Seeking more funding for affordable housing, the Snohomish County Council is considering a proposal to raise sales tax across the county by 0.1%. The measure could go into effect by the end of the year.
Last week, the Snohomish County Council introduced a plan to raise the countywide sales tax rate to pay for additional affordable housing units. With the funds, county officials estimate they can more than double the number of new affordable units in the next five years.
A public hearing is scheduled for Dec. 15 to allow for community input, but residents will not be able to vote on the matter. Under a new Washington state law, county leaders have the power to levy the sales tax to fund affordable housing without voter approval. The council is set to vote on the measure after the hearing.
During the Dec. 1 county council meeting, Snohomish County District 1 Councilmember Nate Nehring said he objected to the proposal’s rushed timeline, which goes against the traditional process.
“Typically, proposals to increase the sales tax rate are placed on the ballot for a vote of the people,” he said. “In this case, a loophole passed by the state Legislature is being used to avoid a public vote. That isn’t right.”
Additionally, Nehring said there’s no reason the tax needs to be rushed through with minimal transparency, and that council members who support the increase should plead their case to constituents “through a robust process of public input and deliberation.”
Nehring said he is drafting an amendment which, if passed, would send this proposal to the ballot for a public vote.
As housing prices across the region soar, many have expressed the need for more affordable housing but say a new tax isn’t the way to go. In Lynnwood, city leaders have repeatedly said they oppose increasing the sales tax, noting the city’s current sale tax is 10.5% – among the highest in the state.
“It really is putting the city council in a tough position because we really don’t want the sales tax to increase,” said Lynnwood City Council President George Hurst.
Should the county council decide to raise the tax, Hurst said he would prefer that the city maintain control over the funds, which he estimated would be between $2.2 million and $2.6 million each year.
In 2009, the county approved a 0.1% chemical dependency and mental health sales tax that Hurst estimated has generated more than $150 million but the city hasn’t benefited much from. Between 2017-21, the city received just over $37,000 from the tax for the Lynnwood Senior Center and First Responder Flex Funds.
“They (the county) haven’t built detox beds, they haven’t built mental health facilities,” he said. “So, my concern is what are they going to do with this money that is supposedly for housing?”
Last month, the city council sent a letter to county officials opposing “any increase in the sales tax rate in our county and specifically in the City of Lynnwood.” The letter was met with its own opposition from state leaders and housing advocates, some of whom gave public comment during the Lynnwood City Council’s Nov. 8 business meeting.
Housing Consortium of Everett and Snohomish County Executive Director Mark Smith said it’s easy to vote against taxes but added that any vision for Lynnwood “needs to include a safe, healthy and affordable home for everyone,” and the sales tax would assist that effort countywide.
In a press release, County Councilmember Stephanie Wright – who represents District 3 that includes Edmonds and Lynnwood – said it is a “moral imperative” that the council authorize the tax.
“There are people throughout Snohomish County who are being forced to choose between food, medicine and losing their home. This is not just a crisis for those experiencing or living on the verge of homelessness but one that affects the safety and economic health of our entire county,” she said. “We have the opportunity to make significant, long-term impacts on homelessness, and to provide holistic services that address the root causes.”
In an email, Edmonds resident Tom Nicholson called the fast-tracked proposal “outrageous” and said that he and others plan to testify during the Dec. 15 public hearing.
“We hope that we can change their mind and demand a public vote on something that is as fundamental as sales tax increase,” he said. “The fact that they say this is designated for affordable housing and homelessness is without merit.”
Snohomish County Councilmember Jared Mead – who represents District 4, which includes Mountlake Terrace and Brier – did not respond to requests for a comment.
–By Cody Sexton