Bethel project faces long odds at the ballot box

We’re guessing backers of the plan to create a transportation benefit district for the purpose of funding improvements to the Bethel Avenue corridor face a tough fight to convince voters to approve their plan.

Actually, make that two tough fights because you also have to overcome the fact that South Kitsap residents are still bitter over the Port of Bremerton commissioners earlier this year slapping them with a huge property tax increase to pay for improvements to the Bremerton marina — a lesson backers of ballot measures to fund a school bond, a library levy and fast-ferry service have learned in subsequent months.

But let’s assume for the sake of argument voters were of a mind to give the Bethel corridor question a fair hearing. If so, organizers would still face an uphill battle based on how the district and the funding formula figures are to be structured.

Organized like a utility local improvement district (ULID), which asks residents of an area to be served by a new water or sewer line to vote themselves higher property taxes to fund the proposed construction, a transportation benefit district allows residents living adjacent to a major road — in this case Bethel — to decide whether or not to raise their taxes to pay a portion of the cost of improvement to that road.

As currently envisioned, Kitsap County officials want to upgrade 1.8 miles of Bethel from SE Ives Mill Road to Lincoln Avenue SE. The $43 million project would be funded through two sources — a property tax assessment from parcels immediately surrounding Bethel and a property tax assessment or motor vehicle license fee from residents farther outside the area in South Kitsap.

Whichever option — property tax or car tab fee — the county decides to propose for the latter share, residents in those outlying areas will have to approve it at the ballot box. And if the prospects for passage were dubious to begin with, they figure to go down sharply in direct proportion to the distance the voter lives from Bethel.

Back in 1998, Washington state held a similar election to see whether the region’s voters wanted to build a new Tacoma Narrows Bridge. In that case, since the bridge was to be funded with tolls, transportation officials recognized their best chance was to extend the boundary for those eligible to vote on the question to as many people as possible.

Consequently, voters from Everett to La Push — the majority of whom used the bridge rarely or not at all — were asked to approve a project they knew they wouldn’t have to pay for themselves.

Not surprisingly, they did — albeit narrowly.

The Bethel Transportation Benefit District is different in that everyone being asked to vote will be impacted directly by the tax if it’s approved. To that end, it follows that voters living closest to Bethel, those having the most to gain if the road were improved, would be the most likely to vote for it.

But if the vote were limited to only those residents, there would be so few people to pay the tax that their burden would be overwhelming — meaning they probably wouldn’t vote for it no matter how much they might want to.

The county has a delicate balancing act to perform. It needs to make the voting area big enough spread the pain among as many taxpayers as possible. At the same time, if the boundaries are extended to areas whose residents don’t think of themselves as benefiting from an improved Bethel corridor, they’re not likely to vote for it either.

Breaking the funding into two portions — one for those living close to Bethel and the other for those living farther away — is obviously an attempt to overcome that dilemma.

Whether or not it succeeds will depend on how effective a sales pitch the county makes about the benefits to the entire region of a revitalized Bethel. But considering the port employed that same argument to justify improving Bremerton’s marina without asking for voter approval, it’s debatable how receptive voters will be to it when they are asked.

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