Comment: Put sales tax increase for housing before voters

The County Council is moving too quickly and without a sense for the public’s support of a new tax.

By Nate Nehring / For The Herald

Last week, a proposal was introduced at the Snohomish County Council to increase the countywide sales tax rate by one tenth of 1 percent for the purpose of making housing more affordable. The merit of the underlying proposal should be subject to healthy debate and scrutiny. But what is even more concerning than the tax increase itself is the rushed process being used, which minimizes transparency, deliberation and public input.

Typically, proposals to increase the sales tax rate are placed on the ballot for consideration by the voters. However, the passage of House Bill 1590 earlier this year by the Washington state Legislature provides a carve-out which “eliminates the requirement that the imposition of the tax be subject to the approval of a majority of county or city voters” when the tax revenue is dedicated toward affordable housing. This allows for cities and counties to raise the tax with only a majority vote of a county or city council, avoiding a vote of the people.

Enacting a countywide sales tax increase councilmanically may be legal, but that doesn’t make it right. Elected officials serve at the pleasure of the public; and we ought to remember that the funds in question belong to the taxpayers. If advocates of this proposal believe that this is the most effective way to solve homelessness, then they should make that case to the voters and be open to a robust public process which includes a ballot measure.

In addition to avoiding a public vote, this Snohomish County proposal has been fast-tracked to circumvent the traditional timeline and instead be adopted at the last County Council meeting before Christmas, this coming Wednesday. There is no reason that this process should be rushed. In fact, I would argue that we ought to take more time than usual given the gravity of this decision, which is projected to raise more than $100 million in additional sales tax revenue, collected from taxpayers over the next five years.

Regarding the merit of the underlying proposal, there is no question that homelessness and the associated issues of drug abuse, mental health and crime represent one of the greatest challenges our community faces. What is subject to debate, however, is how to best address this challenge.

The City of Seattle faces the most significant homelessness issue in our state, perhaps in our entire nation. Their “solution” typically involves putting a higher number of taxpayer dollars toward the problem, amounting in hundreds of millions of dollars per year. Despite all of the money thrown at the problem, the situation has undeniably worsened. Why should we look to replicate this failed approach in Snohomish County?

As a letter from the Lynnwood City Council to the County Council opposing this sales tax increase rightly points out, sales tax is a regressive form of taxation. It disproportionally burdens the poor and the working class in our communities. While Snohomish County families continue to feel the negative impacts of high inflation and small businesses struggle to recover from recent economic restrictions, it’s difficult to imagine a worse time to propose increasing the countywide sales tax.

Regardless of varying opinions in support or opposition of the underlying tax increase proposal, I believe a process involving transparency, deliberation and public input must be prioritized. Snohomish County voters should have their say on this critical matter; we can and should ensure that happens by placing this measure on the ballot for a public vote.

Nate Nehring serves on the Snohomish County Council, representing the 1st District. He lives in Arlington.

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