Commissioners approve new tax district for rural Thurston County, but unclear wording may stall the process

Despite numerous objections raised during a public hearing, residents in rural Thurston County could soon be part of a new tax district to fund transportation projects.

But first, the county’s legal team will need to examine what some staff members believe may have been “unclear” wording in a motion that was unanimously approved 3-0 by the Board of County Commissioners, county manager Cliff Moore told The Olympian late Tuesday night.

“I understand the intent was to vote for creation of the Transportation Benefit District without any funding connected to it,” he said.

However, the phrase “vote to consider” was used in the motion, and some staff members felt that didn’t signal a clear passage of the proposed ordinance, Moore said. If the county’s lawyers agree that the wording was confusing or unclear, the commission could elect to hold a special meeting and take another vote, or put the issue off until next year, Moore said.

Commissioner Sandra Romero described the district’s decision as “prudent,” and noted that it’s an issue the three-member board has discussed for about three years.

Commissioner Cathy Wolfe said the board will later decide how to raise money for the district, which would support road, bridge, sidewalk, trail and other transportation projects in unincorporated areas of Thurston County.

“This will not be something we’ll be doing quickly,” Wolfe said.

Prior to the vote, eight people spoke during the public hearing about the issue. None of the comments were in support.

“This has got my hackles up,” Rochester resident John Ridgway told the board. “You guys have dug into my pockets pretty deep.”

Washington law allows cities and counties to create local Transportation Benefit Districts to help raise money for transit and transportation infrastructure.

The most common funding mechanism is through $20 vehicle tab fees that do not have to be approved by voters. If the district goes that route, it will raise about $1.8 million a year for projects, according to county staff.

Districts can also place transportation impact fees on commercial and industrial buildings without a vote by the public, but that’s not a viable option for unincorporated Thurston County, Public Works director Ramiro Chavez told the commissioners.

Other funding options, which must be approved by voters, include an annual vehicle license fee of up to $100 per vehicle, a sales and use tax up to 0.2 percent; property tax through an excess levy and vehicle tolls, according to background materials provided at the meeting by the Public Works Department.

So far, about 70 cities and counties in the state have created Transportation Benefit Districts, including the cities of Olympia and Tumwater.