Thurston County’s Commissioners have cultivated a well-deserved reputation for incompetence and hostility towards rural residents over the past half decade. Now, a recently proposed vehicle licensing tax on rural residents may be illegal as well.
On Tuesday, the Thurston County Commissioners have proposed to have a hearing at 5:30pm to consider (and pass) a $20 per vehicle licensing “fee.” Details on the hearing here. You can email all three of them from this page.
This tax will only apply to residents in the unincorporated Thurston County area (the area outside the incorporated cities). This tax is being proposed under a Transportation Benefit District taxing entity, which was created in late 2014 before Commissioner Bud Blake could take office in January (signed on December 30 and linked here). The elected officials who represent this taxing district are the existing Thurston County Commissioners. The problem with this tax proposal is the fact that none of the three county commissioners live in the district where the tax is to be proposed – which happens to be one of the factors which makes the proposed tax illegal.
In Thurston County it is all about the money – how to get more, and how to waste it quickly
The Thurston County Commissioners are no strangers to breaking the law, committing illegal acts, or just incompetently fumbling through political leadership. Unfortunately, for the residents of Thurston County, the extensive history of political ineptitude is lengthy, impressive, and it would be embarrassing if bureaucracy had a conscience. Here is just a sampling of the recent low-lights:
- The $12.1 million Mayton jury verdict against Thurston County
for violating a variety of laws. While Thurston County Commissioner Sandra Romero was caught lying in her testimony, former commissioner Karen Valenzuela bragged about making up the law as she desired, and Commissioner Cathy Wolfe tried to claim ignorance, the jury stated that their actions “shocked the conscience.” (This was a state land-use jury verdict record until this year’s SeaTac $18.3 million K&S case).
- The proposed $42,000 pocket gopher tax for new homeowners enthusiastically championed by Thurston County central planning staff and Commissioner Wolfe and Romero. No tax like this exists elsewhere in America, but the geniuses in the Central Planning department and Commissioner Wolfe and Romero are pushing this new scheme.
- The $61 million jail built after the citizens voted against it. Then, it sat empty for 5 years because the commissioners hadn’t budgeted to actually use the jail, among a comedy of other errors.
- Spending 18 years
and $8 million to take a $4 million building and make it worth $2 million. This approach was so commonplace that it not even considered a scandal to the bureaucrats or politicians in charge.
- Pushing for a “Crap” Tax on all septic tanks in Thurston County, then discovering that it is probably illegal, but trying to discover a way to implement it anyway.
- Cramming through a very aggressive and hostile code enforcement ordinance called Title 26 that criminalized minor code infractions and created a massive civil penalty process.
There are plenty more examples, but let’s get to tomorrow’s scandal today. Next week’s proposed tax began in late 2014. Democrat County Commissioner Karen Valenzuela lost her reelection attempt by a sizeable margin, and the county commissioners were desperately trying to cram through as many controversial ordinances as possible on the books before she left the county courthouse for good riddance. Ordinance #15103 creating a Transportation Benefit District for only the unincorporated parts of Thurston County was signed December 30 by Commissioners Romero, Wolfe, and Valenzuela. For a variety of legal and political reasons, this new taxing district did not include the cities of Tumwater, Lacey or Olympia. While these actions were probably unethical, it appears it was legal to create the district.
The big bonus for the bureaucracy and the Thurston County Commissioners is it gives them an opportunity to collect more tax dollars. It also allows them to grow the county’s debt even more by issuing general obligation bonds. No other priority in Thurston County matters. Getting more cash and increasing debt – only these are priorities. To start, they want $20 for every registered car in rural Thurston County (there is an estimated annual tax collection goal of about $1.8 million over the next year – approximately 1/3 gets squandered on overhead costs). This is what next Tuesday’s hearing is about.
Taxation without Representation
However, there is a problem. New taxing districts require elected officials to manage them. Right now, the Thurston County Commissioners are the elected officials responsible for this taxing district. However, as the boundaries of this district are defined, none of them live in the district. All three of the Thurston County Commissioners live within the cities – in very different transportation districts run by the cities of Olympia or Tumwater. It is generally illegal in state law for elected officials who do not reside in the taxing district to impose taxes on those who do live there. This is why we have elected officials responsible for the local taxes imposed by local taxing districts like Fire Districts, School Districts, Parks Districts, Airport Districts, etc. More specific references can be found for public facilities districts in counties (RCW 35.57.010 (3)(c)) and for rural dike districts (RCW 85.38.070 (3) and (6)).
Another challenge is that under Washington State law (RCW 42.12.010 (4)), Commissioners of Special Purpose Taxing Districts would probably be required to vacate their seat from that district (Transportation Benefit District, not the County Commission) if they no longer live in that district (as is the case with all three county commissioners). This is a logical, rational law because of the obvious problem caused by taxation without representation.
Furthermore, if Thurston County is receiving legal advice from in-house counsel on this issue and counsel is advising they proceed, this would be pretty solid grounds for a bar complaint against those attorneys because the statute, and the organizing documents of the Thurston County Transportation Benefit District require outside, independent counsel (Section 5.06) due to obvious conflict of interest issues. At this point, there is no evidence that the Thurston County Transportation Benefit District has been provided legal advice by outside legal counsel.
It is always easy for elected officials to find excuses to raise taxes. It is particularly easy for them to invent justifications for taxes on other people (this is why we saw so many residents of Olympia – like Jim Cooper – are cheerleading for the pocket gopher tax scam – it won’t affect them). For example, since none of the commissioners would have to pay this tax themselves, they have nothing personally to lose by imposing the tax on other people who will have to pay this tax. This is particularly awesome political payback for Commissioners Romero and Wolfe since they can use this tax as a way to punish the rural residents of Thurston County who have not typically voted for them in the past.
Jim Cooper’s illegal tax influence
Beyond the fact that Thurston County has been a poor steward of the money they take from people, this tax is just another symptom of excessive efforts to impose any tax by any means necessary by Thurston County elected officials. No other example impressively illustrated this capricious tax expansion campaign as Jim Cooper’s strong cheerleading for an illegal local income tax in the city of Olympia. His proposal was so extreme that it divided the City of Olympia Council which is often in supportive lockstep on any tax increase. Even the tax cheerleaders at the Olympian, a rapidly shrinking local newspaper and blog site, recognizes this local punishing income tax is a foolish enterprise.
However, there are reports from various sources that Jim Cooper is lobbying the Thurston County Commissioners to pass this latest illegal car tab tax before he is elected in November. The presumption among local Democrat party operatives is that Jim Cooper will be “coronated” in November, although the recent primary results did not reflect strong support. If voters want the Max Tax plan, however, Jim Cooper will be the best choice on the Commissioner District 1 ballot in November. He is sure to push for every possible harmful tax he can find and force it on the residents of Thurston County – legal or not.
What can you do?
If you live in Thurston County, you do have a voice in this process, if you choose to exercise it. Come join others who actually care about our community, the law, and what our fumbling elected officials are doing at the public hearing Tuesday, at the Thurston County courthouse at 5:30pm. Everyone who wants gets three minutes to speak your mind directly to the lame duck commissioners as well as Commissioner Blake. Additionally, it is always worth putting your comments in writing to the Commissioners via email directly here, and to the staff preparing this hearing here. Please come to the hearing with your cameras, signs, and plan to have fun. Our elected officials deserve to be confronted. If not us, who will do it? We only find ourselves in this place because we haven’t done this enough in the past. Besides, who says it can’t be fun…
Or email all three commissioners from this page.
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…