Politics & Government

Suit prompts Edgewood to halt utility tax

Edgewood has stopped charging a utility tax after a resident sued the city on behalf of voters who oppose the tax, which was imposed late last year.

The lawsuit claims that staff in the East Pierce County suburb stonewalled a referendum petition that sought to suspend the tax until voters could weigh in on the issue.

It also alleges that City Manager Mark Bauer attempted to dissuade petitioner Eric Docken from filing a referendum, telling Docken he “should not and/or did not need to file a referendum, because the City needed the utility tax revenue.”

Bauer says that claim and others outlined in the complaint are “grossly inaccurate.” He said Docken didn’t properly file the referendum petition as required by state law.

Still, the lawsuit drove the City Council to overturn its utility tax ordinance at its Jan. 14 meeting. The city had started collecting the tax on Jan. 1.

The 2.67-percent tax on gas, electricity, telephone, cable and garbage utility services was approved on Sept. 24. It was meant to generate about $475,000 in revenue to pay for three new positions in the city’s dwindling police department, reinstating 24-hour patrols.

“We’ve been looking at bare-minimum staffing since 2010,” Bauer told The News Tribune. “It’s just not a good situation for the officers or the community.”

The lawsuit, filed in Pierce County Superior Court earlier this month, states that the city of Edgewood “refuses to accept, certify and/or process” the signatures that voters collected to properly pursue a referendum.

To launch a referendum effort, citizens must file a petition with the city within seven days of an ordinance’s passage. The petitioner then has 30 days to secure signatures from at least 15 percent of the city’s registered voters. At that point, the city would turn the petitions over to the county for validation before an issue could be placed on the ballot.

Docken, who led two previous anti-utility tax referendums in Edgewood, claims he filed the petition with the city about four days after the City Council approved the ordinance, according to court papers. Then, on Oct. 21, he submitted 1,079 voter signatures to the city, well above the required 539.

Docken expressed concern to the City Council on Nov. 12 about the “lack of City response to the signed petitions,” the lawsuit states. “Upon knowledge and belief, the County has currently not received any petitions.”

In fact, the city had submitted the petitions to the county, but only to get an accurate count of how many voters supported the petition at hand. Bauer said the city did not consider it a formal referendum.

Elections staff with the Pierce County Auditor’s Office notified the city of Edgewood on Nov. 12 that it had received the petition, and another letter dated Nov. 25 said 1,049 signatures were valid.

“To place this item on the ballot, it is the responsibility of the city to call for the election and to take all necessary actions,” Mike Rooney, county elections manager, wrote.

Although the City Council did review the petition and corresponding signatures, Bauer said the city didn’t consider it necessary to put it on the ballot because Docken hadn’t followed procedure. Instead, the city manager said, Docken had inquired about the process with the city clerk, prepared a petition and started sending it out to residents without officially filing the referendum with the city as directed.

“It doesn’t take a lot to put (a referendum) in motion,” Bauer said, noting that Docken isn’t new to the process. “Because he didn’t follow the law, we deemed it an invalid petition.”

Bauer acknowledged that if the referendum had been properly filed, it would have been eligible for the ballot.

After the county notified City Hall on the validity of voter signatures — and phone calls came in from confused citizens who thought they’d signed the petition in favor of hiring new police officers — the City Council reviewed the issue once more. In that meeting late last year, Bauer said officials decided to move forward as planned and implement the tax.

That was until Docken unexpectedly filed his lawsuit on Jan. 10. Bauer said the action left the city with few options, and the City Council chose to stop the utility tax indefinitely.

“The council decided, after evaluating the case, that it was going to cost too much to go fight the complaint and take it to the ballot,” he said.

Anyone who was billed for the utility tax will receive a refund, Bauer said.

Edgewood is one of the few cities in Pierce County without a utility tax. Neighboring communities such as Puyallup, Fife and Sumner all have one.

September’s vote wasn’t the first time officials unsuccessfully tried to bring the new tax to Edgewood. In 2005 and 2010, citizens launched referendums that overturned council-approved utility tax ordinances, with Docken at the helm.

Bauer said the city still needs increased public safety spending, and the public works director position will be eliminated in March to pay for another police officer.

He said it’s unclear if the City Council will take up the utility tax issue again.

Bauer said he feels the city continues to be held hostage by the same group of people who have made it difficult to fund basic services in Edgewood.

“We have nowhere else to cut,” he said. “The utility tax was the only thing left.”