City officials are voicing concern as the Snohomish County Council considers a 0.1% increase of the sales to fund affordable and emergency housing. (Kevin Clark / Herald file)

City officials are voicing concern as the Snohomish County Council considers a 0.1% increase of the sales to fund affordable and emergency housing. (Kevin Clark / Herald file)

Affordable-housing tax? 58 elected reps cite ‘grave concerns’

They want the 0.1% sales tax put to voters, according to a letter. Advocates say it’s needed to address a crisis.

EVERETT — A groundswell of city officials is voicing concern as Snohomish County Council Democrats look to increase sales tax by 0.1% to fund affordable and emergency housing. The hike could be adopted as early as Wednesday.

Fifty-eight elected officials from across the county said they have “grave concerns” about the tax and want it put in front of voters. They call sales taxes regressive in their joint letter to county Executive Dave Somers and the council. The letter was organized with the help of Republican county Councilmember Nate Nehring.

“We encourage the County Council to place this issue on the ballot and allow the voters of Snohomish County to determine whether this tax increase and proposed spending has merit,” the letter reads.

The tax could raise more than $23 million annually and would be a game-changer in addressing the housing and homelessness crises, advocates say. Opponents contend the measure is being jammed through with no public input and will overburden local cities already boasting some of the highest sales tax rates in Washington.

A new state law allows councils to skip a public vote and impose a tax to fund housing and behavioral health services. At least 27 localities have done so, including the city of Snohomish and King, Skagit and Whatcom counties.

Duane Leonard, executive director of the Housing Authority of Snohomish County, told county leaders a shortage of housing options means he’s limited in how he can help homeless locals who call in for help.

“My wait list is closed. All my units are full,” he said. “This was a crisis today, a crisis yesterday and will be a crisis tomorrow unless we do something about it.”

Opponents have characterized the ability to avoid the ballot as a loophole.

It’s a notion state Sen. June Robinson, D-Everett, took issue with Monday during a public comment period to the County Council.

State lawmakers are elected to address and fund issues, she said. Lawmakers giving cities and counties the power to pass the tax on behalf of constituents “is not what I would consider a loophole. In fact, it’s common practice.”

In a recent Everett City Council meeting, a majority of council members said they’d like to see the tax put to the voters, although only three signed a letter to the county opposing the measure.

In their letter to Somers and the County Council, Everett Councilmembers Scott Murphy, Scott Bader and Jeff Moore said the move would “erode trust with our shared constituents.”

Sales taxes are regressive, they wrote, and this one would go into effect during a period of high inflation. They urged the county to put the measure on the ballot.

Everett council Chair Paul Roberts did not sign the letter. Last week he said he was “torn” on the decision.

“Because the notion of bringing something to the voters is critical,” he said. But “the Legislature provided this tool and we have a housing crisis.”

Everett City Councilmember Judy Tuohy expressed concerns that the proposed tax doesn’t have a sunset clause or stipulate regular “checks and balances” like regular public reports of how the money is spent.

The tax, she said, would help address an issue that “we just feel like we’re beating our heads against the wall on.”

In an interview with The Daily Herald, Everett City Councilmember Bader said the city will likely put a transportation sales tax to voters in the next year or so — but they may be less inclined to vote for it after a county-level tax goes into effect.

“The county needs to focus on affordable housing,” he said, “but Everett’s priority needs to be a stronger transit service that in so many ways serves the same population.”

Councilmember Liz Vogeli echoed some housing advocates, saying the majority of extremely low income people aren’t spending much of their budgets on items impacted by sales tax.

Mindy Woods told county leaders that she experienced homelessness twice in the past decade in Snohomish County. She said she would have gladly spent a few more dollars in sales tax during those times “to have access to housing that I could’ve afforded.”

Claudia Yaw: 425-339-3449; Twitter: @yawclaudia.

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