Council considers sales tax hike for roads

Aberdeen City Council members may ask voters for a sales tax hike as high as two-tenths of 1 percent to go toward repairing city roads, although some council members are pushing for a lower amount, perhaps 0.13 percent.

All of Grays Harbor has an 8.4 percent sales tax rate, and the proposal would bring the rate within the city to either 8.6 percent or 8.53 percent. In either case, it would be the highest on the Harbor, although still less than the 8.7 percent rate in the Olympia area. Council members convened a special meeting Wednesday night of the new Transportation Benefit District, a tax overlay district the city approved by ordinance last month. The 12-member City Council serves as directors of the benefit district.

No decisions were made last night, although they’ll meet again next Wednesday following the regular City Council meeting. It’s likely the ballot measure would be in front of voters in February.

“I’m anti-tax, but if we are going to go for it, it’s an education process, we might as well push for the two-tenths so we have some funding to show for it,” Councilman Frank Gordon said. “The biggest complaint I hear more than crime and drugs is roads. More people cry about roads, including the one right out in front on Market Street, I just hear it from tons and tons of people.”

“It probably wouldn’t be any harder to sell one than the other,” Public Works Director Larry Bledsoe said.

Bledsoe said the minimum the city needs is a 0.13 percent sales tax increase to generate about $450,000 to $500,000 in new revenue per year to dedicate to city roads. He didn’t have a specific number on how much two-tenths would generate.

Councilman Tim Alstrom said he thought it would be a good selling point to go for the lower number.

“I think it would be easier to sell to the voters to stick with the lower number,” Alstrom said.

Finance Director Kathryn Skolrood noted it works out to 13 cents on $100 purchase for the 0.13 percent sales tax hike and 20 cents on a $100 purchase for the 0.2 percent tax hike.

Councilman Doug Paling said that’s “just change in someone’s pocket” and noted he could get that back by just recycling aluminum cans.

Council members also liked the idea of putting a “sunset clause” on the sales tax measure so it would expire after a certain time period. Bledsoe said the maximum time period for an expiration is 10 years by statute. Some council members seemed more in favor of letting the tax expire in five or six years and then to go back to the voters.

Councilwoman Margo Shortt said a sunset clause would increase transparency while Councilman John Smith noted that it would hold the council more accountable.

Bledsoe said that before a ballot measure is enacted, the city also needs to put in a place some criteria on what projects would be funded. For instance, Bledsoe said the city should consider smaller paving projects in neighborhoods rather than big projects on arterial streets, where state and federal grants are more available.

Alstrom said he may be more in favor of allowing the city to build up sales tax dollars for that first year and then work on road projects the following year. Bledsoe said that could be a good idea to build some reserves.

Bledsoe asked the council to firm up their decisions by the end of October.

City Attorney Eric Nelson said that the city has until December to send a ballot measure to the voters. Cost would be between $10,000 to $12,000 for the special election, according to Skolrood.

Councilwomen Kathi Hoder and Alice Phelps continued to press their fellow council members to just drop the plan altogether, although they didn’t appear to get much more support.

“Our public out there does not have money for extra taxes,” Phelps said.

Hoder pointed out that the City Council still needs to figure out whether it wants to increase utility rates.

“We’ve got other increases before us,” Hoder said. “We know other things are coming to our citizens and it’s asinine if we don’t acknowledge other fees are coming.”

“It’s never a good time to raise taxes,” Alstrom countered.

Smith added, “I don’t want a council 10 years from now looking back at us when there’s multi-million dollars worth of projects and roads are in total disarray and say, ‘You guys just ignored it. You just kicked the can and didn’t do a thing and now we’ve got a huge mess on our hands.’ If it fails, it fails. It was a $10,000 bad experiment but at least at a future point we can say we tried. We saw the problem, we had a solution and it didn’t pass so we went to Plan B and that is to do nothing.”

Steven Friederich, a Daily World writer, can be reached at 537-3933, or by email at