County Commissioner Bonnie Mager said Friday that her election challenger, Al French, was hypocritical when he accused her of wanting to make tax increases easier.
“I think somebody who actually authored a new tax is a little out of line to try to throw mud at me for just wanting the county to have what he already enjoyed in the city,” Mager said.
While finishing his second term on the Spokane City Council, French drafted legislation to repair a street utility tax law the state Supreme Court blocked on constitutional grounds.
French said fixing a broken tax doesn’t make him “the author of an absolutely brand new tax” as Mager asserted.
He didn’t mention the street utility tax, though, when he attacked Mager in a campaign e-mail Thursday.
He cited Mager’s statement in a recent League of Women Voters debate that county governments should have the same authority as cities to levy utility taxes.
“During these tough economic times, do we really need more taxes at the local level?” French asked rhetorically. “The answer is NO. We need to get Spokane back to work!”
County general fund programs get 15 percent of the sales taxes collected in cities – where most retail transactions occur – but operate mostly on property taxes.
Mager said she tried to explain in the debate that the Spokane County government has been “crippled” by city of Spokane annexations of tax-rich commercial and industrial zones and a 1 percent limit on increases in property tax levies.
Despite major revenue losses, the county remains responsible for a variety of regional services, including jails, courts and criminal prosecution.
“What I want is fairness,” Mager said. “It has always been our policy to put any new tax to a vote.
French said the difference between his tax proposal and Mager’s is that he wanted the city to reduce its 20 percent tax on city-owned utilities to 11 percent if it were to impose a street utility tax.
French called for property owners to pay a fee based on the number of trips they generate, as estimated in the International Traffic Engineers manual.
As he told the Spokane Valley City Council in April 2008, homeowners would pay $10.35 a month for each car they own. French said the street utility tax was better than a vehicle registration tax because it could be adjusted for inflation.
Steve Taylor, a Spokane Valley city councilman at the time, objected that businesses would pay a much larger share under a street utility tax than a vehicle registration fee. French responded that the city could adopt a more business-friendly formula, but noted that “businesses don’t vote.”
Mager said she opposes the tax because it would apply to school, library and other local tax districts.
She went on to lambaste French for what she described as “dirty tactics” despite a public pledge to run a clean campaign.
Mager said French “lied” when he claimed in the Aug. 17 primary that he was the only Republican candidate who “says stop wasting tax dollars on a raceway” even though he supported the county’s costly purchase of the bankrupt Spokane Raceway Park.
French said he had “incomplete information” when he stated publicly last year that purchase of the racetrack was “a good overall move” despite a “hiccup” in which a hired operator ran up a million-dollar debt.
He said he thought county officials planned to sell the track and keep its surplus land when they bought it at auction in April 2008.
Mager opposed the purchase before it occurred.
French acknowledged commissioning a poll that asked respondents whether their support for Mager would change if they knew she falsified records to reduce her property taxes.
An unpublished Spokesman-Review investigation in September, prompted by information from French, found that Mager and her husband, John, received an agricultural tax deferral on the same basis as hundreds of other property owners.
The deferral was approved by the Spokane County Assessor’s Office.
French said Mager conducted a similar poll about two weeks before his.
Mager confirmed that her poll asked, among other things, whether voters would change their opinion of French if they knew he “flip-flopped” on the raceway issue.