No on Tacoma’s Prop. 1 utility tax

The News TribuneOctober 20, 2013 

Prop. 1 would direct utility tax revenue to roads.


Tacoma has shockingly bad streets and a shocking history of failing to invest in them. Part of the answer, the City Council has decided, is to make Tacoma’s neighbors invest in them.

Proposition 1 on the city’s November ballot is designed to do that. By imposing a 2 percent earnings tax on electric, gas and telephone utilities, it would hit up not only Tacoma ratepayers, but also Tacoma Power customers outside the city.

Households in Lakewood, University Place, Fircrest, Fife, Steilacoom and unincorporated Pierce County would thus help foot the bill for repairing potholes and dilapidated pavements in Tacoma neighborhoods.

Adjacent school districts – Clover Part, University Place and Bethel – would get dunned. Manufacturers that pay excellent wages, such Toray Composites, would give much and get little.

We don’t like the idea, but we credit City Manager T.C. Broadnax – who proposed it – for working to create responsible, sustainable future budgets for Tacoma’s government. We credit the current City Council, too, for confronting the problem. It’s a break from city tradition, unfortunately.

Street maintenance may be the single most spectacular example of past councils’ pattern of fiscal irresponsibility.

According to the authoritative International City/County Management Association, only 23 percent of the city’s paved lanes are in satisfactory condition. Portland’s streets, by comparison, are 56 percent satisfactory; Bellevue’s are 94 percent.

Tacoma basically has Third World streets – falling apart, riddled with potholes – in many of its neighborhoods. They are embarrassing and sometimes dangerous. They’re also steadily getting worse: When pavement decays past a certain point, it becomes vastly more expensive to repair.

The city now has a backlog of roughly $800 million worth of postponed street maintenance and repairs. Proposition 1 would raise perhaps $10 million a year to step up the maintenance work.

This is a piecemeal fix. Street funding – along with the city’s other money problems – should be part of a comprehensive fiscal reform plan.

As it happens, Broadnax and the council have launched an effort to come up with just such a plan. The city’s ad hoc Fiscal Sustainability Task Force, created last spring and composed of very smart people, is doing the homework. It’s expected to deliver recommendations shortly.

Tacoma voters should hold on Proposition 1 and wait for city leaders to figure out a street-funding solution that fits rationally into a larger, strategic budget solution. Taxing the neighbors should be a last resort, not the first.

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