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Elma council mulls sending sales tax increase to voters

ELMA — Elma City Council members are considering how to get more money to pave roads and fix pot holes.

As part of discussions to kick off the 2014 budget process, Council members David Blackett and Tom Boling say the city needs to consider all of its options, including sending a sales tax increase to the voters.

Such a maneuver would mirror a recent process the city of Aberdeen undertook, first establishing a Transportation Improvement District and then sending some sort of sales tax increase to the voters. In Aberdeen, 63 percent of its voters approved a sales tax increase back in February.

“Aberdeen passed with flying colors and I would have bet it wouldn’t have,” Mayor Dave Osgood said. “And that’s a major vote from the people of Aberdeen.”

Councilman Boling said one consideration is to ensure if they were to send a sales tax on the ballot that it isn’t done at the same time the Elma School District is likely to send a bond to the voters. Boling said he wouldn’t want both tax measures to be torpedoed.

“I wouldn’t want to negatively impact the school bond at all,” Blackett agreed.

Boling said if the city does run a ballot measure, they should do it when other issues are on the ballot so the city doesn’t bear the total election costs, which could run $20,000 to $50,000.

Boling says that there have been significant issues with the city streets for years, citing an example on Martin Street, which has consistently flooded.

“It’s been that way forever, since I was little,” Boling said. “And we don’t have the drainage there. It’s like a lake.”

Osgood said the situation on Martin Street needs specific stormwater drainage system improvements, which costs money the city doesn’t have. He added that “blacktop is not cheap,” when considering fixes to other roads in the city.

“The one thing that concerns me is Main Street, one of our newest streets, and there are cracks that people can fall on when they walk,” Boling said. “And that really concerns me. … And we’ve got all of these trucks that come through here.”

Councilwoman Debbie Thurman says she’s not a fan of raising taxes directly, but isn’t opposed of letting residents in the city vote on a potential tax proposal.

She said her big worry is if the city can absorb the expense of an election.

“I’m still trying to decide if this would be a good thing,” Thurman said.

Osgood notes that much of the industrial traffic located on Schouweiller Road in the unincorporated area of the county are heading down city roads to catch the freeway because it’s so much harder to get through the intersection at Schouweiller and Highway 12.

“Girards, Pepsi, all of those companies are coming through Elma and it’s impacting our streets,” Osgood said. “Our streets are not designed for those consistent loads.”

Osgood has proposed potentially annexing those areas of the county into Elma before and says he still thinks it would be a good idea. That could raise some more revenue for Elma, but probably not enough to do extensive paving work. In September, council members received a draft contract between the city and the owner of the east County Industrial Park on what it would take to annex the property. The contract has not yet been approved and the annexation talks continue. Blackett notes annexation talks have been ongoing for four years now.

“Cities expand out and counties shrink,” Osgood said.

Osgood said he would try and get a comparison with how much taxes Elma residents are paying compared to other cities from the Grays Harbor Council of Governments. Residents in Elma currently aren’t paying for any bonds on buildings since the library bond was paid off early, Blackett noted.

If the city of Elma moves forward with a Transportation Improvement District, which needs majority approval of the five-member council, then different funding mechanisms for road projects could be levies.

The council could immediately impose a $20 increase to license tabs purchased in the city of Elma. That’s allowed to be done without a vote of the people, per state law. However, if they wanted to go any higher than $20, then it would take a public vote. Council members didn’t discuss this option during their budget talks.

Another alternative would be to send a sales tax measure to the voters, which could go as high as two-tenths of 1 percent — or a two-penny increase on a $10 purchase.

The current countywide sales tax is 8.4 percent. In February, Aberdeen voters increased their sales tax by 0.13 percent to help pay for road projects, so the tax there is the highest in the county at 8.53 percent.

Voters are also being asked to approve a one-tenth of one percent sales tax increase for Grays Harbor Transit. If the new sales tax proposal is approved, the rate would be 8.63 percent in Aberdeen and 8.5 percent everywhere else.

It’s a good bet that Elma city officials will keep a close watch on the way the Transit sales tax measure works out.

As of Tuesday night, the measure was passing by 70.78 percent.

A precinct breakdown was not immediately available Tuesday night because the election server was busy.