Op-Ed: Don’t let your city turn basic necessities into a blank check

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Sen. Maralyn Chase D-32
Sen. Maralyn Chase represents the 32nd Legislative District, which includes all of Shoreline.

By Sen. Maralyn Chase

Our cities and towns are struggling to stay above water these days, with good reason. When the Great Recession devastated tax revenues, the state reduced every funding stream it could to balance the budget during the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. As a result, the local infrastructure necessary for economic growth has become the equivalent of a wish upon a star.

So it’s understandable that municipalities would scramble to exploit any potential avenue for raising precious tax dollars—and their target du jour is the special-purpose water or sewer district, which offers fresh revenue streams. So, yes, it’s entirely understandable. It’s also entirely inappropriate.

Here’s what makes it understandable:
These water and sewer special-purpose districts, when taken over by municipalities, can be used to impose utility taxes to fund anything a municipality deems important. Unlike statutory limits on private sector utilities such as electricity and gas (6 percent), there is no limit on the percentage of utility taxes cities can impose on their citizens; rates can run as high as 39 percent. It’s the equivalent of a blank check at a time when municipalities are flat broke.

Here’s what makes it inappropriate:
These special-purpose water and sewer districts were approved by voters for very specific purposes (which is why they’re called special-purpose districts in the first place). They were created by a vote of the people to provide the basic essentials of civilized life — sanitary water and sewage systems. As such, these districts cannot impose utility taxes on water or sewer services like cities do. They operate primarily from service rates charged to their customers and use the revenue only to build and maintain the water or sewer systems — the basic essentials. No voter cast his or her ballot thinking, “I’m going to vote for this so that anybody at any time can raise my taxes to fund anything they like without my consent.”

Yet that’s exactly what happens when a municipality assumes control of a water or sewer district. The voters lose control over how much they are taxed or how their tax dollars are spent.
That’s why I am sponsoring Senate Bill 5048. If this legislation passes, any time a municipality seeks to take control of a special-purpose district, the public will have the right to call for a referendum — to vote on whether the municipality can turn the taxpayers’ dedicated water and sewer taxes into a source of additional revenue.

My proposal is simply a basic component of representative government. But against the landscape of today’s limited dollars and municipal appetites, it’s urgent and essential. Without this safeguard, municipalities will be able to raise your taxes to pay for projects or services you never approved.

If you think that’s wrong — if you think that’s not what you voted for when you approved the creation of a water or sewer district — then you need to let your state legislators know now. Senate Bill 5048 needs to be passed and written into law before any more municipalities turn our basic necessities into a blank check for who knows what.


Anonymous,  March 30, 2015 at 8:55 AM  

A good way to know how utility rates are responsibly changed is by looking at the budgets of both special purpose districts and the city. See how and where the money is spent and if it is responsible.

Wait! That's right! Special purpose districts don't have to produce a budget by law and a detailed budget for a utility is hard to find.They aren't actually accountable for how they spend your rate dollars.

Hmm. Then how do they set the rates? Arbitrarily? That's right! Again with no accountability about how those dollars will be spent. Is that really what you want? Remember, these utilities are a government entity too...

Anonymous,  March 30, 2015 at 12:25 PM  

What I do know is the City of Shoreline assesses a fee for the meter reader to access my meter - and it's not a flat fee, it's a sliding scale.

Anonymous,  March 30, 2015 at 1:46 PM  

Regarding the previous poster's comment: The City of Shoreline does not own or operate a utility that requires meter reading. What on earth are you talking about?

Anonymous,  March 30, 2015 at 2:21 PM  

@8:55 AM's argument SB 5048 runs something like this. The state legislature deems it necessary to hold the state's cities and towns to a higher standard of accountability than it does its special purpose districts. Therefore, cities and towns should take them over pronto, and without a vote of the people.

Karen Easterly-Behrens,  March 30, 2015 at 2:31 PM  

Some.....most.... Special Purpose Districts are open and transparent.

Anonymous,  March 30, 2015 at 3:55 PM  

@8:55, that broad brush you're using doesn't fit in your can...of paint, that is.

Anonymous,  April 16, 2015 at 8:44 PM  

@ 8:55 does have some points that bear expanding. IMO, any entity that receives a substantial amount of funding from the state and/or participates in, say, a state retirement plan, should have minimum levels of transparency and accountability. However, the legislature has shied away from setting these, leaving us with a hodgepodge that, in a nutshell, is whatever the entity chooses to disclose/not. Some do fairly well, others are very secretive. What this means is that voters are then left with voting on their taxing measures based on emotions and scant detail. Two examples of this are schools and transit agencies. Ms. Easterly-Behrens provides an excellent example of a webpage that describes something that most ordinary citizens can follow, I've never seen one with such thoroughness, that's more than I see out of most public entities, who use the "here's our statements, you figure them out" approach. For at least the larger types of public entities such as the ones that I've mentioned, they all need periodic independent operational (not just financial) audits, which tend to find millions of savings and dozens of process improvements while staving off if not bypassing cutbacks.

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