Spokane County Commissioner Todd Mielke made it clear at last week’s Council of Governments meeting that he is still promoting the idea of a Transportation Benefit District that would generate funds for regional projects and serve as a boost to the road budgets of cities like Spokane Valley, Millwood and Liberty Lake.
Spokane City Council Member Joe Shogan also voiced his support of a regional TBD during the Sept. 10 gathering – it’s just that Spokane’s governing board is ready to shift gears on street improvements.
Citing a letter addressed earlier in the week to county leaders, Shogan recounted how the city of Spokane has decided to move ahead with its own municipal TBD, raising money through a $20 license tab fee on vehicles within city limits. Any amount above $20 would have required a public vote.
“We’re down $2 million in real estate excise tax,” Shogan told COG attendees. “Our own TBD would raise $2 million.”
Shogan emphasized that the city still agrees with the notion of a regional TBD and would dissolve its own program if such an approach raised the same amount of revenue. In the meantime, he said, Spokane streets require attention.
“If we’re serious about a regional TBD, let’s take it to a vote in April,” Shogan said.
Airway Heights City Council Member Matt Pederson raised concern over Spokane’s decision, saying it sends a message to voters that the region is less than unified about the plan.
Shogan responded by stressing his first obligation is to the residents of the city he represents.
“I was elected by the citizens of Spokane – not the people of Airway Heights or the region,” he said.
The line was similar to some of the feedback Mielke received when he attended a Spokane Valley City Council study session in July. While Mielke emphasized that a regional TBD would provide “the benefit of consistency across the region,” council members like Bill Gothmann seemed to leaning more toward a municipal rendition of the fundraising approach.
“I was elected to represent Spokane Valley,” Gothmann said in July.
The Liberty Lake City Council also debated the benefits of a regional TBD this summer, drawing criticism from representatives like Ryan Romney who was not enthused about the allocation of funds that would see 70 percent remain in cities and 30 percent go to regional projects like the north/south freeway, Bridging of the Valley project and extension of Interstate 90. In a $20 tab scenario, Liberty Lake would keep just over $171,000 with around $73,400 benefiting regional construction.
“I see this as a way for Spokane and Spokane Valley to get 30 percent of our revenue for projects that they think are significant,” Romney said in June.
County leaders continue to emphasize the importance of regional collaboration in the quest for federal transportation dollars.
Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers, who spoke at the beginning of last Friday’s meeting, described how teamwork among jurisdictions serves as a plus in securing federal funding. McMorris Rodgers added that she would like to see clarification of the criteria for such grants as Congress works on the reauthorization of the transportation bill in its next session.
“Each city or each county proposing one or two projects is not the most effective approach,” she said.
County Commissioner Mark Richard said a regional TBD would be a catalyst in generating critical matches for federal funds.
“It’s a question of whether or not those local communities can provide local matching dollars,” he said.
Richard said he was concerned with the message sent by both Spokane’s decision and the lack of feedback from jurisdictions at the COG meeting about their stance on a regional TBD.
“That tells me we’re not ready to move forward as a community,” he said.
Gothmann said he was interested in the results of a recent survey conducted by the local chapter of the Good Roads and Transportation Association. The poll showed 72 percent of Spokane County respondents support the idea of the county and surrounding cities developing a regional transportation program while 90 percent view the responsibility of roads and other transportation issues as an important role of local government.
“I can see some advantages to a regional TBD,” Gothmann said following the COG meeting. “I still think it would be something we would have to take to the voters, even if it was just a $20 tab.”
Mielke and Spokane Mayor Mary Verner have discussed the possibility of a $45 license renewal that would raise some $20 million annually. Based on state statutes, putting a regional TBD on a ballot would require a minimum endorsement of 60 percent of the cities within Spokane County and 75 percent of the affected population. Mielke noted at the COG meeting that the population requirement could be met by the support of the cities of Spokane and Spokane Valley as well as the county but would still fall short of the nine cities necessary to comprise 60 percent.
Richard, who has said the TBD should go to a public vote “whether the tab is $5 or $50,” emphasized that the county “would need to hear support for a regional TBD from the majority of our communities” before a public hearing would take place – the hearing would mark the first step in putting the matter on a ballot.
“We need to start with everyone who has a road department going through an audit process like the county is now to look for ways to improve efficiency,” Richard said. “As far as the TBD goes, it’s pretty clear that there’s some community dialogue that needs to take place.”