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Freeway tax likely to go for roads, too

Mon., Jan. 28, 2008, midnight

If new taxes are created to help pay for a North Side freeway, they also should pay for street improvements, Spokane city leaders said last week.

State officials are pushing Spokane to impose taxes or fees to pay for part of the North Spokane Corridor. In 2006, the price of the unfunded section of the freeway – from Francis Avenue to Interstate 90 – was estimated to cost more than $1.5 billion. How much of that the state wants to be paid for with new local taxes remains undetermined.

County leaders are considering a $20 annual tax on license tabs, but say they want more input from the public and city leaders.

Many Spokane City Council members said they doubt the public would support a tab tax unless some of the money goes to repave existing roads.

“I’m not sure the average citizen considers it (the freeway) a priority,” Councilwoman Nancy McLaughlin said. “They always felt that would be done with state and federal dollars.”

On Friday, Mayor Mary Verner met with council members to gauge their opinion on new taxes for the freeway. She said she wants to finalize a plan by Friday that would raise enough money to meet a potential local obligation for the freeway and pay for needed improvements to city streets. The strategy would be used to lobby for state action and funding for the corridor.

“I really feel that we need to be more in control of our own destiny in Olympia this session,” Verner said. “Otherwise, we are just going to be resigned to what others are preparing.”

Options Verner presented for a local contribution included the county’s tab tax, a gas tax, taxes on new construction, sales taxes, property taxes. Some of the taxes would require voter approval. Others could be imposed by county commissioners or City Council.

“We need to find which of all of these options meet all of our local needs,” she said.

By the end of the meeting, City Council members and the mayor ruled out using new sales and property taxes. They supported the concept of diverting sales taxes from purchases related to the construction of the freeway to pay for the project – a concept backed by state Sen. Chris Marr, D-Spokane.

Most said they were open to using a tab tax and road tolls.

State law allows county or city governments to impose a tab tax of up to $20 without voter approval. Tab fees up to $100 must be approved by voters.

McLaughlin and Councilman Bob Apple said voters should have a say even if the amount is for $20 or less.

“There’s just too many other issues that are coming to the voters,” McLaughlin said. “If we tax them without their approval, it could hinder some of the other important issues.”

Among expected issues on the ballot this year, voters are expected to be asked to renew taxes for jail operations and the Spokane Transit Authority. They also may be asked for money for emergency communications and to build a jail.

Spokane Valley City Councilman Steve Taylor, who attended the city of Spokane meeting on the topic, told council members that they shouldn’t shy away from their authority to approve taxes without voter approval. He pointed to Spokane’s increase of utility taxes in 2005.

“Did you send that to voters? No,” he said.

In Yakima County last year, 81 percent of voters rejected a $20 tab tax.

County Commission Bonnie Mager said voters should have a say on a tab tax, but added that if the state creates a freeway funding “offer we can’t refuse,” her position could change.

“Not knowing what the state is offering us, I would put it to a vote,” Mager said.

In a letter to county commissioners, anti-tax activist Tim Eyman argued that Spokane citizens want the right to vote on new taxes. He pointed to several initiatives he’s sponsored and the percentage of support they received in Spokane County.

“The voters have been very, very clear statewide, but specifically in Spokane,” Eyman said.

Apple said he worries about creating new taxes as the country faces a possible recession.

“We can’t continue to go after our constituents for more money,” Apple said.

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