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County may give itself option to add $20 to car tabs

The County Council could create a transportation district, giving it the ability to add $20 to license fees.

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By Noah Haglund
Herald Writer
@NWHaglund
Published:
Snohomish County leaders may soon have the option of requiring people who live outside city limits pay an extra $20 to renew their car tabs.
It's unclear if they want to, though.
A higher vehicle registration fee in unincorporated areas is possible if the County Council decides next week to form a taxing district to pay for better roads and other transportation needs. A hearing is scheduled for next Wednesday.
Once formed, the district would give the five members of the County Council the authority to impose a $20 fee without putting the issue to voters. That's just one of several ways the county could use the district to raise transportation revenue.
County Councilman Dave Gossett said he favors creating the district, but "implementing the district is a different thing from implementing the tax."
"I wouldn't support a tax increase right now," Gossett said.
Similarly, County Councilman Brian Sullivan said he'd support creating the district without funding "to set up the framework for future funding."
That's hard logic to follow for John Koster, the lone Republican on the County Council. He sees no reason to form a district other than to increase taxes. That's something he's against doing, especially given the poor state of the economy.
"What's the point in establishing the district if there's no revenue attached to it?" Koster said. "That's like going to the dance and not getting on the dance floor."
He said he'd rather see the county do a better job prioritizing road projects and following through as funds become available.
The type of taxing area the council is considering is called a Transportation Benefit District. State law defines how they can operate.
Last year, the County Council tried to interest cities in joining a countywide Transportation Benefit District. That failed. Of the cities that responded to the idea, more were against forming the district than in support.
Independent of the county, the cities of Edmonds and Lynnwood have formed their own transportation districts. Each now levies a $20 car-tab fee for their residents, the maximum allowed without going to the ballot box. State law allows adding up to $100 in car-tab fees with voter approval.
A proposal in Edmonds to raise the amount by another $40 failed when nearly 70 percent of voters rejected the idea in November.
The city of Snohomish also has formed a Transportation Benefit District, but it's taken a different approach. Rather than impose the fee, it plans to ask voters to raise the city's sales tax by 0.2 percent. The measure is slated for the Aug. 16 primary ballot.
All of these transportation districts are suspect in the mind of Tim Eyman, the professional initiative activist from Mukilteo.
"It's a total dodge," Eyman said. "Once you've created the district, you've imposed the fee."
Even the city of Snohomish, which is asking voters to improve a sales-tax increase, makes him leery.
"It doesn't mean that they're going to listen to what voters say," Eyman said. "They might double back and screw them later."
State law requires that the benefit district be attached to a specific list of projects. Snohomish County's list includes a large number of arterials in fast-growing parts of the south county near Lynnwood and Mill Creek.
County Executive Aaron Reardon sent the County Council a memo last fall saying he would oppose any attempt to impose the $20 car-tab fee without voter approval.* He also said he wouldn't stand in the way if the council decides to ask voters whether they favor higher taxes to pay for roads.
Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465, nhaglund@heraldnet.com.
* Correction, July 6, 2011: An earlier version of this story misstated Reardon's position.
Public hearing
The Snohomish County Council's public hearing about forming a Transportation Benefit District is scheduled at 10:30 a.m. July 13 on the eighth floor of the county's Robert J. Drewel building, 3000 Rockefeller Ave., Everett.
Story tags » Snohomish County governmentTaxesRoad RepairTraffic

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