positive gains the Seattle Police Department is making under the watchful eye of federal Department of Justice, which sued in 2011 after police were found to be exhibiting a pattern of excessive force and discriminatory tactics.
Murray’s wants to bring Internet access to all and gather data on usage ahead of a possible municipal fiber network. In fact, throughout all of these topics Murray stressed the need for data-driven policy. We need data on housing, businesses, social services, transportation, employment, parks, everything. It is the responsible way to study problems, direct investment, and find out what does and doesn’t work.
In response to critics who say cities should be involved in many of these issues, Murray responded that municipal government is a “laboratory of democracy”. The mayor wrapped up with a quote from the second President Roosevelt: “It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.” We should strive for a city that is fair, equitable, and gives everyone an opportunity to thrive in the 21st century.