EVERETT — After more than three hours of public testimony, the Snohomish County Council adopted a controversial 0.1% sales tax Wednesday to fund emergency and affordable housing and behavioral health services.
The 3-2 vote was along party lines, with council Democrats approving the tax and Republicans opposed.
“I feel like today should really be a day of celebration,” said Councilmember Megan Dunn.
The tax will raise about $116 million over the next five years. Advocates said it would be a major step toward addressing the housing and homelessness crises, and that local money will allow organizations to leverage more state and federal dollars.
The funds will initially be prioritized to create emergency housing for those living on the street.
“This is where, basically, housing doesn’t get built without subsidy,” county Human Services Director MJ Brell Vujovic told the council Wednesday.
Republican council members’ push to put the tax in front of voters was unsuccessful. Agreeing with them were more than 50 local elected officials from across the county who, in a letter, cited “grave concerns.”
A 2020 state law allows local councils to pass the tax on their own. Democratic Councilmember Jared Mead said the law is “the single most impactful tool” local governments have at their disposal to address housing issues. Neighboring King and Skagit counties have already adopted a tax, as well as the city of Snohomish.
Republican council members Sam Low and Nate Nehring said the tax was rushed with little public transparency, and that they were excluded from conversations about the proposal until recently.
“I do think it’s hypocritical to now say, ‘Well this is an urgent crisis, so we need to sidestep the voters,’” Nehring said. “Where has the urgent crisis been for the last year and a half when this has been sitting idle?”
There’s no reason not to send the tax to the voters, he said. “If we don’t think there’s public support, I don’t know what we’re doing here in the first place.”
Nehring’s amendment to sunset the tax after five years also failed.
Low argued the tax should have been considered earlier this fall, when the county was working on its budget, which included greater-than-expected revenue.
On the other hand, Dunn said, the short timeline isn’t unusual. The idea the measure was jammed through to avoid public input is “misinformation,” she said, which would influence a vote to the people.
She called the push to hold a special election “just a delay and a political ploy to kick the can down the road.”
“I’m absolutely not going to turn my back on veterans, domestic violence survivors and people in transition who would directly benefit from these funds,” she said.
Councilmember Jared Mead echoed her sentiment, saying it’s a “tough decision” that constituents elected their representatives to make.
“I think it’d lack courage to just punt this and ask the voters to decide. We could do this on every issue, but that’s not what this representative democracy is about,” he said. “… I’ll defend this vote any time that the voters ask me to.”
Democratic state lawmakers representing parts of Snohomish County also supported the measure this week, urging the council to take advantage of the 2020 state law.
Constituents have already identified housing and homelessness as a priority, said Rep. Emily Wicks, D-Everett. “The state heard that ask and provided you with the tools. Now it’s time for the county to act.”
The tax amounts to a penny on a qualifying $10 purchase and will go into effect next April.
It may be a small increase by itself, but opponents pointed to inflation and local sales tax rates. Shoppers in Lynnwood, Mukilteo and Mill Creek all pay a 10.5% sales tax, the highest in the state.
“You need to stop taxing us. You need to find ways to tighten your belt,” said former Brier mayor Bob Colinas. “I managed the city of Brier and I know what belt-tightening means when it comes to elected officials. And I know it can be done.”
On Tuesday, Lake Stevens City Council members joined a coalition of local elected officials in opposing the tax. They voted 5-1 to send a letter to the county calling it “regressive” and saying the lack of a public vote would “erode trust” with the public.
In public testimony Wednesday, supporters pointed to the dire need of affordable housing, which Brell Vujovic said continues to be demolished locally.
Edmonds resident Gay-Lynn Beighton described the difficult process of finding her relative housing by calling 211, and discovering there are years-long waitlists for open units.
Jennifer Berreskin, of Snohomish, said she experienced childhood poverty and chronic homelessness in the county.
“There’s no reason why we shouldn’t be investing in our children’s future. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t be supporting our elders who are sleeping in vans and outside right now,” she said. “… If you’re not willing to support your future and your community members, then I don’t know if you’re in the right position of leadership.”