Legislature passes Chase bill to protect utility ratepayers’ voting rights

Maralyn Chase
Maralyn Chase

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 passed the Legislature on Tuesday and will be sent to the Gov. Jay Inslee to be signed into law.

“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, who represents the 32nd District including parts of Edmonds, Lynnwood and Mountlake Terrace,  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. Utility districts assess and adjust rates to provide for maintenance and service as necessary but may not assess additional taxes for the service.

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.

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 high-income families who pay only 2.8 percent.“I had hoped to make this legislation retroactive to give the taxpayers of Shoreline a say in what was forced on them a year ago, but unfortunately there just wasn’t enough support for that component,” Chase said. “Still, now other communities now possess a means of protecting their districts from overreaching cities and towns.”

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