Thursday, October 21, 2021
Oct. 21, 2021

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Woodland’s fledging transportation benefit district awaits vote on sales tax

By , Columbian Staff Writer

When Woodland residents vote in November, they’ll have the opportunity to approve a 0.2 percent sales tax for transportation projects.

The tax, to be applied on top of the city’s existing 7.8 percent rate, comes from the transportation benefit district that formed in June.

State law allows a city or county government to set up a transportation benefit district, which can then charge an extra vehicle registration fee or sales tax to fund local transportation projects. The district money can’t be diverted, and must go to transportation improvements. The sales tax needs a simple majority to pass.

In Clark County, Battle Ground formed a district in 2014 and raised $203,000 in its first year. Vancouver’s district started July 1, and the city anticipates raising $2.4 million in its first year.

Where Woodland differs from Battle Ground and Vancouver is that its officials decided to go with a sales tax hike. Both Battle Ground and Vancouver transportation benefit districts preferred $20 vehicle license fees. Woodland Mayor Will Finn said city councilors opted to go with the sales tax partly to collect money from people other than city residents.

“We’ve got people all around us,” he said. “They’re all using the roads, but we’re expected to maintain those for everybody.”

A major reason for the transportation benefit district was to fund roadwork and free up money for the Woodland Police Department. Finn said money is now diverted to roadwork from the city’s general fund, but if the city can find some other revenue source for transportation, more money can go to the police department.

“It’s not an end-all,” Finn said of the sales tax. “It’s a way forward to help (the police department) with some of the challenges they’re seeing, and creates a dedicated revenue source for our roadways.”

The sales tax increase is expected to bring in around an average of $270,000 a year for the 10-year duration of the tax.

Jennifer Heffernan was the only councilor to vote against the transportation benefit district, although she’s not actually against the district. When councilors discussed forming a district at their March getaway, she was on board. However, she thought the council was also going to put up a property tax increase for vote in November to help out with the police department.

“I wanted to pursue both funding options, because infrastructure and public safety are both top priorities,” she said. “I don’t understand how sales tax and the TBD is going to achieve anything significant for infrastructure and free up funds for public safety.”

Finn said the property tax timeline would take too long to bring money into the city. If the council did an advisory vote to see how residents would feel about increased property taxes, the city wouldn’t see that money for two years.

“We need relief now,” Finn said. “At least it’s some help. It’s what we can do right now.”

Heffernan said she doesn’t want to leave the “police department hanging for a second year in a row.”

The key figure to help out the police department is around $200,000, which would allow the department to hire a lieutenant or two officers. Finn said the city used about $240,000 from the city’s general fund to fund roadwork this year. If the sales tax passes, that money will go to the police department. He said he’s not sure about how the specific numbers will break down, but if the department hires a lieutenant, it would most likely also raise the salary for the police chief. By hiring a lieutenant, it would also free up sergeants to go out in the field more, according to Finn.

He also said if there is leftover money going back to the police department after hiring a lieutenant and increasing the chief’s salary, it’s possible some of that could be diverted to another department in the city, as well.

Finn said the transportation benefit district wouldn’t fix everything, but it would be a step in the right direction. The sales tax revenue would go toward things like sidewalk and curb replacement or repairs, chip seal and pavement maintenance/repair, pavement overlays, Scott Avenue reconnection and the city’s six-year capital projects plan. All that will cost millions, more than the estimated $2.7 million the district would bring in over 10 years. But Finn said the city doesn’t have to fully fund projects. The district money could be used as matching funds to attract large grants.

“We felt this was the best route for us to go,” Finn said. “We’re helping out two portions of city right now. If we don’t pass it, we’re still going to be in the same boat next year.”

Columbian Staff Writer