Walla Walla’s network of public sidewalks is crumbling. And, unfortunately, a glitch in the state law makes it harder for Walla Walla to get its fair share of real estate tax revenue to fix the backlog of sidewalk problems and keep up with maintenance.

Your Walla Walla City Council has made it a priority to persuade the Legislature to allow the city to access the funds for fixing sidewalks.  

Each year, the City Council adopts a set of key state legislative priorities, in anticipation of the annual session of the Washington state Legislature. On Monday, legislators from around the state, including our own 16th District, will gather in Olympia to change laws, make new ones and write a budget for the upcoming two-year cycle.  

It is the hope of our City Council Legislative Committee to influence the Legislature in positive ways so as to benefit Walla Walla and bring equity to real estate excise tax collection and distribution in Washington.

As citizens of Walla Walla, we are proud of our community’s identity as a great place to live, work, play and raise a family. As your local elected city officials, it’s our responsibility to keep it that way. While the Washington state Legislature has many partisan fights, it is our responsibility in Walla Walla to be more practical and do things like fill potholes, keep the water and lights on and nurture a vibrant community. We live here, and you more than likely see each of us daily.

This year, as with last, our City Council adopted a legislative goal to seek approval from the Legislature for access to a source of revenue — called “REET 2”— that will enable the city to begin repair and rehabilitation of our crumbling network of public sidewalks.  

The real estate excise tax (or REET) is a set percentage of the sale price on real property that is paid by the seller at the time property is sold. Under Washington law, one-quarter of 1 percent REET is available for counties and cities planning for future growth under the Growth Management Act (GMA).

They can use this revenue for the acquisition, construction, repair and some maintenance of capital facilities identified during that planning. Capital facilities are items such as roads and sidewalks, police and fire stations and stormwater management facilities.

Here’s the problem! The large majority of cities and counties mandated to plan under GMA can levy half of 1 percent REET with a simple majority vote of their city councils; but cities such as Walla Walla, from counties with a gross population of under 100,000 that originally were not mandated but chose to plan under GMA, can only levy one-quarter of 1 percent with a vote of the council. Nowhere else in the GMA are opt-in and mandated communities treated differently in the GMA laws.

The city is currently spending up to $115,000 per year from two different sources to diminish our backlog of dangerous and substandard sidewalks, but the estimated cost to catch-up is more than $3 million. At our current rate of spending, it would take us nearly 30 years to fix our existing sidewalk problems, while ignoring any new ones, and taking away from other critical needs.

As stewards of the local taxpayers, we do our best to manage with what we have. In this instance, though, it is not just a desire for pristine sidewalks that has us seeking legislative authority for new revenue.

Failing sidewalks cost the city almost $400,000 in insurance claims between 2012-17. But those are just the financial costs. How many of our parents, children, friends and neighbors will suffer traumatic injuries on unsafe sidewalks before we can afford to repair them?

According to a comprehensive GIS Sidewalk Survey conducted in 2016 by city staff, there are currently more than 10,000 potential tripping hazards within the city of Walla Walla. Accounting for inflation, fixing all sidewalks over the next 10 years would require at least $345,000 a year. The city anticipates spending $350,000 of REET 2 dollars annually on sidewalk and pedestrian improvements, if the Legislature agrees with our position.

Washington state has one of the best economies in the nation. Walla Walla has a good economy relative to other communities in the county. A change to state law to treat all counties and local jurisdictions equally will help your Walla Walla City Council keep our community safer by increasing public safety and enhancing the character of our neighborhoods.

Jerry Cummins is chairman of the Walla Walla City Council Legislative Committee.

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