Street tax measure a political target

A proposition to increase sales tax to fund street repair and maintenance in Oak Harbor has become a hot-potato issue for candidates running for mayor and council positions.

The council placed a measure on the November ballot that would fund street work with a two-tenths of 1 percent increase in sales tax within the city. It would raise an estimated $997,000 a year based on 2018 sales tax collections, Finance Director Patricia Soule said.

The sales tax increase amounts to an extra $2 on a $1,000 purchase, for example.

The council voted last year to create a transportation benefit district. Under state law, the district has several options for funding, but council members felt the sales tax increase would be the most fair since visitors contribute.

The city of Oak Harbor maintains 71 centerline miles of streets, eight miles of which are considered to be in poor or very poor condition, according to a study financed by the city.

Mayor Bob Severns said he supports the measure but wishes it wasn’t timed to coincide with his re-election campaign.

Indeed, candidates have expressed strong feelings about the proposition at forums and in interviews.

Severns pointed out that more than 100 other cities in the state started transportation benefit zones. Cities are limited to a property tax increase each year of 1 percent, which means their revenues don’t keep up with inflation.

“If you tried to raise $900,000,” Severns said, “you’d have to cut 10 to 12 staff positions.”

Pat Harman, who is running against Severns, predicts that the measure will go down in flames.

He’s opposed to the proposition, he said, because the council formed the transportation benefit zone without a vote of the people. The work can be done within the budget if officials make smart financial decisions, he said.

“It’s a budget exercise, not a taxing exercise,” he has repeated.

Councilwoman Tara Hizon has been a big supporter of the measure. During a council meeting she said the city council was “kicking the infrastructure can” down the road for decades and it’s time to make the investment.

At a forum, she argued that good streets are vital to economic development.

Joseph Busig, who’s running against Jeffrey Mack, agrees with Hizon, saying that the streets have been in a state of disrepair for too long.

Michael Crawford, who is challenging Hizon, said residents aren’t in the mood to approve a tax increase because they’re still reeling from the increase in sewer rates.

Crawford and Mack, who’s running against Busig, said at forums that there must be other ways to pay for the necessary repairs.

About 70 percent of the roads in the city are classified as residential streets, which are the small, neighborhood streets and are not eligible for state and federal funding. Residential street maintenance — as well as work on such things as street lights or traffic signals — is funded mostly by gas tax and CAPRON funds, which come from the state, Soule said.

Money raised from the sales tax measure would only be used for repair and maintenance of residential streets.

Depending on the state of the pavement, the work will consist of chip sealing, asphalt overlay or reconstruction, according to the city.

In the first seven years of the 10-year measure, a long list of streets will be repaired. After that, the money can be used for preventative maintenance and construction of sidewalks, trails and bike paths.