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Legislation would allow cities to establish street utility taxes

OLYMPIA - House Transportation Committee members may soon be voting on a bill that would allow cities and towns to establish a street utility tax. Committee member Rep. Norm Johnson (R-Yakima) says he's concerned, though, that House Bill 2618 would give city governments blanket authority to charge what they wish for street maintenance and repairs without giving citizens the opportunity to vote and decide whether their taxes should be raised.

"We all realize there is a need to replace and repair streets in our communities. But I don't like the fact that advocates for this bill are calling it a 'fee' instead of a tax and attempting to sell it as a normal run-of-the mill utility charge, much in the same way municipalities charge for water, sewer and garbage," he said, adding, "The fact is this is a tax and it could be very devastating to citizens and businesses, especially now as people are struggling in this economy."

He feels citizens should have the right to vote on the matter.

Under the bill, existing street utility statutes would be repealed and replaced with provisions authorizing cities or towns to establish a jurisdiction-wide "street maintenance utility." Under that utility, municipalities could impose charges to fund the maintenance, preservation and operation of existing streets.

Johnson said it's unclear exactly how high the rates would be, but the bill report states they "are intended to be adequate to provide revenues sufficient for the SMU service, including payment of principal and interest on any bonds." The SMU ordinance may also include penalty provisions for rates 60 days past due, and establishes that such unpaid rates and penalties may constitute a lien against the ratepayer's real property.

"Citizens are very selective about which taxes in their communities may be increased," Johnson said. "Generally they support ballot measures that provide funding for emergency services, law enforcement and education. But they also have the ability to vote on those issues."

Johnson said he believes most citizens and businesses would support the fee hike. He said he is considering offering an amendment that would require the issue have a public vote. Overall though, he's concerned how a street tax could affect businesses, jobs and families.

The 14th District lawmaker says the committee could be voting as soon as this week on the bill.

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