General Obligation Debt Limits
The page provides information on the maximum amount of general oblication (GO) debt that local governments in Washington State may incur under the state constitution and state laws.
The information on this page applies only to general obligation debt. There are no debt limits for revenue or special assessment debt.
For more information on voted and non-voted debt, see our page on Types of Municipal Debt. For examples of local policies establishing more stringent or detailed debt limits than the constitutional and statutory maximums, see our page Debt Management Policies.
The Washington State constitution, as well as state law, set the maximum amount of G.O. debt that a local government can have outstanding at any one time, expressed as a percentage of the taxing district's total assessed value of taxable properties. Debt limits also restrict how much of this capacity can be used for various purposes.
Local government is authorized to issue debt in the Washington State Constitution in article 8, section 6. This section provides a uniform level of debt limitation for all jurisdiction types based on a percentage of taxable property values. The level of debt authority (limitation) is separated into non-voted and total debt:
- Non-voted debt (also called “councilmanic” debt or limited tax general obligation/LTGO debt) cannot be greater than 1.5% of assessed value (AV) of taxable properties in the jurisdiction.
- Total debt (including voted and non-voted debt) cannot be greater than 5.0% of AV. However, cities and towns can increase their total debt limit by an additional 5% with voter approval (to a total of 10% of AV) for water, lights, and sewers when those facilities are controlled by the municipality.
While the constitutional debt limits represent the maximum debt a jurisdiction would ever be allowed, most local governments have lower debt limits set by statute (see below).
Statutory debt limits are usually set at a lower level based on the legislature’s perception of what is a safe and reasonable amount of debt load to carry. When setting debt limits, the legislature also takes into consideration the cumulative debt impacts of overlapping taxing districts on local communities.
The authority for local government to borrow using any type of debt is provided in Title 39 RCW.
Different government types have different debt limits (see table below). RCW 39.36.020 provides for general limitations on the amount of indebtedness, while other statutes establish specific limitations for different types of jurisdictions. The limits are expressed as a percent of total assessed valuation of taxable properties in the jurisdiction (RCW 39.36.015).
Cities, under RCW 39.36.020(4), are provided with two additional authorities for debt capacity: one for municipally owned water, sewer, or electric facilities, and one for open space and parks. Each of these additional debt authorities are in the amount of 2.5% of assessed valuation and require a public vote.
|Counties||39.36.020(2)(a)(ii)||1.5%||2.5%||Unless acting as metropolitan municipal corporation under chapter 36.56 RCW|
|Cities - general||39.36.020(2)(a)(ii)
|1.5%||2.5%||Debt includes conditional sales contracts and long-term leases for real or personal property|
|Cities - for city-owned lights, water and sewer||39.36.020(4)||2.5%||In addition to debt authorized by RCW 39.36.020(2)(a)(ii). Must be authorized by vote.|
|Cities - for open space, parks, and economic development facilities||39.36.020(4)||2.5%||In addition to debt authorized
RCW 39.36.020(2)(a)(ii). Must be authorized by vote.
|Metropolitan municipal corporation||35.58.450||.75%||5%|
|Metropolitan municipal corporation that has been assumed by a county||35.58.450
|2.25%||5%||Counties authorized to assume MMC under chapter 36.56 RCW|
|Fire Districts||52.16.061 and 52.16.080||.375%||.75%|
|Library Districts for purposes other than purchasing real or personal property||27.12.222||.1%||.5%||Maximum term of non-voted debt is 20 years|
|Library Districts for purchasing real or personal property||39.30.010||.75%||.75%||Total library debt limits, including debt authorized under RCW 27.12.122|
|Metropolitan Park District||35.61.100 and 35.61.110||.25%||2.5%||Bonds not to exceed 20 years.|
|Port Districts||53.36.030(1)(a) and
|.25%||.75%||GO Bonds. RCW 39.28.030 includes additional debt authority for emergency public works|
|Port Districts with < $800 million in taxable property value during 1991||53.36.030(1)(b)||.375%||.75%||Must have comprehensive plan for harbor improvements or industrial development and long-term financial plan approved by Commerce in order to exceed 1/4%|
|Public Utility District||54.24.018||.75%||For acquisition or improvement of property. No bonds may exceed maturities of 30 years|
|General||39.36.020(1)||.375%||1.25%||Applies to local entities whose debt limits are not otherwise specified in state statute|
Since there are separate limitations on both non-voted (councilmanic) and total debt, it is important to understand how these limitations interact. Let’s say that a jurisdiction has a non-voted debt limit of 1.5% of AV and a total debt limit of 2.5% of AV. The council can decide to use this non-voted capacity on any type of debt it wishes to incur up to the 1.5%. If the council uses the councilmanic capacity to the maximum, then there is only 1% of AV of general purpose capacity left that can be used if the voters approve (2.5% – 1.5% = 1%).
Conversely, if the jurisdiction has issued voter-approved debt in excess of 1%, say 1.5%, then the non-voted debt limit would effectively be 1% of AV, since total debt can never exceed the 2.5% limit.
For more information on voted debt requirements, see Overview of Voter Approval Requirements for UTGO Bonds, by Foster Pepper PLLC.
Note: Because the debt service on non-voted debt must be paid from the general fund revenues, some councils, through their local debt policies, set non-voted debt limits that are lower than those allowed by statute.
- Department of Commerce: Local Debt Limitations Primer
- Limitations on Municipal Debt - Lists statutory debt limits for different types of local governments
- The Bond Users Clearinghouse: Annual GO Debt Reports