Amanda King testified before the Olympia City Council on June 20, 2017 about the local need for housing assistance. Amelia Dickson adickson@theolympian.com
Amanda King testified before the Olympia City Council on June 20, 2017 about the local need for housing assistance. Amelia Dickson adickson@theolympian.com

Politics & Government

Olympia will let voters decide on two tax increases

By Amelia Dickson

adickson@theolympian.com

June 22, 2017 05:23 AM

UPDATED June 23, 2017 03:22 PM

Olympia residents will likely see a public safety property tax levy on their November ballots, and a sales tax increase to fund affordable housing on their February 2018 ballots.

The November measure would increase Olympia’s property tax by $0.44 per $1,000 of property value, generating about $2.8 million per year in revenue for public safety. The February measure would increase the city’s sales tax by 0.01 percent, and generate about $2.1 million per year in revenue for housing.

The Olympia City Council moved forward with the proposals at a Tuesday night meeting, two weeks after learning from an Elway poll of registered voters that there is community support for both measures. Seventy-eight percent of respondents said they would support a public safety measure, and 78 percent said they would support a housing measure if the two measures were presented individually.

Fifty-one percent of respondents said they would support both measures if they were presented on the same ballot.

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The city has proposed a plan for the public safety revenue that includes additions to the downtown walking patrol, a community policing program and a mental health response team. The revenue would also benefit the city’s community court program, which has previously been funded by a federal grant.

The city hasn’t yet brought forward a plan for the housing revenue, but an Olympia-based organization called the Home Fund has. The Home Fund proposes building 250 permanent supportive housing units over seven years. These units would house the city’s most vulnerable population, including people with mental illness and disabilities.

However, unlike the city’s funding plan which relies on a sales tax increase, the Home Fund proposal would rely on $2.2 million per year in funding from a $0.36 per $1,000 property tax levy, and $4.5 million per year leveraged state and federal funding.

Support for the proposals was evident at Monday’s meeting, with more than 30 people signing in to address the council. The vast majority of speakers — who ranged from local religious leaders, to service providers, to people in need of affordable housing — spoke in favor of a housing measure. Many of the people referred specifically to the Home Fund’s plan.

One of the speakers, Olympia resident Amanda King, said that her family has benefited greatly from the housing support offered in Olympia.

She, her husband and their three children became homeless in 2010 and turned to the Family Support Center of South Sound for help.

The family temporarily lived in a shelter, then used a rental assistance program for a year. She and her husband were able to support their family without assistance for three years.

King found herself in need of assistance again when her husband was in a near-fatal car crash, leaving him unable to work. The family has been living in an apartment with rental assistance since 2014.

“Because we have an affordable unit, we have not faced homelessness again,” King said.

Natalie Moran, deputy director of the Family Support Center, confirmed the importance of housing assistance for local families.

There’s a shortage of this type of housing, which leads to a reliance on shelters, like the Support Center’s Pear Blossom Place, she said.

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“(Shelters) are not their forever home, they’re not their landing place,” Moran said.

Immediately following public comment, Councilman Jim Cooper made a motion for city staff to draft an ordinance and a resolution to place the measures on the ballots. Under state law, the city may only officially place the housing measure on the February ballot after Oct. 9.

Cooper said the results of the recent poll are evidence that Olympia residents are ready for the city to step up.

“I feel Olympia is ready to move ahead and add more local dollars to the housing needs,” Cooper said.

The council unanimously supported that motion. City Manager Steve Hall said the drafts would be available for the July 11 city council meeting.

The deadline for placing a measure on the November ballot is Aug. 1.

The two measures are interrelated, making it important to bring both to voters in the next 12 months, said Councilwoman Jessica Bateman. She said she’s especially excited for a component of the public safety proposal that would fund a counselor position in the Olympia Police Department. That counselor would accompany officers to calls regarding people in crisis.

Bateman serves as a co-chair of the Home Fund.

Hall said cities may only collect sales tax revenue to benefit housing if the county doesn’t by Oct. 9, 2017, according to state law. Thurston County hasn’t brought forward any plans to implement such a sales tax.

County Commissioner Bud Blake, also the chair of the county’s Housing Action Team, spoke at Tuesday’s meeting and voiced his support for the Home Fund.

However, Nathaniel Jones, Olympia’s mayor pro tempore, criticized both the Thurston County and Lacey governments for their lack of leadership in resolving the local homeless crisis.

Jones said Olympia residents have contacted him and urged him to work with the other governments for a regional solution. Olympia has tried, he said, but there’s been little success.

A minimum of 60 percent of collected housing funds must be used for the following: constructing affordable housing, providing housing-related services, constructing mental and behavioral health-related facilities, operations and maintenance costs of affordable housing units and other facilities.

The funds would benefit people who make 60 percent or less of the county’s median income, Hall said.

The proposed sales tax increase would bring Olympia on par with neighboring Lacey and Tumwater.

Currently, Olympia has an 8.8 percent sales tax. Tumwater has an 8.9 percent sales tax, and Lacey’s sales tax will jump from 8.7 percent to 8.9 percent on July 1.

There is a risk, despite the support for the measures shown in the recent poll, that Olympia residents won’t support new taxes, Hall said.

A property tax of $0.50 per $1,000, benefitting a metropolitan parks district, took effect this year.

But last November, Olympia voters didn’t approve an income tax.

Amelia Dickson: 360-754-5445, @Amelia_Oly