Spokane County and its small cities want to change state law to prevent utility tax from Spokane; plus, lawmakers push for safer staffing levels for hospitals

click to enlarge Spokane taxes its own wastewater treatment facility (pictured) 20 percent, and could collect that tax on the county's plant in city limits. - YOUNG KWAK PHOTO
Young Kwak photo
Spokane taxes its own wastewater treatment facility (pictured) 20 percent, and could collect that tax on the county's plant in city limits.

As Spokane considers collecting millions per year in wastewater taxes from residents who live outside the city, regional leaders are trying to stop the "taxation without representation" by taking the argument to the state level.

Spokane County Commissioner Al French said the tax — which the county has estimated would raise affected residents' utility bills by about $12.50 per month — will only benefit city residents.

"Quite frankly, this is like forcing your neighbor to pay for your new car," French told lawmakers last week.

Since 2005, the Spokane city code has included a 20 percent tax on the gross income of wastewater utilities within city limits. At the time, the city's wastewater treatment plant was serving residents throughout Spokane County, and the tax was levied on the city's own plant.

By 2011, the county built its own wastewater treatment facility to take pressure off that plant and serve outlying residents in places like Spokane Valley, Liberty Lake and Millwood. The county plant sits within Spokane city limits, but the city has not been collecting the tax on the facility.

That could change if Spokane City Council members decide to collect — a move discussed for about a year.

While negotiations are underway, a new bill in the Legislature has been proposed to prevent the tax. State Sen. Mike Padden, a Republican representing the 4th district (including eastern Spokane County), introduced Senate Bill 5621, which would prevent cities from levying taxes on a county-owned "sewerage facility or water facility." Under the bill, cities could charge facilities only to mitigate the actual impacts they have.

People on either side testified to the Senate Housing and Local Government Committee on Jan. 12, with committee chair Sen. Patty Kuderer, D-Bellevue, saying, "It does sound a bit like a family feud."

"By taxing this facility, the city will collect revenue from 30,009 residents in the city of Spokane Valley, 944 in the city of Liberty Lake, 900 in the city of Millwood and 15,594 in unincorporated county, all of which lack a voice at the city of Spokane's government level," Spokane Valley Mayor Pam Haley told lawmakers. "Those paying the taxes to Spokane wouldn't have any say on how the money would be spent. ... This is contrary to the very core, foundational ideas of representational government."

Spokane City Council President Breean Beggs, however, said Spokane has offered to spend the estimated $8 million per year on projects that benefit the whole county.

"One of the things we've offered is to waive back taxes," Beggs told lawmakers. "We've also offered to use the money on regional projects that would help everyone, like homelessness, public safety, roads and transportation."

Beggs warned the bill could set a dangerous precedent by requiring the city to tally impacts from the county's facility — such as counting how many fire or police calls go there, how much paving it required, etc. — in order to charge taxes. He also noted the 20 percent tax was on the books before the county chose to build within city limits.

"For the general kinds of taxes, which this is, we go for the collective good and you pay your fair share," Beggs said.

Candice Bock, government relations director for the Association of Washington Cities, expressed concerns about the bill's potential to impact other cities that are not part of this specific argument.

"AWC always has concerns when there are proposals that would limit local taxing authority," Bock told lawmakers.

Bill proponents said they'd be willing to narrow the language to ensure it applies only to the Spokane situation.

BATTLING BURNOUT

In response to health care worker pleas to require safe staffing levels and address how overtime and meal breaks are handled, lawmakers in both chambers of the Washington State Legislature are promoting bills to address concerns. In the House, Spokane Democrat Marcus Riccelli, Spokane Republican Mike Volz and more than 40 other lawmakers are promoting House Bill 1868. The companion Senate Bill 5751 is sponsored by another 14 lawmakers.

The legislation aims to prevent any health care worker from having a dangerously high patient workload, close loopholes around existing meal and break time requirements, and end the overuse of mandatory overtime that has been seen in recent years, according to unions representing health care workers throughout Washington.

In a survey of about 1,200 of the three unions' members (who total about 71,000 health care workers in Washington), 84 percent said they're burned out, and 49 percent said they're likely to quit in the next few years.

"Among those likely to quit, 71 percent said short staffing was among their primary reasons," the unions reported.

Health care workers for years have said hospital staffing practices left them without sufficient staff. As the survey indicates, nearly two years into the pandemic, which exacerbated issues with things like overtime and missing breaks, things have reached a breaking point for many.

"We are in a crisis with hospital staffing levels falling off a cliff as a record number of workers burn out," Riccelli said in a news release about the bills. "[Hospital] executives have spent millions of dollars in bonuses for themselves during the pandemic alone. Instead, we need our resources focused on having enough nurses and health care workers and for them to be well-trained, well-respected, and well-compensated."

Volz agrees lawmakers need to take action.

"Taking care of our frontline health care workers is and has been a priority of mine, both before the pandemic and during the last two years," Volz said in the bill announcement. "The statewide staffing shortage has reached a point where we need to find a legislative solution. This is a conversation we need to be having, and I look forward to working with my colleagues." ♦

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About The Author

Samantha Wohlfeil

Samantha Wohlfeil covers the environment, rural communities and cultural issues for the Inlander. Since joining the paper in 2017, she's reported how the weeks after getting out of prison can be deadly, how some terminally ill Eastern Washington patients have struggled to access lethal medication, and other sensitive...