Tuesday, August 11, 2020
Aug. 11, 2020

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Mielke urges higher vehicle fees to fund road projects

Boldt says he'd back effort if property taxes are reduced

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Clark County planned to begin work in 2012 on improving Northwest 119th Street at 50th Avenue as part of a larger plan to upgrade 119th Street.
Clark County planned to begin work in 2012 on improving Northwest 119th Street at 50th Avenue as part of a larger plan to upgrade 119th Street. Those plans are up in the air due to dismal funding forecasts. Photo Gallery

Here’s how badly the county needs money for future road projects: Clark County Commissioner Tom Mielke, a conservative Republican who owns nine cars, supports increasing vehicle licensing fees.

Mielke said Tuesday that increasing licensing fees would take the burden off developers from having to pay as much in traffic-impact fees.

He quickly added that he would like to balance a fee hike with reducing property tax rates so homeowners would not pay as much for roads, either.

He said he’s encouraging county staffers to figure out a specific proposal.

“I don’t know how to do it,” Mielke said.

His fellow Republican, Commissioner Marc Boldt, said he supports increasing licensing fees on the condition property taxes were lowered.

They both feel all drivers, and not just property owners and developers, should shoulder more of the burden of paying for roads.

By state law, commissioners could raise the $43 annual vehicle licensing fee by $20 without putting it to a public vote.

If voters so approved, the fee could be raised by as much as $100.

Commissioner Steve Stuart, a Democrat, would be the board’s lone “no” vote. He said the county needs to work with existing funds, ranking projects on a need-based scale that favors safety and attracting business development.

If businesses come, Stuart said, so will additional revenues for roads.

As of now there’s no formal proposal to increase licensing fees, but Mielke, who made the suggestion at a May 26 work session on road projects, has been talking about it for a year, said Pete Capell, director of the county’s public works department.

The Vancouver City Council has also talked, during budget retreats, about increasing vehicle licensing fees and is expected to seriously consider the idea this year.

Mielke said Tuesday he’s not just acting on behalf of developers.

In his 2008 campaign, he raised $56,000, approximately half of which came from donors directly involved in planning and development.

Mielke also said he doesn’t regret favoring the repeal of the motor vehicle excise tax, a major transportation funding source, while in the state Legislature. The repeal happened after voters in 1999 approved the Tim Eyman-sponsored Initiative 695. The initiative repealed the motor vehicle excise tax but was ruled unconstitutional, so lawmakers and then-Gov. Gary Locke repealed the tax.

That tax generated “a big old pile of money” and “the government abused it,” Mielke said.

Currently, the annual licensing fee is $43.75 for passenger vehicles, said Auditor Greg Kimsey.

That includes the flat $30 fee set by the state plus various extra fees.

Only $3 of the $43.75 goes to the county, Kimsey said. The rest goes to the state.

And the county’s $3 goes into the general fund. The biggest source of money for roads comes from property taxes.

The owner of a $200,000 home pays $311 a year for roads.

At the May 26 work session during which Mielke suggested increasing licensing fees, Capell gave a presentation on the county’s six-year Transportation Improvement Program, or TIP. The state mandates that the county annually update a six-year plan, and the county has more than 100 projects identified. Capell told commissioners that declining revenues are creating severe problems, including the inability to provide the required matching dollars for the state and federal grants that fund one-third of TIP projects.

Traffic impact fees, collected when building permits are issued, have declined from $4.3 million in 2007 to an estimated $1.1 million this year. Construction costs have risen due to tougher regulations.

Capell said the inability to meet concurrency and safety standards could hamper the county’s capacity for growth, and traffic will get worse before it gets better.

Capell said later that he and Thayer Rorabaugh, transportation manager for the city of Vancouver, crunched the numbers on how much money would be raised if licensing fees for the 359,000 registered vehicles in the county were increased by $20. That would generate $7.18 million. Vancouver’s annual share would be $2.7 million, and the county would get $3.5 million from vehicles owned by drivers in unincorporated areas. The balance would be distributed to the smaller cities.

“I wouldn’t sneeze at $3.5 million, but it doesn’t buy you much,” Capell said.

Maybe if voters understand what they’d be getting, they’d approve a larger fee increase, Mielke said.

He said using licensing fees would create a more stable funding source.

“I would go to a vote of the people,” Mielke said. “But I know it’s a sore spot.”

And as for his nine cars, some are in storage and are not licensed to be on the road.

“I only drive three or four of them,” he said.

Andrea Damewood of The Columbian contributed to this story.