Duelling Metro Plans Raise Legal Questions

By Erica C. Barnett July 23, 2009

This afternoon, King County Executive Kurt Triplett released a plan to help pay for Metro's proposed RapidRide service (rapid bus service in five corridors around the county) by creating a new 5.5-cent-per-$1,000 property tax. The tax would help backfill a projected $200 million shortfall in Metro funding over the next two years.

Triplett's proposal would offset the new tax by eliminating 4.5 cents of a 5.5 cent tax approved by the state legislature earlier this year that was supposed to fund proposed new King County ferry service, and by cutting 1 cent from a 5.68-cent property tax levy, approved by voters in 2006, that pays for the Automated Fingerprint Identification System. (The system allows the county to rapidly identify fingerprints).

Triplett's proposal would eliminate a planned passenger-ferry demonstration project (to be funded by legislature's ferry district tax) that was supposed to create five new ferry routes in 2010.

Two county executive candidates have rolled out similar ferry proposals of their own. One week ago, State Rep. Ross Hunter (D-48) proposed using the ferry tax to backfill Metro, noting (somewhat disingenuously, given that all capital investments are expensive—hello, 520 bridge?) that for the amount the county is spending on foot ferries, it could just buy each commuter their own Bayliner 175 (above).

Today, Phillips also proposed backfilling RapidRide with the ferry levy money by "repealing" the levy (technically, cutting levy funding to zero and creating a new funding source for transit) and repurposing the money for Metro service. Phillips would also take $50 million of the excess $105 million that was discovered in Metro's fleet-replacement fund to help pay for transit in 2010. "I just think it's unconscionable to not use that money to keep transit service on our streets," Phillips says.

(Dow Constantine's campaign says he basically supports Triplett's plan, although he would also pay for some of the shortfall by using some of the ferry district's reserves. And Jarrett has said he would put the ferry district "on hold.")

There are potential legal problems with any of the candidates' plans. Some have questioned whether the county can simply "repeal" a levy that was passed by the state legislature. Additionally, the legislation that authorized the ferry district tax mandates spending the money on ferry operations and maintenance, or transit directly to and from ferry routes. Phillips (and presumably Triplett) gets around this by saying his plan would actually create a new taxing authority—leaving the ferry district intact, but depriving it at least temporarily of funds. "The legislature delegated all the authority to us as to whether we levy any ferry district tax" at all, Phillips says.

Another potential issue is that cutting 1 percent from the voter-approved finger print levy, which improved the county's capacity to quickly screen fingerprints. If the county executive can overturn at least part of a voter-approved levy without voter approval, why should voters approve any county levy in the future?

I have a call in to Triplett to ask that and other questions about his proposal.
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