When Longview started charging an additional $20 vehicle license renewal fee in 2017 to finance street repairs, city staff said they heard grumblings from citizens.
During the past two years, though, the revenue paid for hiring an additional street maintenance crew and paying off debt to improve parts of 15th Avenue, Oregon Way and Nichols Boulevard. And now the city rarely hears complaints about the fees, City Manager Kurt Sacha said last week.
However, Initiative 976 on the Nov. 5 general election ballot would eliminate Longview’s transportation benefit district (TBD), which allows the city to impose car tab fees for transportation improvements. Even with the TBD revenue, Longview street maintenance is already severely underfunded, according to consultants.
“We are not providing near enough money to maintain streets,” Public Works Director Jeff Cameron said last week.
Kelso, too, would be put in a bind if the measure passes, because it would yank the source of funds for projects already undertaken.
I-976 also would also repeal, reduce and eliminate other authorities for state and local governments to impose vehicle taxes and fees. (See breakout box.)
If the Tim Eyman-sponsored measure passes, the state would lose an estimated $1.9 billion and local governments would lose $2.3 billion over the next six years, according to the state Office of Financial Management.
The initiative would have a “significant” impact on Longview’s road network and a “devastating” impact on the state transportation budget, Sacha said.
However, 19th District Rep. Jim Walsh, an Aberdeen Republican, said the changes would force legislators to be more efficient and responsible with taxpayer money.
“It’s going to force the state and transportation districts to do more with less and put some fiscal constraints on the process that I think are good,” Walsh said Tuesday. “That will force us to be more fiscally responsible and cost effective for taxpayers in a way that’s good. It will force proponents of specific projects or TBDs to defend their requests more directly.”
In a press release, Eyman said taxpayers are getting “ripped off.”
“I-976 gets rid of dishonest vehicle taxes, repeals artificially inflated vehicle valuations, and sets license tabs to a flat, fair, and reasonable $30 per year for your car, truck, motorcycle, motor home, and other vehicles,” Eyman said in the release. “We’re already paying huge sales taxes when we buy a vehicle, huge gas taxes and tolls when we use a vehicle, (and) we shouldn’t be forced to pay dishonest triple taxes just to own a vehicle.”
About 352,000 voters signed petitions to get I-976 on the ballot, according to Eyman.
Organizations that oppose the measure include the Washington State Labor Council AFL-CIO, the Washington State Patrol Troopers Association and the Association of Washington Business.
Longview receives about $615,000 annually from its TBD. A 2011 inventory of Longview streets recommended the city spend $2.9 million on maintenance. At the time, the city had been spending about $600,000. With the TBD, that increased to about $1.2 million, which was still less than half the recommendation. The City Council has since allocated more funding for street repairs and the city receives about $240,000 in gas tax money for its arterial street fund, Cameron said. Nonetheless, the TBD revenue still make up about a fifth of the city’s total transportation funds.
The initiative would also eliminate grants that make up about 10% of RiverCities Transit’s operating budget, Cameron said.
Transportation projects are also crucial for economic development and other city goals, Sacha said.
“We see regularly calls for additional officers, better emergency services, more housing and we need to take care of the homeless. All of that happens with economic development. You don’t have economic development if you can’t move goods from Point A to Point B,” Sacha said.
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The Longview City Council on Oct. 10 directed staff to issue a 20-year bond for no more than $2.7 million to finance street repairs on Nichols Boulevard and Oregon Way. According to the city’s attorney, the bond would be grandfathered in if it is finalized before the election, Cameron said. That means if the initiative passes, the city would still be able to collect the $20 car tab fees until the debts are paid.
Kelso also has a $20 car tab fee, which it imposed in 2013 and which collects about $175,000 annually, Community Development Director Michael Kardas said Wednesday.
The majority of Kelso’s TBD is used to pay off about $3.5 million in bonds sold in 2016 for surface and drainage improvements on Yew Street and stabilizing measures along Minor Road.
Unlike Longview, Kelso sold general obligation bonds. They are not tied to the TBD but the city chose to use the car tab fee revenue to pay them off, Kardas said. Therefore Kelso would not be able to continue collecting vehicle license renewal fees and would have to find another way to pay off the rest of its 20-year bond.
“We would have to seek out other sources of general fund money which means something else won’t get done,” Kardas said.
To continue paying off the bond, the amount of money available for annual repairs and maintenance would be cut in half, he said.
“It really depends on what folks are willing to live with,” Kardas said. “There are plenty of voices that say we are not doing a good enough job maintaining the streets now. So if we got less money, that means they’re most likely going to be less happy.”
He added that there’s a “trickle down effect.” If the state loses a significant portion of its transportation budget, cities won’t have access to as many grants for larger projects.
“I just don’t understand in the end how that helps,” Kardas said. “We’ll find some way to move forward, but it takes away a really useful tool for us to get things done.”
Kalama, which imposes a $40 vehicle tab fee, got the go ahead from the City Council last month to explore a $1 million bond to fund street repairs in case I-976 passes. The city collects about $100,000 from its TBD annually.
Rep. Walsh said the Legislature can find other ways to fund necessary projects. Instead of investing in projects related to high-speed rail and electric ferries, taxpayer dollars should first fund road and bridge maintenance, he said.
“The money is there. There’s more than enough money. But it will require prioritizing it above other things,” Walsh said.
He added that a “leaner” transportation budget would put the state in a better position for when the next economic recession hits.
“That’s admittedly an optimistic read, but I think it could serve that purpose,” Walsh said.
He acknowledged that the Sound Transit expansion project, which relies on hefty car-tab taxes to fund its expansion of light rail and bus service in the Puget Sound region, gave other, well-run TBDs a bad name.
Walsh said he expects the initiative to pass in Southwest Washington, but he didn’t know if it would be successful in Puget Sound. It will depend on whether voters there are angry enough about their high license renewal fees, he said.
Kelso, Kalama and Longview officials all said they think there’s a good chance the initiative passes.
“Our $175,000 is not the end of the world, but it’s a troubling trend to defund the transportation system,” Kardas said. “People don’t say ‘I’m happy that we’re not spending as much on roads and I’m willing to take rough road conditions.’ Nobody says that.”