Bellingham residents should vote "no" on Bellingham Proposition No. 1.
City residents proved in April that they strongly support public transportation, voting in favor of a proposed sales tax increase for Whatcom Transportation Authority. But that plan failed miserably with voters outside Bellingham and the measure did not pass.
So citizens might understand why the Bellingham City Council has since moved to create a new "Transportation Benefit District" in the city and to propose a new tax in the city to fund the operations of that district. That tax is on this fall's general election ballot as Proposition No. 1. It would raise sales tax in the city by .2 percent, meaning an additional 20 cents in tax paid on $100 purchased.
Unfortunately, what the district/city offers through Prop. 1 is nothing like what city residents voted in favor of in April. Prop. 1 goes way beyond the idea of supporting the WTA and restoring bus service. It raises between $3.5 million and $4 million a year for everything transportation - including road repaving, new bike lanes and whatever else it is the district's board decides it wants to spend money on. The district's board, by the way, is the City Council.
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What Prop. 1 really is, then, is a general sales tax increase for the city. It is true that the money raised would have to go to transportation projects. But it's also true that other taxes that the city collects that currently go to transportation can be rerouted to other city projects.
In a meeting with our editorial board we asked former Bellingham Mayor Tim Douglas why the council didn't just ask citizens for a general tax increase. Why tie the supposed need for more money in city coffers to potential funding of the WTA, an entirely different government with its own ability to raise taxes?
Douglas is spokesperson for the group supporting Prop. 1. He told us voters likely wouldn't approve a general tax increase, but are more likely to pass something with "directed" funding.
We hope voters won't be fooled.
To make matters worse, the transportation district/city has no agreement with the WTA to use the any money for restoring WTA routes in Bellingham. Douglas told us that the district would have to negotiate with the WTA. It is possible that none of the money raised from this tax increase would go to WTA bus service.
Even if it did, restoring Sunday bus service just in the city would cost an estimated $750,000 a year or so, Douglas said. But that's a far cry from the $4 million that may be raised by the tax increase.
Douglas argued that the city needs the extra money to continue maintaining road paving and repair projects. Investing now in maintenance is better than having to pay for major repairs in the future, he argued.
We agree with him; it is smarter to keep roads functioning than to dig them up and completely replace them if they fall into disrepair.
But that truth doesn't explain why the city can't just make roads a higher priority with the money it already has. And it doesn't explain how a tax proposal that started out being about restoring bus service turned into a way to get a big influx of tax dollars into the coffers of a new transportation district. Nor does it provide assurance that the city won't just reroute tax money currently set aside for roads to pay for other, less important, things.
We believe city officials have failed in the basic requirement of any request for more taxes from citizens: prove that you need the money and that you are planning to use it wisely.