Drewel vetoes road-tax provision

By WARREN CORNWALL

Herald Writer

Warning that the Snohomish County Council’s new budget threatens crucial transportation projects, County Executive Bob Drewel on Tuesday wielded his veto pen for the first time in his three terms.

Drewel killed the road-tax portion of the recently approved 2001 budget and asked the council to consider increasing property taxes for roads by 6 percent, rather than the planned 2 percent.

The veto, however, was an amicable affair, with Initiative 722 serving as the backdrop.

"This is about as friendly as a veto can get," Drewel said.

The initiative, scheduled to take affect Thursday, would keep governments from increasing property tax collections more than 2 percent per year. The council approved a 2 percent tax increase for roadwork. Several council members voiced displeasure with the move, saying they felt forced to do it because of the initiative, despite growing demands to improve the transportation system.

But a new court injunction and a Tuesday decision by Snohomish County Assessor Gail Rauch to suspend the initiative’s property tax provisions cleared the way for Drewel’s veto.

Council Member Gary Nelson agreed with Drewel’s description of the veto as "friendly" and welcomed the chance to further discuss unmet needs for transportation funding.

"You can’t make it on the 102 percent," he said, referring to the cap of 100 percent of the previous year’s funding, plus an additional 2 percent.

But initiative creator Tim Eyman of Mukilteo took the move as one of a growing number of political and legal assaults on the measure.

"Bob Drewel was obviously looking for any excuse to stick it to the taxpayers of the county as much as the law would allow," he said.

If Drewel’s proposal is accepted, it would mean an extra $16 in 2001 taxes for the owner of a $200,000 home, according to county officials. The hike could also enlarge the size of future increases because it would raise the starting point for each year’s tax calculations.

The veto sends the ordinance back to the county council, which can override Drewel, approve the proposed 6 percent increase or devise a new plan.

Four of the five council members would need to support overturning the veto or raising the tax by 6 percent. The council will hold a yet-to-be-scheduled public hearing before taking a vote.

Drewel said the increase was a modest cost to individual homeowners, but would mean millions of dollars more to confront the county’s growing transportation problems. In 2001, the county would forgo as much as $3.1 million if I-722’s property tax limits were followed, he said.

In the coming six years, the cap could keep the county from collecting more than 30 percent of the planned $286 million in transportation spending, Drewel said. Half of that $88 million to $90 million would come from taxes the county couldn’t collect, while the other half would come from state and federal grants lost because the county wouldn’t have matching funds, according to county estimates.

About 60 percent of that money is scheduled to go to expanding road capacity, such as adding more lanes, during the next six years, according to figures from the Department of Public Works. Other major budget items include pavement overlays at 10 percent, traffic safety and intersection improvements at 12 percent, and bridge work at 10 percent.

Drewel said he believed many voters didn’t realize I-722 would cut road funding. He said it was his job to pursue a plan he felt was critical to improving transportation in the fast-growing county.

"I think people want public officials to act responsibly," he said.

Eyman, however, was critical of what he considered the second-guessing of voters.

"He (Drewel) wants to take a father-knows-best approach," Eyman said.

To guard against spending the additional tax dollars and then having the I-722 cap reinstated, Drewel said the additional 4 percent increase should be set aside in a reserve fund until the legal wrangling is resolved.

A number of cities and counties have filed court challenges, which are scheduled for a hearing in Thurston County Court in February. Snohomish County is considering joining the suit. More than two dozen taxing districts in Snohomish County have approved budgets that break the I-722 limits.

Several county council members echoed Drewel’s concerns about the impact I-722 would have on congestion. But none would commit to backing his plan Tuesday.

Council member Dave Somers said more money was needed for transportation, but he was also leery of the political fallout for going counter to an initiative that won by 59 percent in the county.

"It’s the message from the taxpayers," said Somers, whose seat comes up for election in 2001.

Councilman Rick Larsen, who recently won the 2nd U.S. Congressional District seat, said the political consequences of keeping lower taxes could cut both ways.

"Do you want to be known for getting in the way of reducing congestion in the roads, or do you want to be known for reducing taxes, or do you want to be known for dealing with congestion in a cost-effective way?" he said.

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