Voters to decide on taxes for fixing Tacoma’s streets

The pockmarked streets of Tacoma are among the city’s most egalitarian — and reviled — aspects. Potholes and gapped sidewalks plague the city’s richest and poorest neighborhoods, with city officials perennially saying more money is needed for repair, maintenance and improvement. And voters have repeatedly rejected ballot proposals to more to fix their streets, most recently in 2013.

This fall, the city is trying for the third time in a decade to win voters’ support for a road-repair measure, with a blend of property taxes, sales taxes and utilities fees complicated enough that it requires two spots on the ballot, propositions 3 and A. If both pass, they’ll give the city $175 million over the next decade to mend worn-out streets, connect patches of sidewalk and pave the 167 blocks of nothing-but-gravel streets Mayor Marilyn Strickland calls “pretty shocking” for a modern urban area.

“I think if you talk to every person [in] every part of town, they will say ‘My streets are worst,’” Strickland said. “I think the problem is so widespread that there’s a need in every neighborhood, absolutely.”

If the taxes pass, Strickland says they’ll be accompanied by another $150 million in grant and city funding to create a $325 million, 10-year program for problems so widespread that a total repair estimate hasn’t been calculated in years. (The last estimate, in 2006, pegged the total fix-everything bill at $800 million for residential areas). After a decade, the taxes expire.

The money would be spent on maintenance as well as repair programs, Public Works Director Kurtis Kingsolver said.

“Really the best thing that we can do is sustain the roads that we have that are in good condition,” Kingsolver said. “It’s a lot cheaper to do that than it is to build new roads. So a primary goal of this is to take the residential streets that are in good condition and get the life out of those that we can, so that we’re not rebuilding those quicker.”

If both measures are approved, city officials expect private contractors to hire around 400 new employees to handle most of the labor for the decade of road rebuilding. Kingsolver said the streets department would add 25 staffers and possibly acquire a new pothole-repair truck.

“If we have the resources to do it, we’ll do a phenomenal job,” Kingsolver said. “I guarantee it.”

Strickland professed optimism that city voters — who in 2013 rejected a permanent 2 percent tax on utility earnings that would have cost an average household $5 monthly and sent $11 million annually toward city road work — will approve the city’s proposal this time.

“Most people recognize there’s a problem,” Strickland said, “and there’s a recognition that without a new source of revenue that is dedicated, we’re never going to make progress on solving this problem.”

This year’s proposal costs more — an average household will pay $7.50 if this plan passes in full, she said, with the burden split between a 1.5 percent utility tax, a 0.1 percent bump in city sales taxes and a property-tax increase of 20 cents per $1,000 of assessed value.

The 2013 proposal drew criticism for being too small to make a meaningful dent in the roadwork backlog and too dependent on businesses to bear the cost, since commercial accounts pay more than half of Tacoma Power’s revenues. The Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber of Commerce was among the interests that spent a total of almost $100,000 on advertisements to defeat that plan..

This year, the chamber is on board. It endorsed both ballot propositions in August.

“Comparing the last package to this package, part of it was that we wanted to make sure that whatever they got was enough to make an impact,” Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Tom Pierson said. “... Businesses will be paying a large percentage of that, but we felt that it is shared broadly enough. It’s a problem for everybody.”

Pierson said that chamber members feel the city can’t cut costs enough to fix the problems created by decades of underfunded road maintenance, and that city officials now spend money responsibly enough to justify putting more money into fixing roads.

“It's that or we all get SUVs,” he said. “We all probably can't afford to get SUVs. Paying for the roads might be cheaper for our overall economy.”

Although the chamber has crossed over to support the plan, opposition has formed in several corners on the other side, including Steve Cook, a pastor, customer-service worker and spokesman for Tacoma NOw, a group which believes the city should fund road work from existing revenues.

“I agree that the roads around here are messed up,” said Cook, 65, a former George councilman who has run for the Legislature in Tacoma without success. “I also agree that there is more than enough money in the budget if they would just focus on the priorities.”

Click to enlarge:

Among his concerns are that the property taxes on homeowners could be higher than estimated as Tacoma’s property values keep rising. He also doesn’t share the chamber’s belief in current city government’s fiscal stewardship.

“If they had been spending the money properly in the past, then I'd trust them to spend this money properly and not mess up with other money,” he said. “Unfortunately, they haven't been doing that.”

Strickland said a 2013 fiscal sustainability study panel found Tacoma is spending “about what we should be” on most services, but at a cost of underfunding street repair.

“These folks discovered that really, unless we’re going to cut human services, unless we’re going to decrease our firefighters and police officers, there really is nowhere to cut,” she said.

Also critical of the plan have been leaders in Lakewood and University Place. Both places are served by Tacoma Public Utilities, which means customers there would have to pay the cost of a rate increase that only Tacoma voters got to approve. Lakewood’s City Council approved a resolution opposing the plan Oct. 5, and a similar measure comes before the University Place council Monday.

Out along Tacoma’s streets, the need for repairs is easy to spot. Lynn Weishaupt’s front door on East 44th Street opens looking straight down the cratered gravel of South Howe Street, which she refuses to use.

“I went through there once, and I nearly lost an axle,” said Weishaupt, 48, a computer consultant. “I said, ‘Never again.’ 

She said she saw a need for road repairs, including paving gravel streets like Howe, but she was equivocal when asked if she’d vote for a new tax to do it.

“What have they been doing all this time if not to fill the potholes already?” she said. “It’s not like the gravel streets just sprang up.”

In the downtown shop of Defiance Bicycles, mechanic Matt Beaudoin said he sees a lot of flat tires and bent rims brought in by riders surprised by potholes, even on bike paths. Tacoma, he said, has more perilous roads for bicycling than other cities.

“The downtown area gets more work put into it, but you see a lot of streets that haven’t been paved in a long time,” said Beaudoin, 29.

He too was ambivalent on whether he’d vote for the plan.

“Sales tax is already pretty high,” he said. “I guess without an income tax, that’s what you get.”

The last successful ballot proposition to repair Tacoma’s roads was a $4 million bond issue that passed with more than 68 percent of the vote — in November 1968. A 2006 request to temporarily raise property taxes for six years to fund road work got 48.2 percent of the vote, falling short by 1,657, and the 2013 proposal managed just 42.6 percent.

Strickland said the city is so long overdue for a new round of work on its streets that if either one of the two road-repair propositions on this fall’s ballot fails, she’ll request that part of the money again in a future election.

“We’ll go right back out again,” Strickland said. “I feel as though this is so important that we’re just going to have to keep pushing it, evaluate why we were 100 shy or 500 shy, and just go back out again.

“This is a problem that must be addressed,” she continued. “My attitude and that of our staff is we’re going to relentlessly pursue this until we get the funding we need to fix a problem that our citizens have demanded that we fix.”

Derrick Nunnally: 253-597-8693