Washington cities and counties often use the sales tax to fund transportation and public safety projects.
Three King County cities and Snohomish County are asking voters to approve sales-tax increases to fund an assortment of needs, from sidewalks in Shoreline to school resources officers in Kirkland.
All four of the measures are titled Proposition 1, including Covington’s proposal to fund transportation projects and Snohomish County’s effort to upgrade its emergency radio system.
Voters in Snohomish and King counties a have a mixed history with the sales tax. Snohomish County narrowly rejected a countywide sales tax for criminal-justice uses, 50.13 percent to 49.87 percent, in the 2016 primary. In a 2014 special election, King County voters rejected an added 0.1 percent sales tax coupled with a $60 vehicle license fee to pay for Metro bus service. Seattle’s leaders, however, got the measure on the November ballot that year and it passed easily.
Eric Johnson, executive director of the Washington State Association of Counties, said the problem of limited revenue-raising options for counties is compounded when the Legislature passes unfunded mandates to counties. The counties association is considering a lawsuit to eliminate the state’s annual 1 percent cap on property tax increases, hoping instead to tie it to inflation and population growth.
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Snohomish County lawmakers, law enforcement and first responders are hoping county voters don’t reject a sales-tax increase this time around. Voters now are being asked to approve a 0.1 percent countywide sales tax to pay for an update of the Snohomish County Emergency Radio System (SERS).
The system is the spine of communications for every police officer, fire department and first responder throughout the county. The equipment SERS uses is mostly the original equipment from the system’s creation in 2001, which had a major failure earlier this year. In January about half the county’s system went down for 20 minutes.
“The option to wait really isn’t a responsible option at this point,” said Brad Steiner, SERS executive director.
Both sides of the sidewalk debate agree that new sidewalks are needed. Opponents of Shoreline’s Proposition 1 campaign would rather the city focus on sidewalk maintenance and make new development be responsible for new sidewalks, said Dustin McIntyre, chair of the Shoreline Sidewalk Reprioritization Committee.
“That is one way we have continued to build sidewalks and will continue to build sidewalks regardless of Prop. 1,” he said.
David Dailey, campaign manager for People for Shoreline Sidewalks, said the City Council already increased its vehicle license fee for maintenance of sidewalks and needed to find another funding source to build new sidewalks.
“Infrastructure costs money. It always costs money. We can argue whether sales taxes are regressive, or would you like higher property taxes?” he said.
Prop. 1 goes toward 12 projects rated as high need out of about 130 sidewalk projects identified by the city. The 0.2 percent increase in Shoreline’s sales tax would last for 20 years and put Shoreline’s sales-tax rate at 10.2 percent while building five miles of sidewalks.
Dailey said about 60 percent of the money raised would pay for the new sidewalks and the remaining money would be funneled to sidewalk maintenance.
Kirkland City Council Member Penny Sweet said her city’s Proposition 1 is needed to address a growing demand on law enforcement and first responders. She said the city’s public-safety committee has been hearing from the police and fire chiefs that a lot of their time and money is being spent addressing mental-health emergencies, property crimes and issues connected to the opioid epidemic.
“There were significant public-safety concerns that continue to crop up,” Sweet said.
If the measure passes it will add 0.1 percent to the city’s sales tax, which stands at a rate of 10 percent. Some of the things the measure funds would be four new school resource officers and the creation of a unit in the police force focused on property crimes, drugs, and protection orders.
Michelle Darnell and Ken MacKenzie, opponents of the measure, wrote in the voter’s guide that Kirkland could pay for resource officers and more police with existing funds. “Our tax burden goes up every year, giving the city more money to spend,” they wrote.
Covington, nestled between Kent and Maple Valley, would use its proposed 0.2 percent sales-tax bump for transportation projects. What makes Covington’s request different is that if voters approve Proposition 1, the city will eliminate its $20 car-tab fee.
Covington’s city manager, Regan Bolli, said the car-tab fee was implemented three years ago for street maintenance. It generates about $350,000 a year, while the sales-tax increase would bring in $1 million. That would be a significant boost for the small south King County city that has on average 40,000 cars passing through per day.
“The car tabs are helpful but they are a drop in the bucket. These funds don’t build roads. It is to maintain what we currently have,” Bolli said.
The opposition to the sales tax wrote in the voter’s guide, “If the city council removes the car tab fee, can they be trusted to keep it off? By law they can reinstate it at any time.”