In a special budget meeting Wednesday night, the Tacoma city council agreed to explore a singular remedy for its projected revenue shortfalls. The idea, which was put up by first-year city manager Eric Anderson, would connect key city services to a new tax at levels explicitly determined by the voters. The council agreed to convene a citizens advisory group to examine the plan.
The scheme is basically a monthly city property tax dedicated to police, fire and library services -- the core of city government. Current B&O, utility and other taxes would be eliminated -- including the city's portion of the existing property tax. In Anderson's initial outline, the tax would extend to all property holders other than houses of worship, which would include private schools and universities, nonprofit hospitals, charities, and others. A base level would be set by a city-wide vote, and any subsequent increase would go to a referendum.
While it is not exactly an act of desperation, Anderson's idea is definitely, as Mayor Bill Baarsma said, "a long shot."
The referendum element means that citizens will have the means to decide if they want the tax or not, and if they don't, they will see the effect in services. It thus makes voters responsible for balancing the budget. When Anderson was asked if this wasn't giving up on representative government, he said, "it's too late," meaning that the state initiative process has already degraded the role of city councils and legislatures in this area.
In Tacoma, councilmembers were careful to limit their support to the process of exploration, not the plan itself. A task force of as-yet-to-be-named stakeholders and citizens will be convened early in 2006. Should the idea pass muster there, an advisory referendum is targeted for June.
Should that pass, the result would then have to go through Olympia. Cities are creatures of the state and they cannot unilaterally institute taxes, and Tacoma would need enabling state legislation.
Virtually all cities have been squeezed since the passage of I-695 and I-747, the anti-tax, anti-government initiatives of the late 1990s. This effort will be watched with interest from both sides of the mountains.
The state had better be free with its authorization, should it ever get to that point. They have no business obstructing any effort of a city to address its fiscal problems. It was the state through initiatives and by legislative action that opened these wounds.
Something has to be done. Cities are in an impossible position long-term. And we've gotten to the long term. It's a shame Tim Eyman doesn't have to figure this out.
I'll have a more complete take on it for you next week, including a note on the issue of abdicating representative government.