Tacoma road-fixing taxes draw mixed results

City of Tacoma public works employee Ernie Reda rides on top of an asphalt milling machine on North L Street in Tacoma on Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2015.
City of Tacoma public works employee Ernie Reda rides on top of an asphalt milling machine on North L Street in Tacoma on Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2015. Staff photographer

Tacoma’s effort to get voters to approve a dedicated road-repair fund for the first time since 1968 was drawing tight, mixed results in a pair of ballot propositions to raise taxes.

In election-night results, a sales-tax increase for a road-repair fund was leading comfortably, but a proposal to raise property and utility taxes trailed slightly.

With hundreds of votes yet to be counted, it was a split outcome for the city’s third attempt in a decade to use taxes to pave and patch the city’s pockmarked streets. Voters rejected a temporary property-tax bump in 2006 and a utility tax in 2013 to fund similar efforts.

Mayor Marilyn Strickland said Tuesday night that the first set of numbers leave her “very, very optimistic” that both tax proposals could win approval.

“It’s very, very close,” Strickland said, “and so we are well within striking distance.”

The two propositions would collectively create a $175 million fund for the city to fund fixes for potholed and cracked roads, sidewalk construction and other improvements for existing city streets. City officials said grant money to match some of the tax proceeds, plus other funding sources, would make approval of both ballot measures equate to a $325 million road-improvement budget, enough to pave the 167 remaining gravel roads and fix other problems.

Proposition No. 3 asked voters to approve an additional property tax of 20 cents per $1,000 of assessed value for 10 years and add a 1.5 percent tax to Tacoma Public Utilities’ gas, electric and phone services. Officials estimated these increases would cost a city household, on average, $6.50 per month and bring in about $13 million a year.

Proposition A would add a tenth of a cent of sales taxes per dollar in Tacoma stores. It is predicted to bring in $4.5 million yearly. If only it passes, Strickland said workers would proceed with a more modest road-repair agenda.

“We clearly will not be able to do the amount of work that we hoped to do,” she said.

The package of taxes was structured in part to address criticisms of the failed 2013 tax proposal. That year, the city asked for a permanent 2 percent tax on Tacoma Public Utilities revenues, which would have been passed on to each consumer’s bill. It was criticized for being both too modest to fix longstanding problems and too weighted against businesses, who pay most of Tacoma Power’s revenues.

This year’s mix of taxes distributed the burden enough to win the endorsement of the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber of Commerce, which had helped defeat the 2013 proposition.

Opponents of this year’s plan said passing the two proposals would unnecessarily raise taxes and increase government waste of taxpayer money. Cost-cutting elsewhere would give Tacoma enough money to fix potholed streets, said Steven Cook of TacomaNOw, an anti-tax group.

If Tuesday’s numbers hold, Strickland said she would consult the city attorney’s office to see how soon she can bring back a tax package in another election to fund the rest of her streets agenda.

Derrick Nunnally: 253-597-8693



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