Potential New Property Tax Increases in Olympia

Emmanuel Son, Staff Writer

Olympia’s program manager, Pamela Braff, has come up with some options for what she believes will generate more funding to combat climate change. According to the Olympian, Braff has come up with the idea of raising property taxes, but before this can happen, it must be approved by voters. Braff spoke to the Olympia Finance Committee while giving an update on the city’s climate funding. Staff were assigned to research options for a dedicated revenue stream to achieve the city’s climate goals.  The Olympian states that some of these options included increasing property taxes, and private utility or municipal utility tax rates. 

The city could increase property taxes; however, it would need to win the favor of voters. Braff says that an increase in property tax would create a “consistent and predictable source of funding, and it could be imposed for a specific amount of time.” The amount of increase has not yet been stated. It is possible that the amount that gets collected and charged could fluctuate, especially as property values are set to change. City manager Jay Burney says that a key lid lift may be needed in the future if voters allow this to happen. 

From a study based on 2022 property assessments, if rates were to be increased by $0.01 per $1,000 of assessed value, it would generate $117,000 a year dedicated to tackling climate change. If this were to be raised to $0.10, the city would collect $1.7 million a year. If the city aimed for a $0.20 per $1,000 increase, about $2.34 million could be raised annually. 

Braff says that the property tax increases costs for property owners but argues that it is the least regressive model in burdening low-income households. She argues that increased property values correlate with a higher ability to pay. 

Another suggestion currently being brought up is the increase of sales tax. The city, however, does not have the authority to implement this as the maximum on imposing unrestricted sales tax is the state’s current 6.5% sales tax. If this were to happen, the state would need to authorize increases to the city’s sales tax for dedicated purposes. The downside to this is that sales taxes are imposed, meaning there would not be much flexibility. This plan would generate revenue from out-of-town visitors, although Braff argues that tax burdens would fall the hardest on low-income households. A 1% sales tax increase would generate about $2.2 million a year.

Another idea in mind is the Private Utility Tax. The city has the authority to increase taxes locally. This would increase rates on electricity, gas, and telephones. This would have to be approved by voters. Braff mentions that the increase in the rate of utilities could persuade contractors and developers to move towards electrifying their buildings to save money. A 1% increase with the 9% tax rate currently on electricity would generate $590,000 a year. Gas would be about $166,000 a year, and telephone rates generate $216,000. 

The last option given to the city manager is the municipal utility tax. The city has the authority to raise municipal utility tax rates, with no established upper legal limit for what can be changed. The current tax rate is about 12.5% for garbage, sewer, stormwater, and water. A 1% tax increase on garbage would generate about $137,000, with sewer generating about $202,000, stormwater generating about $62,000, and water about $140,000. This option, however, is one of the larger burdens on low-income residents. 

The city’s Finance Committee has stated other options, including excise tax. This would affect business owners and developers. It was also suggested that the city could modify fees to generate more money each year. Braff states that the staff is creating a budget and maintenance plan to give the city council a  better idea of what they think the city needs. This will be done in August. 

Braff says that it is difficult to estimate future needs. She states that it is complicated modeling future emissions and achieving the reduction goal. She argues that it is easier to know what vehicle miles travel need to be reduced and how many buildings need to be retrofitted. 

This issue has drawn a reaction from City Council members. Jim Cooper, who sits on the committee, states that this is not the first time the committee has discussed needing money for its climate goals. The numbers have never been easy to look at, he said. Cooper mentions that he needs a better picture of where the money should be coming from. 

Lisa Parshley, also on the finance committee, argues that the city doesn’t need to ask the legislature for permission to change local taxes and should be pushing legislators to put more funding into battling climate change. “I think there is a role for a jurisdiction like ours to keep doing the work locally, because sometimes we can encourage the state to do the right thing as well,” Parshley says. 

Are Covid Cases on the Rise? Taking a Look at the Data

Caleb Sharp, Staff Writer 

For some, Covid-19, lockdowns, and federal health mandates such as mask-wearing and social distancing are just that; distant, a thing of the past that ought to be left behind. And while it is true that the volume of Covid-19 infections, hospitalizations, and deaths is much lower than during the height of the pandemic, it is nonetheless important to be vigilant and aware of any increase in these metrics. 

The good news is that, generally, these metrics haven’t experienced abnormal increases in recent months. In fact, these numbers have decreased as early as November 2022. 

According to the Washington Post’s Covid-19 tracking charts, which are based on data collected by the Center of Disease Control and the U.S Department of Health and Human Services, the seven-day average of reported infections nationwide have dropped down from 50,785 as of January 21st, 2023, to 38,623 as of February 28th, 2023. 

The noted decrease in infection falls in line with similar decreases in hospitalization and death rates. The seven-day average for hospitalization as of January 21st was 34,562, which has decreased to 26,622 as of February 28th. The seven-day average of deaths has dropped from 673 as of January 21st to 340 as of February 28th. 

This downward trend is expected to carry on as winter turns to spring, which will give way to warm summer temperatures. Despite this promising decrease, an irrefutable cause for concern is the mutation of new Covid-19 strains. 

During 2022, the Covid-19 variant Omicron comprised the majority of Covid-19 cases in the U.S. but has since decreased leading into 2023. What differentiated Omicron from the original strain of Covid-19, among other things, was its increased transmissibility. And much like Omicron and its heightened virality, another strain of Covid-19 is beginning to infect more people; XBB 1.5. 

According to Kathy Katella, a Senior Clinical Writer for Yale Medicine, “The World Health Organization (WHO) has called XBB.1.5 the most transmissible Omicron strain so far. In the U.S., it has spread like wildfire in the New England area, where infections rose over a short period of time to almost 94% of cases as reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) at the beginning of February.” 

While other areas of the country, such as the Midwest, have reported fewer cases of XBB 1.5 overall, “XBB.1.5 is the predominant strain in the country now, having risen to 75% of infections nationally in mid-February from less than 2% in December.” 

The rapid spike in XBB 1.5 cases across the country is troubling, to say the least. However, XBB 1.5 symptoms don’t seem any more severe than Omicron’s.

According to Yale Medicine infectious diseases specialist Scott Roberts, “Studies are ongoing, but I suspect that it’s probably not more severe” than Omicron. 

In light of XBB 1.5’s increased prevalence in the total percentage of Covid-19 cases and its rapid spread across the country, one can still take measures to protect themselves against infection. Covid-19 vaccines are still an effective defense against all strains of Covid-19, while masks help prevent the spread of airborne diseases.