Council delays decision on road repairs measure

A decision will have to wait on whether Oak Harbor voters will be asked to raise the sales tax for street repair.

The Oak Harbor City Council considered the proposed ballot measure at the meeting Tuesday, but council members expressed concerns over the proposed language. They agreed that it needed to be as understandable and straightforward as possible, especially in explaining what the money will be used for.

“We need eight lines of print, approximately, that are clear, concise and more palatable than they are now,” Councilman Bill Larsen said.

As a result, they asked staff to rewrite the proposed ballot measure and bring it back to the council’s July 24 meeting.

Earlier this year, the council formed a transportation benefit district, which is an independent taxing district for funding roadwork. Many other communities in the region also have such districts.

Under state law, the district can raise money through sales tax, vehicle license fees, commercial and industrial building fees, ad valorem tax or vehicle tolls. Council members decided that sales tax would be the fairest option. Voters would have to approve it for the increase to go into effect.

Under the proposal, sales tax in the city would increase by 0.2 percent, which would raise about $966,000 a year for 10 years, according to the city. The city has a list of six years’ worth of street repair projects that will be funded by the measure, plus four years of regular maintenance.

If passed, the measure would make the city’s sales tax rate among the highest in the area. The rate in Oak Harbor, Anacortes, Coupeville, Langley and Mount Vernon is currently 8.7 percent; Burlington’s rate is 8.5 percent, according to the state Department of Revenue.

Council members, however, see the measure as a way to repair roads that are crumbling after years of neglect. Councilwoman Tara Hizon said the bill has come due after “decades of city council kicking the infrastructure can down the road because they didn’t want to spend the money or levy those taxes.”

Councilman Joel Servatius said the city hasn’t had adequate funding to repair and maintain roads over the years because of the compounding impact of an initiative. In 2001, voters approved I-747, which limits local government from increasing the amount collected in property taxes to 1 percent a year. Inflation has been higher than that, he pointed out, so the city has been falling behind each year.

Also, the transportation grants the city receives are almost always for road projects, not repairs.

Mayor Bob Severns said he has misgivings about the timing of the ballot measure. There are only a few months to educate the public about what it means; some people already have inaccurate impressions of it, he said.

Nevertheless, the council decided to wait another two weeks to make sure the wording is up to snuff.

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