County Council sends measure to voters requiring supermajority approval for new taxes
The Pierce County Council is sending voters a charter amendment proposal that would require any new county tax to be approved by a “supermajority” of five council members.
The council voted 5-2 along party lines Tuesday to put the measure on the Nov. 6 ballot. Council members Rick Talbert and Tim Farrell, both Tacoma Democrats, voted “no.”
The council altered the amendment Tuesday to apply to two sales taxes it currently could impose but has not: increases for public safety, and for mental health and chemical dependency services.
Last week, the elected leaders revised council member Roger Bush’s proposed charter amendment requiring that voters approve any new county tax. The council delayed a final vote after it approved an amendment from Farrell, shifting the proposed authority for adopting new taxes from voters to a council supermajority.
Farrell noted that the council could be liable to a lawsuit if it referred to voters a new tax that the state had given the council authority to adopt.
His revision came after county officials warned at a study session May 15 that Bush’s original proposal could cause financial uncertainty, leading to higher borrowing costs, and make the county vulnerable to a suit.
The council deliberated Tuesday over what constitutes a “new” tax that would require a supermajority.
It first voted 4-3 to approve Farrell’s definition, which included any new taxing authority the Legislature gives the council after Jan. 1.
Then, the council voted 5-2 – with the five Republicans voting “yes” – to add taxes the council currently has authority to levy but hasn’t.
That addition from council member Dan Roach, R-Bonney Lake, applies to two potential sales-tax increases: two-tenths of 1 percent for public safety and one-tenth of 1 percent for mental health services.
After that change, Farrell said he couldn’t support the final version. He said maintaining the lower requirement of four council members’ votes – not five – to add the sales-tax increase for mental health services “is a real sticking point for me.”
A simple majority of voters is required to adopt the charter amendment. It will not increase the county’s election costs because there already are a number of county positions on the ballot.
Bush, R-Frederickson, said he was excited about the council’s action Tuesday “to protect taxpayers.”
“Setting a higher threshold for creating new taxes on the people and employers of Pierce County is the right thing to do,” he said.
Both Bush and Farrell have said they are concerned the Legislature will cut funding for some county programs, then give the council taxing authority to make up the loss.
If approved by voters, the charter amendment will take effect Jan. 2.
Bush has acknowledged the council hasn’t approved new taxes during his seven years on the council. And when a new tax was proposed – last fall’s South Sound 911 tax – the council sent it to voters, who approved it.
Farrell and Talbert have proposed asking voters to elect a charter-review commission in 2013, two years earlier than required by law. The council is expected to decide on that proposal June 12.