Thurston County residents speak out against proposed $20 annual vehicle fees

On Tuesday, Aug. 16, the Thurston County Transportation Benefit District Board, made up of the Thurston County Commissioners, took public comment on a proposed $20 per vehicle annual fee to raise money for road and bridge projects in unincorporate
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On Tuesday, Aug. 16, the Thurston County Transportation Benefit District Board, made up of the Thurston County Commissioners, took public comment on a proposed $20 per vehicle annual fee to raise money for road and bridge projects in unincorporate
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Politics & Government

Thurston residents question legality of proposed $20 vehicle tabs

August 16, 2016 09:00 PM

A resounding no. That was the feedback given during a public hearing late Tuesday on a proposal to collect a $20-per-vehicle annual fee from unicorporated Thurston County residents to pay for transportation projects.

In their role as the Thurston County Transportation Benefit District (TBD) Board, the three-member Board of County Commissioners listened to about an hour of comments.

About a dozen people spoke. None was in support of the fee.

Several questioned whether the board could legally impose a fee for unincorporated residents because all three commissioners live in cities and wouldn’t be subject to the proposed fee.

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“We have a plan here for taxation without representation,” said Jon Pettit, who lives south of Tumwater and recently made an unsuccessful primary bid for the Thurston County Commissioner District No. 1 seat. “And as you know, that was where the Revolutionary War started.”

The fee would raise about $1.8 million per year, said Scott Lindblom, interim director of Thurston County Public Works.

It would fund transportation projects in unincorporated areas of the county, including road resurfacing and bridge replacements or improvements, he said.

Before the meeting, Lindblom said county staff had received 13 written comments and taken two phone calls on the proposed fee.

“All of those were opposed,” he told the board.

Some speakers at Tuesday’s hearing said the fee would be a hardship on disabled residents, senior citizens living on fixed incomes and the working poor. One speaker urged the board to put a sales tax initiative on the ballot and let voters decide if they want to raise additional money for transportation projects.

Several speakers said the county needs to do a better job of managing its current revenue. Some speakers questioned the integrity of the TBD process.

“I don’t like this. ... And what I’ve heard today, it’s showing me that this is sort of like a kangaroo court,” said south county resident Larry Kershner. “I’m against it.”

Sharon Burke, an unincorporated county resident, said Transportation Benefit Districts are supposed to address specific needs, not collect money for a general fund that will pay for future projects yet to be determined.

“The proposal for the vehicle tax is not just, and we the governed do not give our consent,” she said.

Washington law allows cities and counties to create transportation benefit districts to raise money for transit and transportation infrastructure. The most common funding mechanism is through $20 vehicle tab fees that do not have to be voter approved, according to the nonprofit Municipal Research and Services Center, which consults with local governments in the state. However, some districts are funded through a sales tax.

Washington has about 90 cities and counties with TBDs, according to the Municipal Research and Services Center.

The city of Olympia’s TBD collects a $20 fee per vehicle that will increase to $40 per vehicle beginning in January. The city of Tumwater’s TBD implemented a 0.20 percent sales tax for its transportation projects. The city of Lacey plans to put a TBD financing plan in front of voters in 2017.

Interim County Manager Ramiro Chavez said the board was advised that the fee, if approved, would be legal because the action would be taken in their role as the Transportation Benefit Board, not as County Commissioners.

“The current statute doesn’t have any limitations that the board has to reside within the boundaries of the Transportation Benefit District,” Chavez said.

Lisa Pemberton: 360-754-5433, @Lisa_Pemberton