Battle Ground council discusses sales tax to fund road preservation


Battle Ground may place a sales tax measure on the ballot in order to fund road preservation.

During meetings on April 18 and May 2, the Battle Ground City Council discussed the potential to enact a sales tax of up to .3% through either a council vote or a vote of the people. If approved, the tax would be collected by the city’s transportation benefit district, which supports road repair. 

During the April 18 meeting, Finance Director Meagan Lowery said the district formed in 2014 with a $20 vehicle registration fee. Collection of the fee started the following year.  

In 2019, voters approved Initiative 976 which limited the maximum amount of the registration fee. Though the initiative was ruled unconstitutional by the Washington State Supreme Court the following year, the city council voted to remove the fee on its own in 2020. 

The city collected about $290,000 annually through the fee. Even with the fee gone, the transportation benefit district still exists, Lowery explained, which allows a sales tax to fund it.

Battle Ground Public Works Director Mark Herceg said a 2020 analysis found the city’s “pavement condition index” (PCI) scored a 72 out of 100. If the city handles its roughly $23.3 million in deferred maintenance in five years, that index could increase to 82, Herceg said. With the city’s current annual investment of $750,000, the index would drop to 69.

Bumping up the city’s road preservation investment to $1.1 million could maintain the city’s PCI at 72, while increasing it to $1.8 million would improve it to 77, he said.

Lowery explained funding road preservation at $1.1 million annually is not sustainable in the long run.

Possible funding options include either a $20 or $40 vehicle registration fee, which the council could impose by a vote of its members, Lowery said. Recent state legislation also allows the council to approve a .1% sales tax for the benefit district. The city could impose up to a .3% sales tax, though anything above the .1% would require a simple majority vote from Battle Ground citizens.

Lowery said the sales tax route would last for 10 years, after which it would need to be renewed.

An advantage of going with a sales tax would be the ability for all those using Battle Ground roads to pay into their preservation. With vehicle registration fees, only the roughly 21,000 city residents would pay into the benefit district, whereas theoretically, the close to 83,000 residents of the city’s greater trade area would fund it through a sales tax, Lowery said.

Across the state, voted-in sales tax measures have been successful. Lowery said 17 cities in Washington ran sales tax measures from 2019 to 2021. All but two passed, with Woodland’s 2021 vote being one that failed. Ridgefield also had a similar vote which was successful that year.

Imposing a sales tax would generally collect more revenue for the benefit district. If put into place for all of 2023, the tax is projected to collect about $807,000, compared to the roughly $300,000 anticipated by a $20 registration fee that same year, according to information from city staff.

Councilor Shane Bowman asked whether the city would be able to complete the amount of work needed with the additional funds adequately given other factors. Bowman said in the past, the needed staffing to finish the projects would have resulted in less funding for the projects. 

“It was always something that was frustrating is we’re telling people we need your money … but we’re not getting the projects done,” Bowman said. 

Herceg said the biggest issue with road project completion is work like crack sealing which can only be completed in a limited timeframe throughout the year.

Councilor Adrian Cortes said he would be in favor of placing a sales tax measure in front of voters, but not this year.

“Inflation is just through the roof right now and I don’t think we would find favorable results,” Cortes said.

The council returned to discussions on road funding during its May 2 meeting. At the meeting, the council was presented with a scenario that focused on what a reduction in the city’s utility taxes would look like. Currently the city collects 12% on water, sewer and storm drainage utilities.

Councilor Cherish DesRochers said she supports some amount of utility tax decrease if a sales tax is enacted to avoid tacking on more of a burden onto residents. She instead supports spreading the cost to those who use the city’s roads.

“I just wish that we could offset that (tax) slightly for the people that already live here,” DesRochers said.

Dropping the utility taxes by half to 6% would mean the city would collect $652,000 less on an annual basis, according to staff projections.

Bowman said he isn’t in favor of a utility tax drop at the same time as a sales tax increase, since both funding sources go through the city’s general fund.

“It doesn’t make any sense to put .1% of a tax on people and then turn around and give money back. If we’re going to do that, then just don’t take the tax,” Bowman said. 

Councilor Shauna Walters said one of the most common citizen complaints she hears is on the condition of the city’s roads. Walters said she would be in favor of bringing a sales tax to a vote by the residents.

“I think if we tell them what we’re asking for, we can let them decide whether this is something that they can afford to pay for,” Walters said.

Mayor Philip Johnson brought up that every $100 spent would result in 10 cents of tax. He said Northeast Seventh Street is in particularly bad shape.

“I can barely walk on the road for what comes through the bottom of my shoe,” Johnson said.

Toward the end of the May 2 discussion, Johnson directed staff to bring the benefit district funding discussion back in the future.