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March 1, 2011 at 6:24 PM

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Measure would let cities add street maintenance to utility bills

Posted by Joanna Nolasco Joanna Nolasco Joanna Nolasco

Under a proposal by Rep. Marko Liias, D-Edmonds, some cities would be able to add one more item to utility bills: street maintenance.

His legislation, House Bill 1929, would create a pilot project allowing some cities and towns to charge residents, businesses and government entities for maintenance of urban streets. Cities would need to meet certain population criteria to be eligible. Cities that could qualify include Tacoma, Spokane, Vancouver and Auburn. Seattle would not qualify.

Cities also would have to seek voter approval to qualify for the project.

“I get that it’s a new charge potentially,” said Liias, a vice chairman of the House Transportation Committee. “It is a new tool that cities would be allowed to use, but if the voters in the city want to give their city government the authority to do this — to take care of local streets and make sure that they’re well-maintained — then I think we should give them another tool.”

Existing statutes on street maintenance say charges imposed on businesses cannot exceed $2 per month per full-time employee, while those imposed on residents cannot exceed $2 per month per housing unit. In 1992, Seattle created a street utility by ordinance and structured it on those rules, but a 1995 state Supreme Court decision found the charges to be an unconstitutional property tax.

In Covell v. City of Seattle, the court found there was no practical basis for the $2 charge and that the charge did not reflect the ratepayer’s use of the streets, among other factors.

In calling the charge a utility fee as opposed to a tax, Liias’ bill requires that street-maintenance utility rates reflect the correlation between a property and the estimated number of vehicle trips from that property, among other considerations. The bill would repeal existing street-utility statutes.

HB 1929 is backed by the Association of Washington Cities and the cities of Tacoma and Auburn, among others. Opponents are largely from the private sector; among them are the Washington Retail Association, Association of Washington Business and Washington Food Industry.

Jan Teague, president and CEO of the Washington Retail Association, said it’s “almost irresponsible” to impose a new charge on businesses that already are struggling to survive in this economy.

The bill was approved by the House Transportation Committee last week by a relatively small margin, with 15 Democrats voting to pass the bill out of committee and 12 Republicans voting against its passage.

Liias proposed a similar bill in the previous legislative session, but it failed to pass out of committee.

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