By The Herald Editorial Board
If it sounds as if the Snohomish County Council is wrestling over a penny, that understates both the potential benefits in fixing long-standing problems in the county but also the cost to its taxpayers.
That penny has been used as shorthand to express the cost for a proposal before the county council on Wednesday, which would increase its share of the sales tax by 0.1 percentage point, or 1 cent on the $10 you might spend on lunch. Currently, the county share of the sales tax brings in 13 cents on that $10; compare that to the 65 cents that the state collects when you sit down to a $10 meal.
Those pennies do add up, however; in what we pay in sales tax but also in what those pennies can accomplish is resolving some of the county’s — if not the state’s — most dire and seemingly intransigent problems: a lack of affordable housing, as well as the need for housing and services for those living with homelessness, mental health issues and addiction.
The question before the county council now is whether and how to levy that increase to the sales tax.
The increase in the county’s sales tax take is expected to collect about $23 million a year over the next five years, a total of more than $116.5 million between 2022 and 2026. Under the terms of the state legislation adopted in 2020, House Bill 1590, which authorizes counties and municipalities to increase the sales tax, that money must be used for construction of affordable housing, supportive housing and behavioral health and treatment facilities and provision of related services.
The proposal appears to have the backing of the council’s three Democrats — Stephanie Wright, Megan Dunn and Jared Mead — as well as support from County Executive Dave Somers. The council’s two Republicans — Nate Nehring and Sam Low — have raised objections over an accelerated consideration of the tax increase and the state Legislature’s “loophole” to allow the increase with only the council’s vote rather than a vote of the people.
Compared to the $2 million to $3 million now available for such projects and programs, what that average of $23 million a year represents is a significant increase in the ability of county and local governments and nonprofit agencies — paired with additional money leveraged from state and federal sources — to fund the construction of housing and provision of services desperately needed in the county and its cities.
Among such projects already built or now under construction — showing an impressive track record of how such partnerships of public and nonprofit funding can succeed — include:
Clare’s Place, which offers 65 apartment units in Everett for the those with a chronic history of homelessness and connection with treatment, counseling and other services.
Housing Hope’s HopeWorks Station in Everett, with 65 units of housing for the once homeless and programs for job training and other “wrap-around” services.
Cocoon House’s HUB in Everett, providing 40 units of housing, counseling and assistance to the community’s most vulnerable children and young adults.
The City of Everett’s pallet shelters, with 30 small shelters near the Everett Gospel Mission — with more coming — for low-barrier housing that gets the homeless of the street.
Housing Hope’s Twin Lakes Landing I and II developments adjacent to Marysville’s Gissberg Twin Lakes, which when the second project is complete next year will add 60 units to an existing 50 units of housing for homeless and low-income families.
Existing funding has been able to generate an average of about 70 units of housing each year, Fred Safstrom, chief executive of Housing Hope, said in an interview last week. The dedicated funding from the sales tax increase would significantly ramp up what Housing Hope and other agencies, such as Volunteers of America, city housing authorities and others would be able to accomplish.
Even with the successes above, a large population of homeless and insufficiently housed people remains in the county. During the last Point in Time count in 2020, there were at least 1,132 people unsheltered in the county. Everett Public Schools serves more than 1,050 students considered as homeless or without reliable housing. Other school districts in the county add another 2,800 students to that count.
In addition to those already on the streets, we have seen a growing crisis for those in homes and apartments with rent or mortgage payments increasingly unaffordable, especially as the threat of eviction returns as the pandemic eases. More than 32 percent of Snohomish County households are considered “cost burdened,” meaning they are spending more than 30 percent of their income on housing; nearly half of those paying rent are among the cost-burdened.
Accounting for projected growth, in order for the stock of affordable housing to increase to the point that no family is paying more than 30 percent for housing, the county would have to see the addition of more than 127,000 units by 2040, about 6,300 each year.
About a third of all households in the county are at 60 percent of the region’s median income — for which the proposal’s housing is intended — and in need of housing that won’t be built without the partnership of government and nonprofits.
As is the point with investments such as this, there is the promise of a return on the public’s investment, even beyond secure housing for residents in the county and its cities. The ability to provide stable housing and connect people with needed services can help reduce costs to the public and taxpayers now resulting from overuse of hospital ERs and medical services, emergency aid and police response, courts, jails, cleanup of streets and parks and more.
With that investment by taxpayers comes a responsibility for transparency and accountability. Much of the work in the county’s proposed plan has been under consideration for years — and was set to launch at the start of 2020 before the covid pandemic hit — as part of the joint county and cities Housing Affordability Regional Taskforce. Projects and programs that would be funded will be reviewed by two advisory boards that include representatives of the county, cities, agencies and residents representing the low-income, senior, disabled and minority communities.
With the need and a framework for solutions established as well as justification for the tax increase, should the county council proceed?
Nehring’s proposal to put the tax increase before voters deserves consideration by the rest of the council. Members of the council are elected to represent their constituents and act on their behalf; and not every such issue can be put before voters, but a slow drip of tax increases — local and state — is weighing on the minds of many.
Yet when the question is put to them, Snohomish County voters have said yes. Among recent examples were the 2018 approval of a sales tax increase — again 1 cent on a $10 purchase — to make long-neglected enhancements and upgrades to the county’s emergency radio system; and approval by voters in Community Transit’s benefit area in 2015 of a 0.6 percentage point increase in the sales tax, 6 cents on a $10 purchase.
One move by state lawmakers could make it even easier for voters to make these investments in their own communities. As legislators continue work to consider reforms to the state’s package of taxes, part of that reform should be a rebalancing of the sales tax that pares down the state’s portion of the tax by a half-percentage point, down to 6 percent, allowing local governments to propose use of the sales tax to address a range of needs.
Many have pointed to the sales tax as problematic because it contributes to the regressive nature of taxes in Washington state, meaning that lower-income families pay a larger percentage of their income in taxes than do higher-income families. That remains the case, and all the more reason for lawmakers to adopt needed tax reforms. But the county can’t pick which tax to use for this purpose; the sales tax is the tool that the Legislature handed cities and counties, so the choice comes down to using that tool or continuing to live with the burdens and costs of unaffordable housing, homelessness and related issues.
The case is easily made to move with due speed to approve the sales tax increase and begin work to fund construction of housing and provision of needed services; especially so now that we are nearing the observance of a birth to a homeless family for whom there was no room but a stable.
But that case should be made to ensure the public support of this and future requests for program funding through tax dollars.
Voters in Snohomish County should be given an advisory vote to better inform the council’s actions and allow them to demonstrate their confidence in the good that every penny can do.