The Legislature should act promptly, but carefully, to stem the chance of wrongdoing flourishing in the obscurity of special taxing districts.
Bills to reform these niches of government are pending in the House and Senate — even before the federal trial of a King County Drainage District 5 commissioner accused of embezzlement begins in May.
An indictment in September charged Allan Thomas with pocketing $468,165 from the public agency for himself and his Enumclaw dairy farm. The district uses public money to keep area stormwater drainage flowing, but the allegations spotlighted the dearth of oversight. Washington has more than 1,000 special districts; in every county, they use tax money to provide government functions such as fire protection, library services and mosquito control.
State laws require public election of district boards and financial reporting to the State Auditor. But this law lacks teeth. Thomas went decades without standing for reelection. Dozens of districts shirk their financial reporting obligations and are designated “unauditable” by the State Auditor.
The system badly needs fixes, but reforms must be weighed carefully. The best effort is House Bill 2588, from lead sponsor Gerry Pollet, D-Seattle. It would strengthen disclosure requirements for special district finances, and require online posting of agendas and other public notices. Unauditable districts face the wrath of county governments, which would gain the power to withhold tax revenues.
A second House bill attempting special-district reform could cause more harm than good. House Bill 2415 aims to reform special districts’ shadowy elections. Some special districts run their elections independent of county elections offices; state law requires certain ones to hold elections in the spring.
The bill proposes moving special districts under the state’s regular election laws and onto the November general election ballot. This would carry the consequence of a new and untenable expense for the districts. State law requires every agency with a spot on the general ballot to cover a share of election costs.
A very similar change was once imposed — and quickly reversed. A tweak to election law in 1999 put the state’s 22 conservation districts onto the statewide ballot for 2001. The districts’ bills came to $317,529 that year. The districts would have spent about $4,400 collectively without the change, according to a fiscal note from the time. The Legislature in 2002 overwhelmingly passed a law to restore the old way; now is no time to reverse course.
Senate Bill 6514 presents a differently flawed plan. This bill would give county assessors and treasurers, as well as the Secretary of State, new roles in irrigation-district elections. Its complex and potentially expensive changes would burden local governments with new obligations without addressing the system’s structural shortcomings.
Dozens of categories of special taxing district exist under state law. Lawmakers should build a clear and coherent system for voters to hold districts accountable and prevent the problems found in Enumclaw from happening again. Pollet’s HB 2588 is a good start.