Utility tax faces public forums

City officials and residents can agree on one thing: Tacoma needs better roads. The debate now is how to pay for those pothole repairs and other fixes.

The city’s option is Proposition 1, working its way through a set of public forums prior to a Nov. 5 vote on the plan that would add a 2 percent tax on gross earnings of utility companies within Tacoma. The expected $11 million a year gained from the tax would be spent on a roster of street, bridge and sidewalk repairs around the city.

If approved, the proposition would be the first time in more than 40 years that Tacoma voters approved a tax to fund roads. A 2006 measure that would have raised $8 million a year in added property taxes for residential street maintenance failed by a slim margin.

While the tax would directly affect electrical, gas and phone companies, the tax will likely simply be passed on to customers alongside the other taxes tacked onto utility bills customers pay every month. Utility companies already pass through a 6 percent tax, so the addition would bring the total tax to 8 percent. City documents state the tax would cost about $4.70 a month if the tax hike were passed along to them. But since Tacoma Power rates are already lower than rates found in surrounding cities, overall utility rates would still be about 30 percent lower than the regional average.

With the added dollars for street repairs through the tax, the city proposes a five-year work plan that would have crews improve intersections around 46 schools, repair some 18,000 potholes and repave 510 blocks of neighborhood streets around the city. The money would also boost funding for 12 backlogged neighborhood Local Improvement District projects, where residents have already agreed to partner with the city and pay a significant portion of the cost, and provide matching funds for utility projects so water and sewer improvements can coordinate for street improvements at the same time.

It won’t fix Tacoma’s streets fully, but it will help.

“It will at least make a dent,” interim Public Works Director Kurtis Kingsolver said.

The money could be used to leverage state and federal grants, which only require a 15 percent match of local dollars, for example. Some grants even allow grant money from other sources to be used, so the city won’t have to pay any money for roadwork if the projects are cobbled together with other work.

Cities similar to Tacoma around the nation spend about $27 per person on road and infrastructure improvements each year. Tacoma averages just $17.

While the issue of road repairs ranked high on citizen surveys, the plan has its opponents. The Stop Higher Utility Taxes group, led by Simpson Tacoma Kraft’s lobbyist, filed an injunction in Pierce County Superior Court challenging the measure on the grounds that the ballot’s wording doesn’t specifically articulate that the tax on earnings will essentially mean higher rates for customers. The added tax would reportedly cost Simpson $500,000 a year.

But some residents also worry about how the added tax will cut into low-income residents, who are already struggling to make ends meet.

“That is a lot for some people,” Eastside community activist Lynnette Scheidt said. “I feel really bad for those low-income people.”

Prop. 1 Informational Meetings

City officials are holding information sessions around the city at 6 p.m. on various Monday, Wednesday and Thursday evenings through Oct. 30.

Sept. 4 Wheelock Library, 3722 N. 26th St. Council District 1

Sept. 11 Fern Hill Library, 765 S. 84th St. Council District 5

Sept. 16 Meeker Middle School, 4402 Nassau Ave. NE Council District 2

Sept. 23 Truman Middle School, 5801 N. 35th St. Council District 1

Oct. 2 Tacoma Main Library, 1102 Tacoma Avenue S. Council District 3

Oct. 9 Moore Library, 215 S. 56th St. Council District 4

Oct. 10 Jason Lee Middle School, 602 N. Sprague Ave. Council District 2

Oct. 14 Gray Middle School, 6229 S. Tyler St. Council District 5

Oct. 30 Tacoma Nature Center, 1919 S. Tyler St. Council District 3

In addition to the facts and information sessions, City officials are available to make presentations to interested community groups. To arrange a presentation, groups may contact the City Manager’s Office at (253) 591-5100.

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