Cash options boil down to taxes, fees

Residents were asked in a survey how they feel about four funding mechanisms. A sales tax won favor.

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What's down there, anyway? All sorts of things. In Walla Walla, you could reasonably expect to find streetcar tracks, water and sewer lines, conduits for utilities, and if you're lucky, even some very old-school versions of water supply lines — wooden pipes wrapped with metal for reinforcement. Want to see one of those in person? Swing by City Hall sometime and look in the case on the right as you walk up the first flight of stairs.

WALLA WALLA - In a recent survey, residents were asked what funding options they would consider to raise roughly $1 million each year for road maintenance.

The 425 respondents had four choices to determine how they felt about each option: "definitely support," "probably support," "not support" or "doesn't matter."

Property tax levy

Participants were asked how they felt about a property tax levy of 50 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value to pay for road maintenance.

For the owner of a $150,000 home, that would amount to an additional $75 per year.

This option would require a supermajority of 60 percent for approval, and would apply only to city residents.

Results: Support - 56 percent; not support - 36 percent; doesn't matter - 8 percent.

Sales tax hike

The survey asked if respondents would support a 0.2 percent sales tax increase, which would raise the city's rate from 8.6 percent to 8.8 percent.

The 0.2 percent increase would come to an additional two cents for every $10 spent.

A sales tax hike would apply to all people who do business in the city, including county residents and visitors.

A simple voter majority is required, but before the sales tax can go to voters, a special Transportation Benefit District must be formed.

Results: Support - 53 percent; not support - 42 percent; doesn't matter - 5 percent.

License tab fee

Residents were asked if they would be willing to pay an additional $50 with their annual motor vehicle license tab renewal fee.

One benefit of such a fee structure is that it would seem the fairest, as those with the most vehicles would pay the greatest amount for road maintenance.

But owning more cars doesn't always equate to more use of the roads.

This type of funding mechanism is often seen as harsh on people with lower incomes and seniors on fixed incomes, many of whom own cars but don't drive as much as they once did.

Results: Support - 18 percent; not support - 78 percent; doesn't matter - 4 percent.

Bonds

The last option presented would fund road maintenance much the same way the new Edison Elementary School and the police station were funded - a voter-approved bond.

Like property tax levies, how much property owners pay for bonds depends on assessed property values. Bonds, too, are paid for by property owners directly or renters indirectly through their monthly bills.

Bonds require a supermajority of 60 percent, must be used within limited time frames, are often tied to specific projects and would most likely have to be renewed by vote every two years.

In the past, the city has pushed for other road improvement bonds that have failed to pass.

Results: Support - 50 percent; not support - 41 percent; doesn't matter - 9 percent.

Sales tax wins favor

After reviewing the survey results, city officials decided to pursue a 0.2 percent sales tax increase to raise almost $1 million per year for street maintenance.

Before the increase can go to voters, a Transportation Benefit District must be formed and approved by the City Council.

As for the other options, a license tab fee had too many people who would not support it; and while the property tax and bond options had support greater than 50 percent, both would require supermajorities and therefore be harder to pass.

So in the end, the sales tax seemed the most feasible option.

If all goes as planned, the increase could go before voters in February.

Alfred Diaz can be reached at alfreddiaz@wwub.com or 526-8325.

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