The Thurston County Commissioners have opted not to take action on a proposal that would have asked voters for a sales tax hike to pay for affordable housing programs.
Commissioner Gary Edwards was quick to shoot down the idea during a day-long commissioners work session on Thursday at Thurston County Public Works.
“I see the homeless issue as an issue, but it’s much more a municipal issue than it is a rural America issue where the voters in the county reside,” he said.
House Bill 2263, passed during the 2015 Legislative session, permits local government to raise money through voter-approved sales tax for services and facilities for people with mental illness, development disabilities and other vulnerable populations such as domestic violence victims and veterans. It also allows local governments to raise money with voter-approved tax increases to provide access to educational experiences through cultural organizations.
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Thurston County could raise about $4 million with a 0.01 percent sales tax hike, said Schelli Slaughter, director of Thurston County Public Health and Social Services.
“I have to say right off the bat, I’m opposed to sales tax increases, and the reason I’m opposed to it is it kills our economic engine,” Edwards said.
Since the three-member commission didn’t take action on the legislation, the local city councils can take the issue up, Slaughter told the board.
Already the Olympia City Council has shown an interest in placing a sales tax increase on the February 2018 ballot. While the the council can’t officially place the measure on the ballot until after an October deadline, city officials passed a resolution signaling that they hope to pursue the new funds. A 0.01 percent sales tax increase would generate $2.1 million per year in revenue for housing.
City Manager Steve Hall said the city’s Ad Hoc Committee on Housing Affordability will begin crafting a proposal at a September meeting.
Later in the commissioners’ work session, as it became evident that the county’s proposal wasn’t going anywhere, Edwards, a first-year commissioner, began joking around about the local homelessness situation.
“My strategy is to move that population into the urban core, where the growth management originally wanted it to go, in the implementation of growth management in 1992,” Edwards said. “…Personally I just don’t want to take on responsibility of trying to solve all society’s ills, without the revenue to do so.”
His seatmates joined in the joke, although commission chair Bud Blake appeared to take a more serious approach, urging Edwards to remember that he also was elected to serve on the county’s Board of Health, which deals with affordable housing issues.
Cheryl Selby, Olympia’s mayor, said she believes homelessness needs a regional solution. In response to Edwards’ comments, she told The Olympian that homelessness isn’t just a city issue. Unaffordable housing is a problem in rural areas as well as urban areas.
“This is a regional problem, and it’s not a rural versus urban issue,” Selby said.
“You can look the other way, or you can try to be a part of a solution.”
Both she and Hall said in a Wednesday meeting with The Olympian’s Editorial Board that they will continue to pursue a regional solution to homelessness — especially with cold weather approaching. The most recent effort is a letter sent by the Olympia City Council to the Thurston County Board of Commissioners on July 11, asking for assistance this winter.
“The Olympia City Council wants to ensure that plans are in place to help the homeless during the cold weather months. Because Olympia is the regional homeless service hub for all of Thurston County, many of the impacts of the unsheltered are felt in our downtown. We are requesting that Thurston County quickly convene a cold weather task force to review the strategy for winter 2017-2018,” the letter reads.
Key work for the task force would include making an inventory of available services, assessing why some beds available last year were left empty, assessing gaps in winter sheltering services for this winter, and creating a strategy for filling those gaps.
The county hasn’t yet responded to the letter, Hall and Selby said.
Slaughter told the commissioners that by not taking action, they could make a statement of support if local cities decide to put measures on their ballots.
Along with that support, Edwards and Commissioner John Hutchings said they were helping provide customers for those municipalities’ services.
“I can use an analogy like you’ve got a soup line in Olympia, and you don’t have a soup line in the county,” Edwards said. “But people are hungry, they’re going to go to the soup line, that’s the bottom line.”
Hutchings said he would support working with Intercity Transit to help rural families get to services in town.
County manager Ramiro Chavez urged the commissioners to start thinking about their obligation to the homeless in their roles on the Board of Health.
“I do, I think about it every day,” Edwards said. “I’m going to move ‘em downtown. ... Just so you know where I’m at.”
“You’ve got to be better than that,” Blake told Edwards. “…Where is your heart?”
After the meeting, The Olympian asked Blake and Edwards about the last portion of the meeting.
Blake described Edwards’ comments as “facetious,” and noted that the new commissioner from rural Yelm gets particularly fired up about the growth management act and the taxing restrictions that it has placed on county governments.
Edwards said he didn’t that the county should literally load homeless people onto a bus and relocate them downtown.
“Oftentimes I’ll make wild comments just to make a point,” he said. “…What I was trying to emphasize was just the mere fact because of the taxing structure that municipalities get and the location. It’s kind of a downtown thing where there’s a problem where the services are available to help those folks. ...
“But eventually if you have services in town, that’s where they end up congregating, as a general rule. They go where the services are.”