Residents not getting what they bargained for with Sound Transit tax

Folks renewing their car tabs in the Puget Sound may be getting sticker shock after seeing just how much Sound Transit 3, the measure approved by voters last fall to expand light rail, is costing them.

At the heart of the issue is an outdated method Sound Transit is using to calculate a vehicle’s worth. As the Seattle Times lays out, if you own a 1-year-old car, Sound Transit says your car is worth 95 percent of the sticker price and taxes you at that valuation. Meanwhile, Kelley Blue Book values the same car at just 70 percent of the sticker price.

The spike in car tab fees angered resident Faith Bailey, who is on a fixed income. In an interview with KOMO Channel 4’s Keith Eldridge, Bailey said she believed the valuation formula is unconstitutional after seeing her yearly car tab bill jumped from $82 in 2016 to $175 this year.

At least two senators agree with Bailey, as Senators Dino Rossi, R-Sammamish, and Steve O’Ban, R-University Place, asked Attorney General Bob Ferguson for an opinion on the formula’s constitutionality.

Regardless of Ferguson’s opinion, it appears lawmakers on both sides of the aisle agree a fix needs to happen this session to tax vehicles at a more accurate valuation.

But the problems voters are having with Sound Transit don’t end there. King 5 reports that 285 properties are partially in Sound Transit’s taxing district and have to pay the property tax imposed by ST3, which comes to $25 of every $100,000 of their home’s value, even though they were never afforded the opportunity to vote on the measure last November.

“We never voted on it.  We couldn’t vote on it.  It wasn’t on our ballot, so we had no choice on the matter,” Bill Steenis, a Snohomish County resident paying the ST3 tax despite only 5 percent of his property being in the taxing district, told King 5.

Representative Mark Harmsworth, R-Mill Creek, proposed a bill, HB 1958, to remedy the problem and expects it will get passed. But is there more we could be doing to prevent these issues from ever coming up in the first place?

The problem with Sound Transit isn’t just that they are using faulty math and arbitrary district lines to squeeze more dollars from the taxpayers, it’s that there isn’t much voters can do to express their frustration.

Sound Transit’s board of directors are made up of 18 local officials—10 from King County, four from Pierce County, three from Snohomish County, and the State Transportation secretary—of which 14 are appointed by the King, Pierce, and Snohomish executives.

To make matters more complicated, King County Executive Dow Constantine appoints nine of the 18 board members, making him the most powerful board member and giving King County control over a process that affects the entire region.

Voters would be better served by electing Sound Transit’s board members directly, which is exactly what a bill sponsored by O’Ban, Senate Bill 5001, would do starting in 2018. This vital piece of reform would reduce the 18-member board to 11, and create individual districts that would be represented by a nonpartisan official elected by the voters.

Unfortunately, while Senate Bill 5001 passed the senate with bipartisan support, it appears unlikely to even get a hearing in the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives.

For the time being, we have to place our trust in the unaccountable officials that have made a mess of ST3 to continue running Sound Transit.

Keith Schipper is a Washington GOP strategist. You can contact him at info@washingtonstatewire.com.

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