An assortment of local political observers went public last week in support of the legality of Thurston County’s proposed rural car tax.  Their defense of the car tax is fascinating, but it is lazy and wrong. 

We wrote last week about Thurston County’s proposed illegal car tax and wrote again about the opposition to the car tax by local residents at the public hearing. After the Olympian wrote a fawning and uncritical review of the car tax proposal and did a better job

Graeme Sackrison defends Thurston County's illegal tax
Graeme Sackrison defends Thurston County’s illegal tax (Mr. Sackrison does not support this tax now)

reporting on the hearing itself a few days later, several local commentators challenged claims that the proposed tax was illegal. This included a short article by local talk show host and long-time writer Ken Balsley with whom I often tend to agree.  The supporters of the tax also included local politicos like former Lacey Mayor and current North Thurston School District Board Director Graeme Sackrison.  (Correction:  at this time, Mr. Sackrison has confirmed via Facebook post that he does NOT support this tax). 

Due to the legal confusion among folk who should (and usually do) know better, it is worth clarifying why this proposed tax is illegal.  Against our better judgment we will also outline the three actions that could be taken to make the proposed illegal tax a “legal tax.”

Why this proposed tax is illegal

None of the Thurston County Commissioners live within the newly incorporated Thurston County Transportation Benefit District (TCTBD), which is the primary reason the proposed tax is illegal.  All taxing districts are managed by a Council, Commission or Board of elected officials who live in that district.  All of them. No exceptions.  Multiple statutes deal with taxing districts individually by category.  Examples of this are RCW 35.57.010 (3)(c) and RCW 85.38.070 (3) and (6) .  However, it is true in the state law that was passed to create Transportation Benefit Districts, this legal fact is not specified (although it is implied).  Fortunately, the statute doesn’t have to specify this fact because state law (and recent legal precedent) is very clear.

Not everything Thurston County wants to do is illegal, but this rural car tax certainly is
Not everything Thurston County wants to do is illegal, but this rural car tax certainly is

Specifically, RCW 42.04.020  “Eligibility to Hold Office” clearly states:

“That no person shall be competent to qualify for or hold any elective public office within the state of Washington, or any county, district, precinct, school district, municipal corporation or other district or political subdivision, unless he or she be a citizen of the United States and state of Washington and an elector of such county, district, precinct, school district, municipality or other district or political subdivision.” RCW 42.04.020

This statute was recently reaffirmed in a local Thurston County 2012 lawsuit (Parker v. Wyman), which was filed to challenge the eligibility of candidate (and now Superior Court Judge) Christine Schaller who had filed to run for Superior Court Judge that year.  Thurston County Auditor (and now Washington Secretary of State) Kim Wyman was named in the lawsuit because the plaintiff was challenging  the auditor’s decision to allow candidate Schaller to be on the ballot since she did not reside in Thurston County at the time.  The court affirmed that ALL elected officials EXCEPT judges must live within the boundaries of the district for which they are running for office.

The TCTB is a separate and independent municipal corporation.  It is a unique taxing district.  This is clear both under state law and the incorporation documents (attached below) It is not just another division of Thurston County for the Commissioners to run any way they want.  

How come the other Transportation Benefit Districts don’t have this problem?

The most common (and the laziest) argument made for the legality of this proposed rural car tax is this.  Everyone else is doing it, why can’t the Thurston County Commissioners?  

Commissioner Romero is looking towards retirement and seemed relieved to finish this hearing.
Commissioner Romero ponders the illegal car tax at a recent hearing.

Two other Transportation Benefit Districts exist within Thurston County already.  These are located in Olympia and Tumwater.  Each TBD conforms to the same boundaries as the existing respective city boundary.  The city council members in both cities sit on both the city council and the board of the TBD.  This is legal and the taxes they charge are legal (if misguided and wasted) because the elected officials all live within the boundaries of their respective district.  According to our research, all the other TBDs around the state have similar arrangements.  It is only Thurston County who chose to take the road less travelled and the one with a few more legal landmines.

The statute governing TBDs (RCW 36.73) allows for a multi-jurisdictional boundary (covering combined county and city jurisdictions), however, it also provided for very detailed and explicit representation requirements on the final municipal corporate board so that each municipality had proportional representation on that board.  This also implies that it was the intention of the legislature that the board members would all live within the taxing district itself.  What party of illegal

Because, as referenced in the original ordinance (link here) forming the district, Thurston County was not able to politically convince the other jurisdictions to join in a multi-jurisdictional TBD, Commissioners Sandra Romero, Cathy Wolfe, and Karen Valenzuela decided to create a rural county district only.  None of the current Thurston County commissioners live within the taxing district boundaries.  Any creation of a new tax using the TCTBD is not legal.

Creating the district was legal, but imposing the tax is illegal

There is some nuance in this argument because it does appear that the formation of the TCTBD is legal (if misguided and a poor policy choice).  However, since none of the elected officials live in the district, then any effort by them to do anything with the district would be illegal.  

Which creates a quandary.  Quandaries, like quagmires are not uncommon in recent Thurston County Commission history.

How to make it legal.  Three options

Commissioner Romero is looking forward to retirement using our tax dollars
Commissioner Sandra Romero has some options to make this illegal tax legal, but it might require her to move

Against our better judgment, because we do not support the tax or the district, we will still do our civic duty  to help Thurston County understand how to stop violating the law.  

First, since this TCTBD is a separate municipal corporation from Thurston County itself, there is a clear legal requirement for independent counsel. This is logical because of the obvious self-dealing conflict of interest problems.  However, it is also spelled out in the TCTBD charter itself (section 5.06).  Thurston County needs to do this quickly because they have obviously been giving themselves poor legal advice up to this point, which opens up the county to litigation and the staff attorneys to bar complaints.    

The three options the commissioners have to make the proposed tax legal are as follows:

  •  All three commissioners can move into the taxing district, or
  • They can initiate the process to create a new taxing district board comprised of elected officials who live in the district, or
  • They can lobby to change state law 

Since it is unlike all three commissioners would move anytime soon, the Thurston County Commissioners could initiate the process for the TCTBD to set up a new three or five member commission of elected officials to represent the residents of this new taxing district.  They can be elected on a staggered term as is traditionally found in all taxing districts.  For example, if five members – three would have four year terms, and two would have two year terms the first cycle.  After that, all would have a full four year term staggered, three one election cycle, two others the next.  This isn’t rocket science.

Commissioner candidates Jim Cooper and Kelsey Hulse are hoping Thurston County can pass more taxes on rural residents
Commissioner candidates Jim Cooper and Kelsey Hulse are hoping Thurston County can pass more taxes on rural residents

Alternatively, Thurston County Commissioners Romero and Wolfe, being former legislators themselves, can take the final option and lobby their former co-workers in the state legislature to change the law and the state constitution to allow local elected officials to run for office in districts where they don’t live.  This is a tough road to travel, but Thurston County usually doesn’t pick the easy way.

In conclusion, there are legal paths to impose the desired tax.  The Thurston County Commission has so far failed to take them.  Due to a combination of ignorance, poor legal advice,  and no shortage of incompetence, Thurston County has chosen the wrong path.  

We have done our civic duty, and the county has the opportunity to avoid a class action lawsuit next year.  Better yet, the citizens should have a reprieve from a poorly planned illegal tax.  A new commission can just dissolve this silly effort and start working to use the transportation dollars more efficiently in the future.  The choice, ultimately, rests with our elected officials, but at least ignorance can no longer be Romero, Wolfe, or staff’s excuse.  what if they are really that stupid


Our Constitution begins with the phrase “we the people.”  It was the founder’s intent that government be created by the people, to serve the people.  It wasn’t their intention for the people to serve the government.  It was always intended that government which failed to serve the people should be “altered or abolished.”  Until we return to the founder’s intent, we remain We the Governed

Specific documents referenced in this article:

Transportation Benefit District Ordinance #15103

Thurston County Transportation Benefit District Charter

For more background on Thurston County – read these articles:

Total citizen opposition to questionable rural car at public hearing

Thurston County wants to force another illegal tax on rural residents

Thurston County backpedals from fireworks ban, fumbles through hearing

Thurston County celebrates Independence Day with Fireworks Ban

The Truth about Jim Cooper

Five candidates battle for Thurston Commissioner Seat, but who are they?

Thurston County Auditor bends rules to help Allen Miller (and Jim Cooper)

Thurston County discovers new cash cow in the “Crap Tax”

What Happened to the County Charter Movement?

Thurston County Invents $42,000 pocket gopher tax for new homeowners

Thurston County Manager Cliff Moore quits, will now plague the City of Yakima

Thurston County spends $8 million and 18 years to make a $4 million empty building worth $2 million

Thurston County spends $5k for a $3k computer, then loses 12 of them

Thurston County finds missing $60k computer inventory, uses 3 card monte excuse

Thurston County punishes rural serfs again

Sandra Romero – the $200 million Commissioner

Recent elections in Thurston County shock the establishment

Thurston County Commissioners Deny the Reality of Math

Hunters fighting to stop Thurston County’s gun ordinance

A Plague of Consequences in Thurston County

Thurston County to Citizens:  Living here is a real gamble

Childish Political Leadership in Thurston County is costing Taxpayers Millions

Thurston County Demonstrates How Not to Build a Jail

Tales of Tyranny – Bert Wasch Story – Thurston County denies his right to build a home for 5 years

Tales of Tyranny – Misti Chastain – Thurston County attempts to destroy her farm business

Union Protests Incompetent Thurston County Commissioner


  1. Silly Glen; legal is as legal does, or more correctly stated, legal is what we let them get away with.

    • Glen,
      So it is your position that Kelsey Hulse, an unincorporated Thurston county resident, wants to tax herself more by “hoping Thurston County can pass more taxes on rural residents?” What?

      • Right now, it appears that Kelsey Hulse and Jim Cooper are in favor of all taxes proposed on the residents of Thurston County, but I would love to see some bipartisan opposition to the tax proposals, so I would welcome her and any other politician or candidate in Thurston County to come out of the closet and oppose this.

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