Walla Walla residents have been receiving supersized mailers from the statewide Realtors association claiming the Walla Walla City Council is supporting “fewer rights for voters ... more taxes for homeowners.”

As you’ve probably already realized, there’s a lot more to this story.

First, the accurate part: Yes, the Council voted unanimously to support bills in Olympia to fix an existing statutory inequality that puts small, mostly rural, cities at a disadvantage compared with those in big urban areas when it comes to raising revenue for maintenance and construction of streets, sidewalks, and public buildings.  

Under the Growth Management Act, high-population counties and their cities were required to create comprehensive land-use plans, while lower-population counties got to choose whether or not to do the exact same planning. Fortunately, Walla Walla County chose to plan, in order to protect farmland, provide cost-efficient public services, and prevent the kind of sprawl we see in Los Angeles and Houston.    

But while cities that were required to plan can simply double the 0.25 percent excise tax on real estate sales, cities in opt-in counties have to hold costly elections to do the same. We think everyone should play by the same rules.

Now, the rest of the story.

The current law in Walla Walla is that property owners are responsible for constructing and maintaining the sidewalk abutting their property. That’s an expensive proposition for homeowners, so the city has been looking for other ways to have a safe and complete pedestrian system.

With a reliable and adequate source of income from the excise tax (known as REET 2), the city can take on the responsibility of maintaining our sidewalks. Not only will this upgrade sidewalks, but it will normally be less expensive for homeowners to pay into a fund when they sell the house rather than paying the full cost each time their own sidewalk needs repairing.

The Realtors mailer referenced six potential alternate sources of money to pay for sidewalk maintenance. These include the state’s Capital Budget, local improvement districts (LIDs), state and federal grants, and existing City programs such as the Infrastructure Repair and Replacement Program (IRRP) and the Transportation Benefit District (TBD).

The city has scrutinized these suggested revenue sources, but some of them aren’t even applicable to sidewalk repairs, and none have shown they would provide viable, consistent funding for a long-term, citywide project of this magnitude.

The mailer also implied that if the Legislature votes to allow opt-in cities to add the REET 2 funding, the Walla Walla City Council would do so without residents having any say in the process. That’s not the way the Council makes decisions.

If the bills pass in the Legislature, then the Council will discuss and vote at a regular, open meeting whether to raise the real estate excise tax locally to pay for sidewalk construction and maintenance, and, as always, the public will have an opportunity to be heard at that meeting.

The city has already begun a series of public meetings to present the city’s proposal and to answer any questions and concerns you might have. We also continue to update the page on the city website that has a wealth of information about REET 2, including the written response given to Realtors last summer about why their “six other ways to pay” don’t pass muster; we invite you to review it and decide for yourself. (Visit BuildWallaWalla.com)

Finally, it’s probably useful when hearing tales of Council perfidy to keep in mind that every member of the City Council is required to live in Walla Walla. That means that we pay the same fees and taxes and live under the same rules as everyone else in the city.

The Council’s job is not to look to our personal pocketbooks, but to be sure that the city is providing the services and programs that make Walla Walla such a desirable place to live, work, and play, now and in the future. We don’t always agree (thank goodness!), but we’re doing our best to serve the well-being of all of us who live here.

Barbara Clark is an elected member of the Walla Walla City Council and serves as the city’s mayor. She can be reached at bclark@wallawallawa.gov

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