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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Divided Spokane Valley City Council approves $20 vehicle tab tax to improve city roads

Spokane Valley City Hall is seen on May 11, 2022.  (Kathy Plonka/The Spokesman-Review)
By Nina Culver For The Spokesman-Review

After 12 years of discussion, the Spokane Valley City Council on Tuesday narrowly approved a new fee to help pay for street preservation and reconstruction projects. A $20 car tab fee will be collected beginning July 1 and raise an estimated $2.7 million per year.

Councilman Arne Woodard, who lost his re-election bid in November and will leave his position at the end of the month, has pushed hard for the fee even though he admits he doesn’t personally like it. Woodard said he’s willing to pay $20 per year on each of his family’s three vehicles in order to keep the streets in good condition and avoid costly car repairs. He said it’s important to keep Spokane Valley’s streets from deteriorating to the condition of many streets in the city of Spokane.

“It’s just a matter of time before we’re there,” he said.

Historically, the city has spent much of its street preservation funds on arterials which, unlike residential streets, qualify for state and federal grants. Woodard noted that residential streets have not been taken care of.

“This is to take care of, primarily, our residential streets,” he said.

For years, city staff members have said the city should be spending double what it is to maintain all streets in good condition. The only dedicated funding for road projects came from a landline telephone tax, which collected $3.1 million a year when it was imposed in 2009 but has dropped to $900,000 a year.

The city spends about $8 million a year on road construction projects. Woodard said there have been numerous discussions about how to fill that funding gap since he joined the council.

“We’ve had 76 meetings to date since 2007,” he said. “At some point, we have to make a decision.”

It would be a waste of money to put the issue on the ballot for an advisory vote, Woodard said, noting councilmembers “were elected to make hard decisions.”

Councilman Tim Hattenburg said he agrees that the roads in Spokane are terrible, and that he doesn’t want to see Spokane Valley’s streets get that bad.

“This is not a new tax,” he said. “This is a replacement for the landline tax.”

Mayor Pam Haley said she works in downtown Spokane and has had to replace her tires several times in the last few years because of damage from Spokane’s streets. She said she supports collecting the tab tax to ensure that Spokane Valley’s streets stay in good condition.

Councilwoman Laura Padden argued that a $20 car tab fee would disproportionately impact those who are unemployed or on a fixed income. “It doesn’t strike me as particularly fair,” she said.

Padden also noted that Initiative 976, which would have lowered car tabs to $30, passed with 60% approval in Spokane Valley in 2019. The Washington State Supreme Court ruled in 2020 that the initiative was unconstitutional because it included more than one subject, but Padden said the council should pay attention to how people voted then.

“It’s a very strong message,” she said. “A lot of our constituents want their car tabs to go down, not up.”

Councilwoman Brandi Peetz said she shared Padden’s concerns. “It’s not equitable,” she said. “We have people who drive on our roads who don’t live here.”

Resident John Harding spoke against the tab tax and said he doesn’t see the urgency in approving new road construction funding.

“We have exceptionally good roads,” he said.

Former mayor Diana Wilhite said she believes the issue should have either gone to a public vote or been part of community meetings. She said if a fee is collected, it should be a 0.1% sales tax increase instead.

“Spreading it over the people who use our roads is better for our community,” she said.

As in previous steps in the process, Padden, Peetz and councilman Ben Wick voted against the proposal. They were overruled by Woodard, Haley, Hattenburg and councilman Rod Higgins.