The board for the new flood-control zone district today approved a countywide property tax of 10 cents per $1,000 of assessed value starting next year to pay for flood projects.
The Board of Supervisors, made up of the seven Pierce County Council members, adopted the tax by a vote of 5 to 2. Board members Dan Roach and Dick Muri voted no.
Board and council chairwoman Joyce McDonald said the tax is “just fair and right” because all property owners in Pierce County will pay for flood control, not just those in unincorporated areas.
“It’s the right thing to do and it’s the right time to do it” before a flood disaster happens, said McDonald, R-Puyallup.
Roach, R-Bonney Lake, contended money for flood control could come from the surface water management and general funds without a new tax.
Roach said the amount of the 10-cent tax is “completely arbitrary.” He called it “very, very irresponsible” to go forward with the tax increase without a list of budget and list of projects.
“I think it’s a big mistake,” Roach said.
Board member Roger Bush said the county is under a “grave threat” of flooding with miles of uncertified levies.
“We’ve seen it get close to total disaster in recent flood years,” said Bush, R-Frederickson. “We cannot take the risk any longer.”
He cautioned the tax doesn’t guarantee there won’t be a flood disaster because it will take years to rebuild levees.
“Not taking action is an even greater disaster in my view,” Bush said. “There are times when it makes sense to raise money for the common good. This is one of those times.”
The County Council voted in April to create a countywide taxing district to pay for flood control.
The flood district’s advisory committee last month recommended a tax of 10 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value. The average homeowner would pay around $25 per year.
At 10 cents per $1,000 of assessed valuation, the tax would provide about $6.89 million a year for flood projects – from rebuilding levees to buying up flood-prone properties.
Property owners countywide will see the new tax on their property tax bills next year.
Brian Ziegler, public works and utilities director, said the county will start work on projects in 2013 from the new tax revenue. The advisory committee will work on a list of projects in the first quarter of next year that it will recommend to the supervisors.
The County Council created the flood control district in April by a vote of 5-2. Council members Stan Flemming, R-University Place, and Roach voted no.
It recommended limiting the tax to 10 cents per $1,000 of assessed valued. Under state law, the district could collect up to 50 cents per $1,000 of assessed valuation.
The council also advised that 10 percent of the tax money raised go back to cities and unincorporated areas for their stormwater and flood projects through the so-called opportunity fund.
After today’s meeting, Muri said he voted no because his constituents oppose the tax. He said residents of Steilacoom, DuPont and Lakewood don’t want or need the 10-percent opportunity fund for local flood and stormwater projects. Muri, R-Steilacoom, also cited the inability to levy a variable tax based on how much a an area would benefit.
Flemming said the County Council’s reduction in the surface water management fee and fund Tuesday cut potential duplication in taxes. About $2.5 million from the surface water management annually pays for flood control.
“I believe that we are now moving in the right direction,” Flemming said.
Board member Rick Talbert, D-Tacoma, disagreed with Roach’s assertion the general fund can pay for flood control.
“This is a $300 (million) to $400 million problem at least, ” Talbert said. “It’s not something we can tackle in the general fund.”
“The reality is we have a huge problem,” Talbert said.
McDonald said county residents as a whole will benefit by flood projects protecting sewage treatment plants along the Puyallup River.
“I think it’s our responsibility to work for the good of the county as a whole,” McDonald said. If a flood disaster strikes in the future, McDonald said the board members don’t want to be left asking, “Wow, why didn’t we do something back then?”
“I feel very comfortable that this is absolutely the right thing to do for all of the people of Pierce County,” McDonald said.
Board member Tim Farrell, D-Tacoma, said council members are trying to make surface water management and the flood district work hand in hand to solve flooding problems.
“I think that this proposal is good,” Farrell said of the tax. “It is certainly far from perfect.”
Some nonflood-prone communities, such as Gig Harbor and Milton, have opposed a tax, saying they would get little or no benefit and shouldn’t have to pay the same as cities in the Puyallup River Valley.
But flood-district supporters have said all county taxpayers have a stake in protecting at-risk public infrastructure such a Interstate 5 and the Port of Tacoma.
Adopting the flood-control tax required at least five yes votes. In July, the seven council members acting as the Board of Supervisors voted to require a supermajority of five votes to approve the tax, instead of simple majority of four.
Officials say a major flood could do up to $725 million in damage, shutting down I-5 and other roadways, disrupting the Port of Tacoma and damaging sewage treatment plants along the Puyallup River. County residents were reminded of that risk between 2006 and 2009, when the county sustained three of the 15 largest floods of the last 100 years.