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Special Election Recap: Regional Fire Agencies, Marijuana, TBDs, and More


April 28, 2016 by Steve Hawley
Category: Elections

Special Election Recap: Regional Fire Agencies, Marijuana, TBDs, and More

It’s the end of April, which means local government geeks like me are looking over the latest special election results. I haven’t written about special elections in the past – there just aren’t that many notable ballot measures compared to the primary and general elections – but this year there were a number of measures that caught my eye.

Once the results are certified, I’ll add them to our Local Ballot Measure Database, which lets you research ballot measure results from 2011 to present.

Rural Pierce County Says “No” to Marijuana

Voters in unincorporated Pierce County are opposing the production, processing, and sale or marijuana by a roughly 53% to 47% margin. The vote is advisory, and the county’s current moratorium is set to expire on July 1. The result comes just one day after King County imposed an emergency four-month moratorium on marijuana businesses in unincorporated areas.

This is the second time in recent months that voters have rejected marijuana businesses, following a similar (but more lopsided) vote in Federal Way last November. The Federal Way city council quickly followed by unanimously imposing a permanent ban. Both Federal Way and unincorporated Pierce County narrowly supported I-502 in 2012.

It’s hard to draw too many conclusions from these results, though. While it’s certainly possible some voters are changing their minds, the results may also be affected by lower turnout, which generally skews the electorate toward older, white, and more affluent voters. Voter turnout is far higher during presidential years such as the 2012 general election (when I-502 passed) than in off-year or special elections. Turnout is about 30% in unincorporated Pierce County this time around, and it was about 37% in Federal Way in November – not bad for local elections, but a far cry from the 80% of registered voters who turned out in Pierce and King counties in 2012. (I couldn’t find exact 2012 breakdowns for Federal Way or unincorporated Pierce County.)

To explore how other cities and counties are regulating marijuana at the local level, be sure to check out our recreational marijuana map.

Voters (Mostly) Support Regional Fire Agencies

Four regional fire protection service authorities went before the voters, and three of the measures are passing. The Kent Fire Department Regional Fire Authority successfully renewed its fire benefit charges for another six years, while voters in Renton are supporting the creation of a new regional fire agency along with benefit charges. Near Bellingham, a $1.96 million bond measure to provide three new fire engines for the South Whatcom Fire Authority is passing with over 80% support, which is almost unheard of for a bond measure of any size.

The exception was in King County east of Lake Sammamish, where a proposed Eastside Regional Fire Authority is failing. The measure has about 56% support, but a 60% majority is required because the measure includes fire benefit charges.

Three More TBDs Pass Sales Taxes

Voters in Ellensburg, Othello, and Mattawa approved sales taxes up to 0.2% to fund their transportation benefit districts (TBDs). All three measures passed easily; a nearly identical measure in Othello narrowly failed during the 2013 general election. The money will be used for street improvements in Othello and Mattawa, and public transit in Ellensburg.

While non-voted vehicle license fees are the most common funding mechanism, many TBDs rely on sales taxes, and, at least so far, voters have overwhelmingly supported them. For more details on which TBDs use which funding sources, see our list of transportation benefit districts.

Proposed Metropolitan Park District Fails

In University Place, a proposed metropolitan park district is failing with barely one-third of the vote. The city, facing a budget deficit, is planning to eliminate its recreation programs next year. The proposed district, which was placed on the ballot by petition, was intended to stave off those cuts. However, it generated vocal opposition from some residents who opposed new taxes and advocated for cutting other city programs instead.

Other Bond Measures

In addition to the South Whatcom fire bond mentioned above, this election saw three other bond measures:

  • In Pend Oreille County, a $10 million bond measure for assisted living facilities at Newport Hospital & Health Services is passing.
  • Voters in Maple Valley overwhelmingly rejected a $22.5 million bond for parks and recreation.
  • An $825,000 bond for Grant County Fire District 13 is falling short of the required 60% majority.

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About Steve Hawley

Steve joined MRSC in July 2014 and is responsible for writing, editing, and conducting research for many of MRSC’s website resources, with a particular focus on local government finance, budgeting, ballot measures, and procurement. He has a broad communications and public policy background with over a decade of local government and nonprofit experience.

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