Council members make uneasy peace with referenda

Published on Thu, Oct 17, 2002 by Meg Olson

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Council members make uneasy peace with referenda

By Meg Olson

Of the five initiatives and referenda that will be before Washington voters in the November election, three were on the October 14 city council agenda. While they gave a unanimous but unenthusiastic thumbs up to referendum 51, proposing a new gas tax and transportation package, the mood moved through pugnacious to mutinous as they considered opposing initiatives limiting license tab fees – again – and changing the law enforcement and firefighters retirement plans.

State Senator Georgia Gardner, a staunch supporter of referendum 51, led into the fray. “We’re having a moment of truth with our business community,” she said. “The largest businesses in the state have told us they want to see us address these problems. They want momentum.”

The referendum was put on the ballot after the legislature failed to pass a funding package in its last session to address funding for crumbling transportation infrastructure across the state but concentrated in the Seattle area. It would raise $7.8 billion dollars through a nine cent increase in gas tax over three years, a new 6.5 percent sales tax on car sales, new license fees for commercial vehicles and $4.6 billion in new debt.

If approved by voters the money would be spent primarily on road building with some good chunks going to rail, ferries and public transit. “We specified a list of projects in each county and none of the funds can be diverted,” Gardner said. “It must be used for the projects specified in the bill and if something’s going to cost more they need to come back to the voters.” In Whatcom County projects include the Guide Meridian, Highway 9 improvements leading to the border and reconstruction of the truck route through Blaine. “We would see construction start in Whatcom County two weeks after the election is certified,” Gardner said. “We’re that ready.”

While no one spoke in opposition to referendum 51, mayor Dieter Schugt brought up several criticisms of the bill raised by opponents. “The Blue Ribbon Transportation Commission’s recommendation pointed to $150 billion in improvements and this is only eight,” he said. “This is just to get the ball rolling,” Gardner said. “Unless we have the matching funds we can’t access federal dollars.”

Schugt also brought up an alternative plan being promoted by groups that want to see more dollars for public transportation. “Some of my friends in the environmental community object because it doesn’t go far enough looking at alternatives to wider roads,” he said.

One of the primary objections to the referendum was never brought up. According to Department of Transportation estimates 240 million dollars in new taxes will be collected in Whatcom County, but only 140 million dollars in local projects are in the bill. By contrast, in King County $2,284 million will be collected but $3,591 million will be spent. Opponents claim the rest of the state is solving King Counties problems while supporters say the state’s transportation arteries can’t be looked at in sections but need to be improved together to keep traffic flowing all over the state.
Council did not discuss the referendum but voted 6-0, with Mike Myers absent to support its adoption.

Referendum 776, another stab at taxation by I-695 architect Tim Eyeman, was next on the agenda. If approved by voters the measure would limit vehicle tab fees to $30 and repeal a statute that allows counties to charge an extra $15, with voter approval, for transpiration improvements, and would repeal Sound Transit’s authority to charge a voter-approved excise tax. “This is a statewide initiative that affects local control,” Schugt said. “Local taxing authority is jeopardized so we should be concerned.”

Other council members didn’t have much to say on the initiative, and John Liebert wondered why Blaine city council was dabbling in the matter at all. “Why are we bringing up all these different resolutions?” he asked. “I find it a waste of time to discuss it in city council. We haven’t done this before.” Liebert said he would prefer to have each council member and voter study the initiatives and decide for themselves. The measure opposing referendum 776 passed 5-0 with Liebert abstaining.

Initiative 790 would transfer authority of the law enforcement officers and firefighters pension plan from the state department of retirement systems and put it in the hands of a board made up of mostly people covered by the plan. Council considered a resolution opposing the initiative on the basis that it could lead to drastic increases in pension costs to the city.
“This could cost this city a lot of money,” said Bruce Wolf. Police chief Bill Elfo said there were pros and cons to the proposal. “What may end up helping officers and firefighters in the short term could cost people their jobs in the long run,” he said. “People paying into the system should have control over the funds, and we have a moral obligation to protect people who are injured on the job. Promoters of the initiative are pushing for that.”

“The same line of logic is that employers should have equal representation,” countered city manager Gary Tomsic. “Looking at our budget, there could be firefighters and police officers losing their jobs.

Cities in this state are strapped.” Faced with no clear recommendation from staff, council members clung to neutral high ground. Schugt called for a motion to oppose initiative 790; and got it from Bruce Wolf, but it ended there. The motion died for lack of a second. “I urge people to study the issue,” Liebert said..

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