Spokane’s car owners won’t have to pay an extra city tax to pay for street upgrades.
After months of often-contentious debate, a divided Spokane City Council on Monday rejected a $20 annual fee on vehicle tabs.
The fate of the tab tax, which would have generated about $2 million a year, was affected by a vote earlier in the evening on a plan to require 10 percent of the revenue of a tab tax to be devoted to sidewalk improvements. That proposal also failed by a vote of 3 to 4.
Councilman Jon Snyder said after the meeting that he couldn’t support the creation of the tax once it was determined that none of it could be used for sidewalks.
“I’m not creating any more pots of money in this city that exclude the 15 percent or so of our citizens that don’t own or drive cars,” Snyder said.
The sidewalk proposal also would have opened up the remaining 90 percent of revenue for other projects on the city’s six-year street plan, including bridge work and other projects besides paving, like adding turn lanes.
Council President Joe Shogan, who led the effort to create the tab tax, said he pushed the tab tax specifically for pavement maintenance to help make up for the decline the city has experienced in real estate taxes since the recession hit. In voting against the proposal to divert 10 percent to sidewalks, he acknowledged that the tax was likely to fail.
“I can’t dilute this,” Shogan said. “I’d love to change my mind, but to be honest with the citizens I can’t.”
About 20 people testified about the tax, mostly in favor of using some of it for pedestrian uses.
Ryan Strickland, who is blind and uses his guide dog Bella to walk to work, told the council that the city needs a dedicated source of money to improve sidewalks. He said Bella sometimes has to lead him into streets because sidewalks don’t exist or are in poor condition.
“It would be a wonderful thing for me personally as a guide dog user to have these sidewalks in good repair,” said Strickland, who works at Inland Northwest Lighthouse. “To have these in good repair means independence to me. It means that I get to work safely. It means that my wife doesn’t have to worry about me.”
Spokane Mayor Mary Verner said in an interview before the meeting that she would support creation of the fee, no matter how the council voted on the sidewalk issue.
“Any new revenue – whether it’s flexible or allocated according to a formula – will be welcomed,” Verner said. “We don’t have enough money for transportation across the board.”
State law allows local governments to form Transportation Benefit Districts, which can impose the vehicle tab tax. In the fall City Council members created such a district and named themselves to govern it. Tab taxes of up to $20 can be created without voter approval.
Councilman Bob Apple said any proposal for a new tab tax should be put to a public vote. He added that the city should not create a new tax that could be used partly for sidewalks.
“The maintenance of the sidewalks throughout the city is the responsibility of the property owners,” he said.
But Snyder said some council members were using “scare tactics” in the debate. He noted that Apple had earlier suggested in the meeting that the city needed “a trillion dollars minimally” to accomplish “complete street” plans. “Complete streets” is a concept that puts extra emphasis on pedestrian and bicycle travel, though bicycle infrastructure was not addressed in the tab tax proposals considered Monday.
It’s unclear where Apple came up with the trillion dollar figure. That much is more than what the federal government spends on the military in a year and more than 1,000 times what the city of Spokane spends each year for all of its responsibilities, including utilities.
Councilwoman Nancy McLaughlin said that with competing needs it’s important to remember that far more people use streets than sidewalks.
“I like my sidewalks, but when there’s limited maintenance dollars, I have to go with the street maintenance part.”