The front page of Sunday’s Everett Herald featured a story about the Snohomish County town of Gold Bar, and how it is struggling to stay incorporated in the aftermath of tax-cutting initiatives. [Cash-strapped town could fall off the map]
The reason Gold Bar and numerous other cities around the state are struggling financially can be traced to the passage of the car tab initiative in 1999, which lowered licensing fees to a flat $30 rate. Since then, Gold Bar has lost about $707,000 in revenue, according to the Association of Washington Cities. That loss is bigger than the city’s 2005 general fund of about $508,000. The city already has tightened its belt, cutting expenses on staff training, laying off staff and restructuring the police service contract with the county, which has saved the city about $194,000, said Hester Gilleland, the city’s clerk and treasurer.
Gold Bar Mayor Collen Hawkins realistically acknowledges that the deepening financial crisis could force the town to disincorporate, forcing Snohomish County to take over services. Residents would lose local control of local services, while facing uncertainty over who would run the local water system, which counties are simply not set up to do.
And they’ve got nobody to blame but themselves.
Hawkins said she finds it ironic that even she voted for Initiative 695 – the major cause of the city’s financial headaches.
The town’s registered voters supported the initiative by a vote of 354-138. Courts eventually struck down the measure, but state lawmakers heeded the will of the people and adopted $30 license tab fees anyway.
In 2002, voters approved a second car-tab initiative, which eliminated a $15 license registration fee that Snohomish County and several other counties had been charging. That money was earmarked for street repairs. As a result, the street fund in Gold Bar dropped from $17,200 in 2002 to nothing in 2004, Gilleland said.
“Even though these initiatives are appealing, they are giving a death warrant for local government,” Hawkins said.
Some might argue that these are the unintended consequences of ill-conceived initiatives like I-695, but I’d say it was intentional. While many voters — and even some mayors — didn’t realize the local impact of these statewide measures, many of their strongest and most vocal proponents knew exactly what they were doing.
We are witnessing the gradual devolution of state and local governments. Small towns across the state will be forced to disincorporate as tax revenues continue to dry up, possibly pushing some Eastern Washington counties into insolvency as they struggle to provide additional services.
Meanwhile, the structural deficit built into our antiquated state tax system has created a cycle of perpetual, multi-billion dollar budget gaps that makes it impossible for Olympia to lessen the blow, or assume more of the burden itself. When Republicans talk about cutting government waste, they’re no longer talking about making government more efficient, they’re talking about cutting programs entirely. They’re not interested in convincing the public to embrace a dramatically smaller and limited form of government… they know that if they just sit back and patiently defend the status quo, they will achieve this vision, with or without public support.
It is time for the Republican leadership to come clean about its agenda. If they don’t believe in shuttering city halls across the state, if they don’t believe in denying health care to tens of thousands of children, if they don’t believe in mediocre public schools and a university system that can’t possibly grow to meet the needs our rising population… then they need to tell us how they intend to pay for these and other basic services without raising taxes. But if what they truly believe in is minimal government and zero regulation, then they need to let voters decide on this agenda for themselves, instead of dishonestly relying on our broken tax structure to enact it by default.