A bill to ensure that voters in a water or sewer district retain ultimate control over whether a city or town can assume jurisdiction of their district has passed the Senate and awaits action in the House of Representatives.
“These special-purpose districts are created by a vote of the people, for the people. As such, 100 percent of the taxes we pay for our water and sewer systems should be dedicated to providing the services and maintaining the system,” said Sen. Maralyn Chase, a Democrat who represents the 32nd District and who is the sponsor of Senate Bill 5048. “These funds should not be diverted, or ‘repurposed’ for other uses such as new developments or other non-water-sewer projects unless the voters approve.”
SB 5048 would let voters call for a referendum on any attempt by a city or town to assume jurisdiction of all or part of a water or sewer district. As with other special-service districts such as fire districts or school districts, rate payer revenue must be spent solely for the purposes of the special service districts. However, if a city assumes ownership of a water or sewer district, the city may levy taxes without limits, without restrictions on what the funds are used for, and without a vote of the citizens who voted to create the district. Water and sewer districts are the only special service districts that do not have a cap on the taxes that can be levied if these districts are assumed by a municipality.
“Across the state, in the wake of the Great Recession, municipalities are struggling to make ends meet — and are assuming control of water and sewer districts to increase their revenue flow for other programs and projects,” said Chase, whose represents residents in Lynnwood, Mountlake Terrace, Edmonds, Woodway, unincorporated Snohomish County, Seattle and Shoreline. “That’s not why people vote to create a water or sewer district. People want a reliable water and sewer system — not a funding mechanism outside of their control for projects they don’t approve.”
Utility taxes are among the most regressive taxes levied on citizens, Chase noted. Water and sewer are basic necessities and low-income rate payers have no choice in accepting or refusing service or paying the ever-increasing taxes. For example, low-income working families pay 17 percent of their income in taxes compared to wealthy families who pay only 2.8 percent.
“This bill will ensure that the democratic process can work the way it was meant to work,” Chase said. “If it’s truly in the public’s best interest for a city to assume a water or sewer district, then the city rulers should have nothing to fear from a vote by the people who would be paying the tax.”