City prepares ‘objective’ mailer on sales tax

Council weighs in on plan to educate public; candidates reveal how they’ll vote
By Nicholas Johnson | Sep 27, 2017

The city’s Transportation Benefit District Board is set to sign off Monday, Oct. 2, on a four-page mailer intended to educate voters about the 0.1 percent sales tax measure on the Nov. 7 ballot.

Policy Analyst Marko Liias presented the public education plan to the board Sept. 11 in an effort to get feedback. At a cost of $10,000, the city plans to mail a newsletter to city residents in mid-October, about the same time the county send out its local voter’s pamphlet.

“The city is not pro or con on this measure; the city is neutral,” Liias told the board, noting that state law requires that such a mailer, when paid for with public money, be objective and fair.

“We want to give people information on why is this measure coming before you, what are the agency needs, what will it cost you, and then its’ up to the voters to make the determination on their own.”

The city’s attorney had already signed off on the proposed content of the mailer, finding that it didn’t advocate for or against the proposed sales tax measure.

Council member Ted Wheeler, for one, was hardly convinced the mailer could be objective. He said the facts presented in the proposed mailer were one-sided. He also he’s bothered by the timing.

“I think it should not go out at the time of the voter’s pamphlet,” he said, noting that such educational efforts should have happened much earlier. “I would perceive it as we’re trying to persuade them to vote for the tax increase. It doesn’t seem right.”

Unlike most of his fellow council members, Wheeler neglected to offer constructive criticism. He instead lamented the lack of an opposing voice in the city mailer.

“What about the people who don’t want this to go through?” he said. “Do they have the same opportunity to put out the same information that we’re putting out? “I think you’re trying to sway the voter to the pro on it and without having the persuasion of the con.”

Council member Steve Schmalz said the mailer should note not just that the sales tax would be a 0.1 percent increase, but also that the increase would make the total combined sales tax rate in the city 10.4 percent, tying it with Lynnwood for the highest in the state.

Schmalz also questioned the statement that the tax would cost the average person $10 per year.

“This would assume a Mukilteo resident is spending $10,000 per year on sales taxable items in the city of Mukilteo,” Liias said, noting that an interactive tool on the city’s website would allow residents to more accurately calculate the tax’s impact on their personal budgets.

Council members Christine Cook, Richard Emery, Bob Champion also noted several minor changes that could be made so as to ensure the tone is not overly positive. Emery said the proposed mailer appeared “fairly objective” and asked whether it could include a statement on what would happen if the tax measure does not get voter approval.

“I didn’t feel comfortable telling the voters what the alternative plan was because I had no direction from the council on that,” Liias said.

After a year of work, the city’s Wise Investment in Transportation Taskforce recommended in July 2016 that the city dedicate a minimum of $900,000 per year to pavement preservation, and the council agreed.

In March, the council adopted the By The Way Plan for biking, transit and walking, which recommended $435,000 per year for pedestrian improvements.

The sales tax would contribute to covering those costs over time. According to staff estimates, the proposed 0.1-percent sales tax would generate $294,118 per year, and roughly $221,000 in the first year due to collections beginning in April. The tax would also sunset after 10 years, and it would be dedicated to transportation projects.

The Beacon asked candidates for City Council how they planned to vote on the measure.

Position 1 candidates Anna Rohrbough and James are vying to replace Wheeler. Both said they would be voting against the measure. Rohrbough said it would discourage spending in the city.

“We need to give people a reason to come here and spend money, not discourage that,” she said, adding that the city’s sales tax rate is too high, which suggests the city is overly dependant on that revenue. “We need to be more efficient in how we spend. I think we’re leaking money in many areas and we need to get that under control before asking for more money.”

Yoo said he doesn’t believe in increasing the sales tax. Instead, he said he would scrutinize the cost of operating city government overall.

“I’m pretty sure we can find some savings in the city’s operations,” he said.

Yoo also said $10,000 is too much money to spend on public education.

“I think that’s a lot of money for a small city like Mukilteo,” he said.

Position 2 incumbent Bob Champion and candidate Peter Zieve both said they would vote against the increase. Champion said he would wants to wait another year so the city can complete an analysis of the condition of city streets. He also wants to see how the city spends some $983,000 budgeted for transportation-related projects this year.

“I want to see how the city executes on those funds,” he said.

In keeping with his “No new taxes” campaign mantra, Zieve said he would instead execute a long list of potential budget cuts.

“I would be very tenacious on holding the line on the current tax structure and figure out how to save the money,” he said.

Position 3 candidates Tony Markey and Sarah Kneller were the only two to take differing positions. Markey said he won’t vote for the measure, while Kneller said she will. Markey said he agrees there is a need for bike lanes, sidewalks and street maintenance, but said that the city is not prepared to spend more revenue wisely.

“I don’t think the city has done enough budget work to ask in good faith for more money from the citizens,” he said.

Kneller said she prefers a sales tax to other potential taxes, such as a property tax or utility tax.

“It is the most equitable way to bring in the revenue we may need for the road work,” she said, noting that budget cuts will also be necessary.

“I think the conversation we haven’t had enough is what are the other options,” she said. “I think that should be communicated clearly so people know which option they are voting for. I think there could always be more information given to voters.”

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