August 9, 2010 in City

$20 tab tax could get OK without public vote

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Even though a new $20 tax on license plate tabs got pulled off the agenda Monday by the Spokane City Council, city leaders said they expect to bring it back within the next few weeks.

However, Monday night was the last chance to get it on the November ballot, which means voters will not have a say in the new tax.

Voter approval is what Councilman Bob Apple said he wanted when he agreed to bring the issue forward.

“Our job is to honor the will of the voters, not to dictate it to them,” he said. “We are looking at major layoffs. That is something we have to take serious. It’s something we need voters to weigh in on about what we should do.”

But Councilman Jon Snyder and Council President Joe Shogan said they were elected to make tough calls for their constituents.

“We can’t take everything to a vote. People elect us to make decisions,” Shogan said.

State law allows counties and cities to impose up to $100 in fees on residents every time they renew their license plate tabs. However, local governments must get voter approval for any fee costing more than $20.

In addition to the $20 tab fee, Shogan said he is exploring a tax on commercial parking stalls. Depending on how much the city charges per stall, that new fee could raise $500,000 to $2 million, he said.

Initial discussions call for implementing the tax on commercial parking stalls downtown. But Shogan said the boundaries have not yet been decided, and they could include the entire city.

“We’ll do something” to generate new revenue, he said. “But we don’t have a $12 million arrow in our quiver.”

That amount is the projected shortfall facing city leaders. Mayor Mary Verner has said it could force her to lay off up to 120 city employees at the end of the year unless city unions agree to concessions or the City Council increases taxes.

That news came only eight weeks after Verner predicted 40 layoffs because of budget woes.

Shogan said he has had discussions for the past two or three years with Spokane County commissioners about instituting a countywide license tab fee. “It would make my job easier,” he said.

But so far, county leaders have balked at the idea, he said.

The tab fee would generate about $2 million if the city can collect the money for a full year. But it will take six months for state officials to get the new fee up and running.

“So the longer we wait, the less money it will generate,” Shogan said. “The mayor is already meeting with the bargaining units.”

Councilwoman Nancy McLaughlin said she won’t support either the tab fee or a commercial parking stall tax.

“I’m not interested in raising new revenue,” she said. “Taxpayers are always asked to pay more and more. Even though legally none of the unions have to come to the table, my hope would be that they would do everything in their power to make sure every one of them stays employed.”

That would mean agreeing to wage and benefit cuts, she said, “just like the private sector has had to do.”

“If they care about those they are serving and their fellow employees,” McLaughlin said, “they would be stepping up to the plate to do the right thing.”

As for Apple, he said it was clear earlier Monday that he did not have the votes to pass his proposal to take the tab fee to voters, so he withdrew the motion before the 6 p.m. meeting.

“I would have loved to see it go to the voters,” he said, “but it won’t.”

Snyder said the city is facing unprecedented budget shortfalls and potential layoffs.

“Voters have a say in representative government. I take that responsibility very seriously,” Snyder said. “The ballot is not the only way to address budget issues.”


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