Nearly 25 miles of city roadway stretches through Orting in the shadow of Mount Rainier. The East Pierce County city is responsible for maintaining it, but officials say they cant afford to stay on top of chip-sealing and other repairs.
So Orting has taken a route that more and more South Sound communities, such as Tacoma and Lakewood, are exploring: It created an independent taxing district to collect money for road projects.
Orting will start with a $20 car-tab fee increase.
Officials in the city of about 6,800 also have started looking at ways to generate funds for their understaffed Police Department. City Administrator Mark Bethune said some kind of tax increase is possible.
The bad economy has pinched local governments of all sizes, and more are turning to tax and fee increases, because they have few options left, said Candice Bock, legislative and policy advocate for the Association of Washington Cities.
The recession hit hard in 2008, and cities took a number of steps over the last few years to keep their budgets balanced. They spent reserve money, they laid off folks, they reduced services, Bock said. Now theyre reaching the point of saying we cant use reserve funds anymore, we cant cut any more staff.
Towns and small bedroom communities face even taller hurdles. They dont collect as much sales tax revenue as cities with strong retail bases, and they are more reliant on property taxes that have fallen hard.
They also have smaller staffs, so its harder for them to balance the budget through attrition and layoffs, Bock said.
In Eatonville, a town of 2,700 in the foothills of Mount Rainier, the mayor earlier this year proposed disbanding the Police Department and contracting with Pierce County.
Eatonvilles nearly $2 million general fund is running at a deficit, brought on by a recession-related decline in revenue and the expansion of the town Fire Department a few years ago.
Following a public outcry, the Town Council rejected the plan to do away with the police force. Leaders are working on other ways to shore up the budget, including a temporary utility tax increase that was recently enacted.
Last week, it gave initial approval to an ordinance that would send a one-year property tax increase to the ballot this fall. If approved by Eatonville voters, the measure would generate about $160,000, adding an estimated $1 per $1,000 of assessed value to residents property tax bills.
Town officials said the money would help maintain town services, not expand them.
Eatonville, like many other communities around Pierce County, is bracing for a property tax revenue hit. The value of the average residential property in the county dropped nearly 12 percent this year, according to county data released in June. In the Eatonville area, the decline was nearly 13 percent.
The Town Council also has acted to form an independent taxing district like Ortings known as a transportation benefit district but hasnt made any funding decisions yet.
In the tiny city of Roy, northwest of Eatonville, officials arent talking about a car-tab fee increase for road projects. But they have started discussing ways to step up police funding to reinstate the citys reserve officer program.
Roy has about 800 residents and a general operating fund of nearly $517,000. Its police force has one officer and the newly hired chief.
While leaders may discuss possible tax options, Mayor Karen Yates said another idea is gaining traction: a foundation that could accept donations to the city and obtain grants. She said she hopes its in place within a year.
In Orting, the City Council last week acting as the board of the transportation benefit district approved the $20 car-tab fee increase. Officials estimate collection will begin in six to eight months.
The city expects to collect an estimated $224,000 for road projects over a two-year period.
Orting also wants to beef up staffing at the Police Department, which is roughly five full-time officers shy of its target level of about 13 officers. Bethune expects to bring tax or other funding ideas to the City Council later this year.
Orting City Councilman Ric Fritz said the decision to raise the car-tab fee was not made lightly. He said the council also knows it likely wont be the end of tough financial decisions.
There are a myriad of challenges that continue to face us, Fritz said. Were tiptoeing through, taking the action we know we have to take but at the same time trying to limit the impact.