Here we go again.
When it comes to Tacoma’s pothole-ridden roadways, voters will once again have a chance to fix them.
Will they choose to do it, to the tune of $175 million in new taxes over the next decade?
Your guess is as good as mine.
What I do know is, without fail, when Tacoma residents are asked what their top concerns are, dreaded potholes are always near the top of the list.
Historically, however, the tricky part has always been finding the money.
As you may recall, in 2013 voters rejected a ballot initiative that would have raised up to $11 million per year to fix our streets by increasing the utility earnings tax by 2 percent for power, natural gas and telephone service. And it wasn’t even close; the effort lost by nearly 15 percent that November.
The opposition was forceful, spending just over $97,000 to combat the effort and, in the process, filling Tacoma’s mailboxes with lots of depictions of lots of older folks with lots of pained looks on their faces over the prospect of higher utility bills.
The Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber of Commerce and major employers like Simpson Kraft came out hard against the effort, leery of the tax implications and skeptical that enough money would be raised to have any real impact on the problem.
In reality, the pushback probably had a lot more to do with the former than the latter; at the time, Tacoma Public Utilities estimated that three large companies within Tacoma Power’s service area could pay at least an additional $100,000 per year if the effort had passed.
That resounding loss at the polls in 2013 is what’s informing the game plan behind Mayor Marilyn Strickland’s latest stab at fixing our roadways.
This is a plan intended to fix the problem and alleviate the opposition’s concerns.
But, in doing so, it raises its own questions.
This time, the ask is bigger but the burden has been spread — with the utility earnings tax down to 1.5 percent, and a one-tenth of 1 percent sales tax and a property tax of 20 cents per $1,000 assessed valuation thrown into the mix. If the City Council signs off, voters will be asked to approve two ballot measures.
All told, with $120 million in anticipated grants and $30 million from the city’s general fund, Strickland hopes to round up $325 million over the next decade, costing Tacoma households a reasonable $7.50 a month. Using the appropriate political jargon, the taxes will “sunset” after 10 years, meaning voters will have a chance to renew them or scrap them if they are not working.
Strickland says the money should be enough to rebuild and maintain 70 percent of Tacoma’s residential streets, including paving an embarrassing 167 gravel roads currently within the city limits. There will also be some cool new sidewalks and school crossings, and all the work will generate roughly 420 jobs.
Of course, this isn’t all sunshine, rainbows and street pavers.
Relying on sales tax means tapping into one of the most regressive of all revenue streams, thanks to its disproportionate impact on the poor. In other words, Tacoma citizens with less money will be paying a larger percentage of their overall budget to fix our streets.
Furthermore, including sales tax in the equation has the potential to make securing future funding for mass transit even more difficult. As it stands, increasing sales tax is one of the only revenue sources Pierce Transit has available. The same goes for Sound Transit, which is poised to put Sound Transit III on the November 2016 ballot.
Then there’s the $3 million a year the city has pledged from the general fund. An improving economy may well be enough to cover it, and Strickland says she’s confident no “draconian” cuts will be necessary to make it happen. I trust her. But it’s also worth pointing out that the city is spending roughly $4 million in general fund, grants and mental health tax money over two years on something as essential as homeless-related services. By the city’s own admission, requests for such funding was double that.
Will any of these concerns will be enough to derail the plan? It seems unlikely.
Rather, if this thing is doomed, it will probably come down to the same thing it always does: taxes, and people’s willingness to pay them.
The good news for Strickland is the chamber is apparently on board this time around. Or at least it won’t be as vocally against the proposal. On Monday, Chamber CEO Tom Pierson, who opposed the 2013 roads plan, offered The News Tribune the quotable equivalent of a shrug.
“If not this, then what?”
That is the question.