The Spokane City Council on Monday approved one new tax and delayed a decision on another.
The council voted 4-3 for a $20-a-year tax on vehicles registered in Spokane, capping months of debate and reversing its 4-3 vote opposing the tax last month.
Earlier in the evening the council voted unanimously against placing a tax for libraries on the April ballot. Council members said they wanted to give Mayor Mary Verner a chance to present a broader property tax plan that would also boost the police and fire department budgets.
Supporters of the car tab tax say the city needs to fix one of the greatest complaints from residents: gaping potholes.
Councilman Richard Rush said although voters approved a $110 million street bond to rebuild streets in 2004, the city can’t afford to properly maintain what’s been replaced. “That is not good financial responsibility,” said Rush, who joined council President Joe Shogan and council members Jon Snyder and Amber Waldref in supporting the tax.
The new fee will begin to be levied in about six months.
Supporters argued that the new tax will be a consistent source of revenue that will make a difference in the condition of streets and cost drivers less than a tank of gas.
Opponents said that Spokane has a high level of poverty, and many can’t afford the new fee. They also said that businesses might relocate rather than pay it.
“How many businesses in this town have three vehicles, and how many do you think we’ll have next year?” said Councilman Bob Apple, who voted against the tax along with Steve Corker and Nancy McLaughlin.
Shogan, who led the effort to impose the tax, said that although he would support a regional tab tax, the county and other cities lack the political will to push for it.
“We can’t wait around while our streets go to hell,” Shogan said.
State Department of Licensing spokesman Brad Benfield said that as of July, there were 132,284 vehicles in the city of Spokane that would be subject to the tab tax. That many vehicles would generate about $2.6 million.
Councilman Jon Snyder was the deciding vote Monday. Last month he cast a vote rejecting the tax after the council opposed a plan that dedicated 10 percent of the revenue to sidewalk construction and allowed the remaining 90 percent to be used on any project in the city’s six-year street plan.
The approved tax still devotes 10 percent to sidewalks but ensures the rest goes only to street maintenance. The compromise, worked out by Shogan, was enough to persuade Snyder to vote in favor on Monday.
The decision to hold off a vote for the library had been expected since last week, when Verner and her staff urged the council to give them an opportunity to present broader tax options.
Administrators have said there likely will be another multimillion-dollar deficit next year but have declined to provide an estimate. Corker said Monday that it could be between $4 million and $6 million.
Rush and the Spokane Public Library trustees had argued that a specific library tax was more likely to win support, given the outcry last year when the city considered closing the East Side branch. The proposed tax would have cost the owner of a $100,000 property $15 a year.
Library Director Pat Partovi read a letter at the meeting from library Trustee Rick White. He said trustees would back a broader measure, but that it may make more sense to present voters with separate library and public safety measures.
“The sooner we bring the library issue to the voters the greater likelihood that we can rekindle some of the remaining fire and energy that we observed three months ago,” White wrote in his letter.
Last week, Verner, who is up for re-election this year, told the council that after making cuts in the last three budgets, it may be time to ask voters for a property tax for libraries, police and fire. She said administrators will present options to the council in April for a possible August vote.
“In spite of the fact that it’s extremely difficult for me personally and professionally to say that this is the year we need to raise revenue for the benefit of our general fund and the services we provide to our citizens, I’m going to come back to you and suggest what we need in terms of new revenue for the general fund because we have done all that expense reform,” Verner said. “We have cut to the point that our service to our citizens is way below par.”
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