The push for authorization of a street utility tax in Olympia may have been left off Spokane Valley’s legislative agenda for 2011 – but that doesn’t mean the idea has taken a detour on the statewide roadmap.
Spokane Valley City Council Member Bill Gothmann – one of three council representatives to vote in support of the street utility campaign last week – said the approach makes sense because “it treats streets the same way as any other utility.”
“It provides a long-term revenue stream for road maintenance,” Gothmann said. “It distributes the responsibility to everyone who uses streets.”
Gothmann and fellow Council Member Rose Dempsey and Mayor Tom Towey were in the minority of a 4-3 decision on Dec. 28 that means, in Gothmann’s words, “our lobbyist will not be lobbying for a street utility tax.”
Under the proposal, commercial and residential property owners would be taxed based on the amount of traffic generated by their respective building. For instance, a grocery store would pay more than a storage facility. Gothmann said establishing a street utility to fund the upkeep of Spokane Valley roads would be “more equitable” than the 6-percent phone tax that went into effect two years ago and raises around $4 million a year for street preservation.
“If you don’t support this legislation, then you’re supporting the 6-percent telephone tax,” Gothmann said at last week’s council meeting.
Groups like the Association of Washington Cities are gearing up for the next legislative session, scheduled to begin on Jan. 10, with a priority list that includes the street utility tax at or near the top. Dave Catterson of AWC said the campaign deserves attention because “cities don’t have any dedicated funding for maintaining streets.”
A fact sheet distributed by AWC about the street utility tax chronicles the plight of cities in the face of decreasing funds from sources like the gas tax. AWC states that “nearly three of every four city transportation dollars rely on transfers from the operating budget.” The resulting scenario means competing for funding with essential services like police and fire protection.
Catterson said the latest rally for authorization of a street utility will focus on the declining quality of roads throughout Washington utilizing data provided by the Washington Department of Transportation.
“The condition of city streets is going down across the state,” he said.
A legislative stamp of approval would authorize cities and towns across Washington to put the question of a street utility on the ballot within their respective jurisdictions. The tax could be approved with a simple majority – or any margin above 50 percent.
Former Spokane City Council Member Al French, recently elected to serve on the Board of Spokane County Commissioners, has been a longtime supporter of the street utility. Last year, he appeared before the Liberty Lake City Council to provide an overview of the concept as leaders there were considering road funding options.
French said authorization of the street utility “stands a better chance” this time around based on conversations he has had with people familiar with the campaign.
“It’s become a question of, ‘If not this, then what?’” French said.
French said part of the delay has involved the question of how to create a fair formula that calculates the correlation between street use and cost to taxpayers. The AWC fact sheet indicates that a the tax in a typical urban city would mean a rate of between $2 to $8 per month for a single family household while commercial buildings would pay between $15 to $35 monthly for every 10,000 square feet. Industrial sites, meanwhile, are levied between $10 to $15 for the same space.
Liberty Lake Mayor Wendy Van Orman said that while she applauded the notion of “everyone paying into a street utility,” Liberty Lake would hold off on lobbying for the idea in light of a recently approved 6-percent utility tax on phone, gas, cable, gas and electric services. Van Orman said that part of the money raised through the new tax would go toward maintaining streets throughout the city.
Echoing the call of municipal leaders from Anacortes to Airway Heights, Van Orman said the emphasis on consistent care of roads is about saving money in the long run.
“We know we can spend $1 to maintain a street regularly or $8 later to completely replace that road,” she said.
Joe Tortorelli, who represents the Spokane Area Good Roads Association, said that while the gas tax has risen in recent years – up 5 cents in 2003 and another 9.5 cents in 2005 to reach its current rate of 37.5 cents per gallon – the revenue has gone toward specific projects like the Alaskan Way Viaduct and the North Spokane Corridor rather than maintenance within individual cities.
Tortorelli said he plans to visit Olympia several times during the next legislative session to lobby on behalf of groups like Good Roads and Greater Spokane Inc. that support the street utility. One of the downsides of the tax, Tortorelli said, is that it currently does not include a provision for matching grants to fund regionally significant transportation projects. Business entities opposed to new taxes remain the most significant hurdle in the quest for street utility authorization.
“Cities are constantly falling behind in road maintenance,” Tortorelli said. “They need a dedicated fund.”