Town council supports tax increase for housing

One council member expressed reservations about the wording of the proposal.

The Coupeville Town Council voiced its approval of a sales tax increase proposed by Island County to fund affordable housing, though one council member expressed reservations about the wording of the proposal.

Island County commissioners proposed a sales tax increase of one-tenth of 1% that would generate around $1.1 million a year for the construction, purchasing, maintenance and operation of affordable housing in the county.

Commissioners will hold a public hearing about the proposed tax next month, at which time they might vote to adopt the proposal. They are allowed to adopt the tax without a vote by the people.

After some discussion during their Dec. 14 meeting, Coupeville council members voted 3-1 to write a letter to commissioners voicing their approval of the proposal. Councilmember Jenny Bright was absent from the meeting.

The lone voice of dissent came from Councilmember Rick Walti, who worried that the wording of the proposal would give county commissioners the flexibility to divert some of the generated funds toward another project and dilute the efficacy of the tax.

A fact sheet on the proposed tax provided to the town council says money generated by the tax, in addition to funding affordable housing projects, may also be put toward “constructing mental and behavioral health-related facilities” and “evaluation of mental and behavioral health treatment programs and services.”

Walti said that while affordable housing and mental health are each important topics that deserve attention from the county, he thinks lumping them together in one tax is a dishonest use of funds and will ultimately be less effective than focusing on each individually.

“I think there’s two separate issues here, and I think the county is trying to do both of them with one area, and they’re not going to be very successful,” he said. “If we’re going to ask the folks in the communities to raise their taxes for housing, then it should go for housing.”

Lynda Austin, deputy director of human services for the county, explained that construction of mental and behavioral health facilities is simply one of the options for the tax allowed by the state legislature, but that Island County will focus primarily on affordable housing.

The mental health provision, Austin added, would also allow the county to include some affordable permanent supportive housing units in any housing facility they might construct with tax funds.

Other council members were largely supportive of the tax increase. Councilmember Pat Powell said that putting more money into affordable housing could have far-reaching benefits, such as helping mitigate the worker shortage by providing places for workers to live.

“This is one of my highest priorities. I’m 100% in favor of this,” Powell said. “I think the cost to us — to our businesses and also the cost to us as consumers — this is a cost that, if we don’t start to provide that affordable housing, will be a huge issue for us.”

The council ultimately voted to send a letter of support for the proposal, with Walti offering the dissenting vote.