Beware transportation benefit districts

Like the sound of distant drums, the talk of tax increases for one purpose or another persists — leaving taxpayers to wonder what the next attempted incursion will be.

At times, it seems the most powerful “special-interest group” in this state consists of people who run our local government entities or work for them.

For the past few years, significant tax increases at the local level have generally required voter approval — except, of course, when the Port of Bremerton evaded the voter-approval requirement last year to impose its new property tax.

Although considering one ballot measure after another might seem frustrating to those who simply wish government would stop asking for more money, it is surely better than being sent the bill without a chance to say yes or no.

Frustration on the other side also exists, since the voters occasionally reject tax increases intended to fund a pet project of the people in charge.

Unfortunately for taxpayers who would rather be asked than merely billed, the Legislature may relieve the frustration of government leaders by authorizing a tax increase that doesn’t need voter approval.

Such is the case in this past session of the Washington State Legislature, when House Bill 1858 was enacted, authorizing counties and cities to impose an extra $20 fee to be collected when motor vehicle registrations are renewed.

This sort of fee could already have been imposed up to $100 per vehicle before the new law was passed, but only with voter approval. Naturally, that wasn’t good enough.

If you wonder whether your “car tab” costs may increase in the near future, watch for any mention of the creation of a “transportation benefit district” that includes your residence within its boundaries. (If the port district’s tactics are used by the county, you need to carefully read all newspaper “legal notices” for the next few months.)

In a transportation benefit district that includes the entire county, we would all be required to pay the new $20 fee if the county commissioners impose it. (Later, a citywide district could impose it on city residents, assuming the county passes up the opportunity.)

Ordinarily, one might presume a new car tab fee would be undesirable, but this one isn’t necessarily a bad idea. It all depends on the purposes for which the money would be used.

Here in South Kitsap, for example, the money might be used to pay part of the road improvement costs in the Bethel Corridor Project.

Perhaps not everyone would agree, but increasing the capacity of Bethel Road seems like a worthwhile use of additional tax revenue. Traffic congestion has become worse on that thoroughfare in recent years.

It would be nice to see our tax dollars used to reduce traffic congestion and make it more likely that continued commercial development would occur.

Driving to a location in South Kitsap rather than Gig Harbor or Silverdale to shop or work would save us time and money.

Increasing our property tax base by adding more commercial development would also take some of the tax burden off local homeowners for things like school levies.

It would be better than the uses to which many of our county leaders would put our taxes — like blowing more money out the tailpipes of underused public transit vehicles or paying thousands per passenger to ferry a few people from Bremerton to Seattle.

The catch is that our intrepid leaders will probably want to include South Kitsap in a transportation benefit district which would pour money into such things as the effort to revitalize Bremerton. They would apparently rather spend where few want to go than put the money into places where people actually want to be.

Note especially that the county commissioners could only impose the new $20 car tab fee without voter approval if they create a countywide transportation benefit district. Even if they weren’t already inclined to create such a district, the authority to increase revenue without voter approval would surely make them lean that way.

Happily, the law still requires them to get voter approval before using a new car tab fee to fund passenger-only ferries.

If something less than a countywide district is created, a new car tab fee would require voter approval – so we would have an opportunity to approve or reject it based on the proposed uses.

If, on the other hand, a countywide district is created, we will have to compete with the pet projects of our leaders to get a reasonable share of the new revenue.

To have a sporting chance, we need some people with time on their hands and something other than a song in their hearts to act as our own interest group advocates.

Either that, or change “South Kitsapers” to “SucKers” to suit our station in life.

Robert Meadows is a Port Orchard resident.

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