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Voters Decide on Levies, Bonds, and a City Income Tax (!)


November 30, 2016 by Steve Hawley
Category: Elections

Voters Decide on Levies, Bonds, and a City Income Tax (!)

In my first post I wrote about local charter amendments, advisory votes, and other non-financial measures in the 2016 general election. This post focuses on local taxation and revenue measures. Since there were almost 100 funding measures statewide, I’ll just highlight a few that caught my eye.

Mixed Results for Law Enforcement and Public Safety

In Kalama, voters approved a sales tax for a new police station, replacing the old station that was damaged in flooding last winter. Lincoln County also approved a sales tax to increase the number of sheriff’s deputies and other staff, compensating for recent budget shortfalls.

Tukwila passed a $77 million bond measure to replace three fire stations and build a new justice center for the police department and municipal court, while Snoqualmie approved a levy lid lift to hire two new police officers and one firefighter. Cowlitz County supported a sales tax to bolster its short-staffed 911 communications system.

Meanwhile, a criminal justice levy in Wahkiakum County failed, as did a public safety sales tax in Mattawa that would have funded more police officers.

Fire districts in Kelso and Mossyrock approved bonds for new fire stations and equipment, while Bellevue approved a controversial levy for a new downtown fire station and seismic upgrades to existing stations.

EMS Levies Struggle

There were a number of emergency medical services levies on the ballot, and this year they fared noticeably worse than usual. Of the 12 regular EMS levies, five failed, and a countywide levy in Whatcom County passed by a razor thin margin. However, it’s worth noting that all of the measures were new or permanent levies requiring 60% approval.

Other EMS measures fared better, including a $360,000 bond measure for ambulances in Hoquiam.

New Park Districts and Bonds

In Skamania County, voters approved a new park and recreation district to operate and maintain the Underwood Community Center. But while the park district passed with about 66% of the vote, a corresponding levy (which requires 60% approval) failed. Skamania County also rejected a levy to fund a natural resource office.

Colfax approved a new metropolitan park district, while a proposed metropolitan park district in unincorporated Mason County failed. Metropolitan park districts require only a simple majority and do not require a separate funding vote, giving them a potential advantage over park and recreation districts.

The Eastmont Metropolitan Park District in Douglas County approved a $4 million bond measure to expand and improve its aquatic center and other recreational facilities.

And in Bellingham, voters approved a levy for parks, trails, and greenways. This is the fourth greenways levy the city has passed, but for the first time most of the money will go toward developing facilities rather than buying land. In northeastern Whatcom County, voters approved the new Columbia Valley Park and Recreation District, although there was no accompanying funding measure.

Streets and Neighborhood Safety Measures Mostly Pass

Several King County cities approved measures to improve street safety and pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure, including levies in Bellevue and Bothell and a bond measure in Kenmore.

A $50 million bond measure to improve street safety in Issaquah received about 54% of the vote, falling short of the required 60% supermajority.

Voters approved two new transportation benefit district sales taxes: 0.1% in Lynnwood (where a 0.2% sales tax failed two years ago, and which also has a soon-to-be $40 vehicle license fee) and 0.2% in Mount Vernon. Another TBD sales tax failed in Woodland.

Voters Support Major Transit Projects

Voters in Spokane County approved a 10-year, 0.2% sales tax for expanded bus service, including rapid, all-electric buses through central Spokane. A similar but higher-cost plan narrowly failed in April 2015.

In Kitsap County, voters narrowly approved a plan for a fast, passenger-only ferry service funded by a 0.3% sales tax. The ferries would connect Bremerton, Kingston, and Southworth to downtown Seattle, significantly reducing current travel times.

Voters in the greater Seattle region approved a massive 25-year, $54 billion transit expansion, including expanded bus service and new light rail lines as far out as Everett, Redmond, and Issaquah, as well as connecting the Tacoma and Seattle light rail lines.

Vancouver Approves Affordable Housing Levy

Vancouver approved a seven-year affordable housing levy that will benefit residents making less than half of the median income. The proposition was modeled after a similar one in Bellingham that passed four years ago.

Olympia Income Tax Initiative Narrowly Fails

A contentious initiative to impose a 1.5% income tax on high-income households in Olympia failed but received almost 48% of the vote. The money would have gone to a college tuition fund allowing local students to get up to year of free college, but it faced significant legal obstacles because state law currently prohibits cities and counties from imposing income taxes.

It appeared the measure wouldn’t even make the ballot after a judge ruled against it, and it wasn’t included in the initial voter pamphlets. A temporary stay forced the vote and required the city to print extra pamphlets.

West Richland Changes How It Pays for Library

West Richland narrowly approved a levy lid lift to pay for library services, replacing a 2.5% utility tax on telephone, gas, and electricity. Utility tax revenues have dropped significantly as a result of users switching from landlines to mobile devices and data plans, as well as recent mild winters and energy efficiency gains.

Regional Fire Authority Falls Short Again

proposed Eastside Regional Fire Authority in King County, funded in part by benefit charges, fell slightly short of the required 60% majority for the second time, following an earlier vote in April.

Anything Else?

Were there any other measures that impacted you or caught your attention? If so, let me know by leaving a comment below or emailing me directly at shawley@mrsc.org.

Corrections: The original version of this article incorrectly stated that the Whatcom County EMS levy failed. In fact, the levy passed by the narrowest of margins, about 0.04 percent. It also stated incorrectly that cell phones are not taxable under the utility tax. Cell phone providers are taxable under the utility tax, but the utility tax does not extend to internet services and data plans provided by cell phone companies if the internet access charges can be reasonably separated from the phone/voice charges.


MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

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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