The Lakewood City Council will vote next month on whether to form a new taxing district to pay for street repair.
But council members stress that voters ultimately will decide whether to pay for street projects. The council appears to be leaning toward asking voters for a property tax levy rather than a fee added to vehicle tabs.
A council discussion last week was the latest turn in a debate about forming a transportation benefit district, an independent taxing authority that would raise money for road improvements.
The district’s governing board could add a fee on annual car tab renewals of up to $100 with voter approval; it could adopt up to a $20 fee without going to the ballot. It also could ask voters to levy a property tax.
Lakewood council members plan to govern the district if they form it.
City officials say they need more money to keep streets from deteriorating. They say they have no dedicated funds to pave streets to extend their life, and the longer they don’t receive maintenance, the more it will cost to repair them in the long run.
The city estimates it needs $5 million a year to maintain 431 lane miles of streets, which are in good condition overall. The tax being considered would cover a portion of the desired funding.
The city wants to prevent its pavement from falling into the poor condition seen in neighboring Tacoma. The larger city is considering a ballot measure asking voters to raise property taxes to repair streets, and a citizen task force is meeting to recommend a list of potential projects. Unlike Lakewood, Tacoma is not proposing a transportation benefit district.
Tacoma has estimated it will cost $800 million to fix its street problems.
Lakewood’s transportation advisory committee and a separate committee of three City Council members have both recommended forming a tax district. They differ, however, on what to present to voters and how to use the money.
The advisory committee recommends a vehicle tab fee, while the other group supports either the fee or a property tax levy. The advisory committee favors using most of the money for paving, while the other group advises splitting the pot between paving and installing sidewalks.
Tom Ballard, a member of the advisory committee, said the city shouldn’t propose new sidewalks when its can’t maintain the streets it has.
As an analogy, he offered: “If you can’t take care of the house you have, why are you building an addition?”
But Councilman Michael Brandstetter said voters might be more apt to support the measure if they would get something new.
“It’s a balance,” he acknowledged.
City officials originally thought a $40 annual license tab fee would generate $1.8 million a year for street repairs, based on initial estimates from the state. But a more detailed analysis sliced that estimated revenue to about $1.4 million annually.
Lakewood Mayor Doug Richardson said that lesser amount of car tab revenue is not what’s now steering the council’s attention toward a property tax. Rather, he said, a property tax would be a return to a familiar funding mechanism: Before the city incorporated in 1996, residents paid a separate property tax levy to Pierce County for roadwork.
And what the city is currently considering is significantly less than what the county assesses now.
A property tax levy of 37 cents per $1,000 of assessed value is estimated to generate $1.8 million a year. That would cost the homeowner of a $192,000 Lakewood home — the median price in Pierce County — $71 more in property taxes a year.
Meanwhile, the county’s current road levy, paid only by property owners in unincorporated Pierce County, is $1.88 per $1,000 of assessed value — of which $1.53 goes to roads and 37 cents goes to law enforcement.
On June 25, Lakewood City Council members plan to review an ordinance that would form a taxing district for street projects.
On July 2, they could vote to create the district. Once formed, the council would convene as the district’s governing board to hammer out the details on what type of revenue package to send to voters.
Mayor Doug Richardson said he anticipated an election on a revenue measure would be held no earlier than February.