House passes Springer local-government relief package

A former mayor of Kirkland is leading the charge to replace state mandates on local governments with taxpayer-friendly choices that can help communities grow and weather the remainder of the economic downturn.

On Friday, the House passed a trio of bills introduced by state Rep. Larry Springer (D-Kirkland) to ease growth challenges and fiscal crises that are impacting local budgets.

Fiscal relief for cities and counties Springer’s Fiscal Relief for Cities and Counties bill (HB 1478) sailed through the House with an 86-11 vote after lawmakers heard how temporary delays in several non-urgent state mandates could save strapped local governments millions of dollars.

Cities and counties implored lawmakers to allow the proposed delays, which include a number of reporting requirements and a mandate that local governments convert their vehicle fleets to run on electricity or biofuels by 2015. The vehicle mandate alone would impose millions of dollars of added costs at a time when communities are deeply cutting current services to stay afloat.

“We’re not trying to eliminate state directives in this bill,” said Springer. “We’re only trying to extend timelines to gives cities and counties an opportunity for their budgets to recover.”

Redmond Mayor John Marchione is one of the local leaders supporting Springer’s measure.

“At a time when all local governments are struggling to pay for even the most essential services, we appreciate Rep. Springer's efforts to figure out where we can at least hit the pause button on regulations that are well-intended but costly,” said Marchione. “We see this bill as an effort to help us focus on our highest priorities when times are the toughest.”

The REET flexibility bill A second Springer measure (HB 1953), dubbed the REET Flexibility Bill, allows cities, counties and towns to use up to $1 million of their existing Real Estate Excise Tax collections to pay for the maintenance and operation of parks and other existing capital projects. State law currently requires those taxes to be used to finance new projects.

“This fiscal relief measure doesn’t authorize a dime of new taxes,” said Springer. “It simply gives localities more flexibility to use their existing revenues to meet urgent needs.”

Kirkland City Councilmember Amy Walen strongly supported the Springer bill at a Feb. 17 public hearing.

According to Walen, rigid state mandates are forcing Kirkland to sit on a $9 million balance in REET revenues at the same time it is slashing its funding for public priorities.

“We need this REET flexibility because, like most cities, we have run out of options,” Walen said. “We’ve spent our reserves. We’ve partnered with employees for furloughs and wage concessions. We’ve maximized our property taxes and utility taxes. … In this past budget we cut over $7 million after trimming millions the year before.”

The Washington Association of Realtors joined local governments in supporting the bill.

Saving rural landscapes affordably The third Springer measure that passed Friday came from an idea proposed by the Cascade Land Conservancy. It would help rural landowners, developers, cities and counties to work together to achieve multiple goals: preserving rural lands, developing high-value urban properties, and financing affordable local infrastructure.

The bill would allow owners of farms, forests and other rural landscapes to stay on their land and preserve its rural character by selling development rights to builders who then transfer those rights to locations in cities that have agreed to accept the development.

This type of transfer has been used before, but cities have been reluctant to participate because of the costs of building the infrastructure needed to support the additional development.

Springer’s bill solves that problem by allowing cities and counties to create local infrastructure project areas to pay for needed infrastructure with property taxes generated by the higher land values of the newly developed properties.

“Many farmers have told me they want to keep their farms, but can’t for long because of the economics of development pressures,” said Springer. “This approach not only solves their dilemma, it helps counties to meet growth management goals, it helps cities to finance infrastructure, it helps builders develop high-value properties, and it helps taxpayers who’d otherwise foot much higher infrastructure costs for urban growth.”

The measure is limited to King, Pierce and Snohomish counties, where population growth is putting the heaviest pressure on rural lands and urban infrastructure costs.

House Bill 1469 passed the House 69-28.

The favorable House votes send all three measures to the Senate for further consideration.

“Friday was a pretty good day at the office,” Springer remarked after his bills all passed.