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Legal Challenge to Seattle's Percent for Art Policy

The City of Seattle owns and operates Seattle Public Utilities (SPU) as a proprietary public utility which supplies water and other utility services to SPU ratepayers. The involvement of SPU is the City's Percent for Art programme has been legally challenged.

A class action is currently in progress against SPU. The background is that that the City is required to manage and operate SPU as a proprietary municipal utilities in a way that is in the best interests of SPU's ratepayers, and not as a means of raising revenues for the City's general governmental purposes.

The complaint is a complex one: broadly that Seattle illegally required SPU water ratepayers to pay for items which fall under the general governmental functions of the City rather than the responsibility of the SPU.

The complaint relevant to the City's Percent for Art policy is as follows:

  • SPU is required to contribute funds to the City's Public Art Program run by the Office of Arts and Cultural Affairs, through the City's One Percent for Art ordinance, Seattle Municipal Code Ch. 20.32. Under this ordinance, SPU is required to contribute to Seattle's Municipal Arts Fund one percent each year of the utility's capital improvement budget for construction within Seattle city limits.
  • Much of the money paid by SPU under this ordinance was spent on art purchases or art projects with a general governmental purpose, rather than a legitimate utility purpose, and was spent to benefit the general public, not SPU ratepayers. Those expenditures do not have a sufficiently close nexus to a legitimate utility purpose to constitute lawful expenditure of utility funds.
  • SPU may purchase art works or fund projects to beautify its own offices and customer service facilities, but it may not lawfully expend utility funds to purchase art or fund projects that have the primary purpose of improving SPU's image in a particular neighbourhood, or cultivating public relations.
  • SPU may not lawfully spend utility funds for the purpose of mitigating an SPU facility's appearance when the primary purpose of the art is to provide artistic benefit to the surrounding neighbourhood and the public as a whole.

The claim therefore is that the City's One Percent for Art ordinance is invalid as applied to SPU.

This complaint relates to a similar one in relation to Seattle City Light on the same grounds, which was upheld by the Superior Court in May 2004, and which the City of Seattle is currently appealing (June 2005).

Full details of the two cases are at www.seattle.gov/arts/news/citylight5-2004.asp

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