Mayors mull countywide sales tax

Mayors and city officials from all over the Harbor gathered at Aberdeen City Hall Thursday night to talk about a potential countywide sales tax geared to help the ailing road system.

Aberdeen Mayor Bill Simpson and Aberdeen Public Works Director Larry Bledsoe made the pitch for a countywide Transportation Improvement District and a related two-tenths of one percent sales tax, which would raise the existing 8.4 percent sales tax to 8.6 percent. By way of comparison, Olympia, Lacey and Tumwater have a sales tax rate of 8.7 percent.

Besides Simpson, attending the meeting were the mayors of Westport, Elma, Montesano, Cosmopolis and a whole host of city officials from all over the area, including Ocean Shores. They all agreed to take the idea back to their city councils and Public Works Committee to get advice and talk more about the concept this summer.

Bledsoe told those attending that he didn’t want to rush the discussion for a November ballot item, opting to make sure everyone had all of the information they needed. He flirted with the notion that the item could make sense to go on the February 2013 ballot.

However, everything is dependent on what the Grays Harbor County commissioners want to do. The commissioners would be in charge of creating the Transportation Improvement District, as well as sending a sales tax request to the voters.

County Commissioner Mike Wilson told those at the meeting that he felt the county would “certainly look at anything that would be mutually beneficial for all of us and certainly have broad popular support.”

“Believe you me, … I know how bad pavement is getting across the state and believe you me, I’ll be hitting some pot holes going up the hill there going up to my house,” Wilson added. “I can’t speak for the other commissioners, but I believe we would give this a fair shake.”

“This would have no traction in the public if it didn’t have the support of the various communities,” Bledsoe said.

“The key is people need to know it’s strictly for roads,” Elma Mayor Dave Osgood said.

Montesano Mayor Ken Estes said he did have concerns that there could be a strong, organized opposition, noting that a lot of people’s taxes have already gone up.

“So, you’d have to be organized to the other direction,” Estes said. “And the last thing I’ll say is that, what if we fail? Then what happens? We can’t go back to the well again, at least not in a few years. This may not be the right time or the right place, even though we need it. Don’t get me wrong. In our community right now, we need t come up with $2 million to $4 million just to fix our streets and we could use this money. But I don’t want this thing to fail or the timing to cause it to fail.”

“Where are the people who aren’t working going to come up with extra money when they go to the grocery store?” Estes said.

Simpson said that food is still tax exempt, but he understood Estes’ point.

“The key is education,” Raines said.

Aberdeen City Councilman Frank Gordon noted that one of the good selling points behind a sales tax increase is that it’s shared between all parties — including visiting tourists and isn’t a property tax increase.

“This is a tourism county and when people stop, … they’re providing funding for the streets they’re driving on rather than just the people living here,” added Westport Mayor Michael Bruce. “I like sharing the burden of our streets with those coming here.”

Besides a sales tax increase, a Transportation Improvement District could also institute a vehicle car tab on those within the district’s boundaries. But such a proposal didn’t find any support among those at the meeting.

“I’m in favor of a tax rather than a car tab fees, especially when talking about municipalities,” Bruce said.

Cosmopolis Mayor Vickie Raines said she definitely opposed a car tab increase.

Bledsoe said that a two-tenths of one percent sales tax increase could generate $1.8 million based on recent sales trends. He suggested dividing the money up among all of the cities on the Harbor based on population, tax origin and paved road miles, although the exact formula used could be up for interpretation.

For instance, he proposed one plan that would give 10 percent of the money raised to each jurisdiction evenly, distribute 40 percent by population, 30 percent by point of tax origin and 20 percent by paved road miles.

Under that formula, the city of Aberdeen would get $503,168, the county would get $600,375, Westport $73,895, Ocean Shores, $159,594, Oakville $31,778, Montesano $94,334, McCleary $43,531, Hoquiam $163,666, Elma $82,227 and Cosi $52,780.

Bledsoe said, frankly, the City of Aberdeen could make more money if it were to create a Transportation Improvement District and tax its residents directly. For instance, the city of Aberdeen could generate $948,664 on its own if it were to raise sales tax by two-tenths of one percent. And, yet, under the plan he proposed the city would only get back roughly half of that in returns if the sales tax were countywide.

“I”m not playing a money’s game to make us win,” Bledsoe said, arguing that the best way to deal with local transportation issues is a regional approach. “The biggest loser for the area is the city of Aberdeen. But, really, nobody is losing. We’re just trying to have equity across the county.” Every jurisdiction has road needs.”

Ocean Shores City Councilman John Lynn attended the meeting on behalf of Ocean Shores Mayor Crystal Dingler. Lynn notes the city of Ocean Shores put $27 million into new roads so the city doesn’t need any new paving. But, what it does need is money to maintain those roads for sealing and striping over a period of time.

“Plus, we’ve got five bridges, including one right now we’ve cut down to one axle because it’s got some problems on it,” Lynn said.

“We’re very interested in this because, you’re right, it’s tough out there to have a consistent source of funding that we can use to maintain the streets,” Lynn added.

“You’re in the enviable position most of us would have to use the money to catch up; you could use the money to maintain,” Bledsoe told him.

“And if we don’t use the money to maintain, we’ll be back to catching up,” Lynn said.

Hoquiam Mayor Jack Durney was unable to attend the meeting, but he sent a letter to those at the meeting.

Durney said while he generally supports a funding mechanism for transportation and paving needs, he says he is much more in favor of direct funding for public safety means.

Bledsoe told attendees that cities like Hoquiam or even the county could use this money for paving or chip sealing programs, which would free up existing general fund dollars to pay for everything from public safety to courthouse security.