Gregoire's ferry proposal meets resistance

Elected officials representing Bremerton are calling Gov. Chris Gregoire’s proposal to eliminate Washington State Ferries and create a regional ferry district an unrealistic “maneuver” to tax ferry communities to carry the system.

Gregoire outlined her plan Jan. 6, which would pull all or portions of the nine counties served by ferries into the Puget Sound Regional Ferry District. The district would act as a regional taxing authority where voters residing in the district would vote to approve property taxes levied for the ferries. These taxes would be combined with a continued state subsidy and fare income.

The proposal comes as Washington State Ferries faces $20.5 million in cuts. Gregoire’s 2011-2013 budget proposal released in December called for the elimination of a midday Bremerton-to-Seattle round trip sailing and all boats on the route departing after 9:05 p.m.

“We cannot Band-Aid the system any longer,” Gregoire said Jan. 6. “We’ve taken from the highway system as much as we can.”

The proposed ferry district would have to be approved by the Legislature, whose session began Monday. State Rep. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island, said that legislative approval of the idea is unlikely.

“I think the proposal is a non-starter,” Rolfes said, adding that the ferry district would cut the state’s transportation system into pieces, implying that ferries only benefit residents living near ferry terminals.

Bremerton City Councilman Adam Brockus said ferries should be treated in the budget like a state highway.

“I’ve always thought, with what the ferry contributes to the economy and jobs on both sides of the state that the ferry district is the entire state of Washington,” he said.

Even within the Puget Sound region, local elected officials doubted that all ferry counties would approve property taxes for ferries. Rolfes, Brockus and Mayor Patty Lent pointed out that voters from the highest population areas in the proposed ferry district — King, Snohomish and Pierce counties — would likely reject new taxes for ferries.

“I think that that’s kind of putting the cart before the horse,” Brockus said.

Lent said property taxes for ferries may cut into Bremerton’s pool of money because cities have a limit on how much property taxes they can collect. Depending on how the district may be structured, new ferry taxes could cut into money used for other services, such as public safety, she said.

Bremerton’s property taxing limit is $3.10 per $1,000 of assessed value, Director of Financial Services Becky Hasart said. The city currently collects about $2.60 per $1,000. But if other ferry cities are collecting at their maximum allowed rate, they may have to reduce how much money they can take in for other services, she said.

“I would want to see how they are addressing that,” Hasart said of the governor’s proposal.

David Moseley, assistant secretary for Washington State Ferries, Paula Hammond, state secretary of transportation and Gregoire all pin the ferries’ budget woes on voters’ passage of I-695 in 1999, which reduced vehicle license tab fees to $30 and repealed existing vehicle taxes. Since then, the ferries lost 20 percent of its operating budget income and 75 percent of its construction dollars, according to a statement.

Kitsap County is among seven of the nine counties served by ferries to pass the measure, having approved it with 54 percent of the vote. Statewide, the initiative passed with 56 percent of the vote.

Lent said the initiative’s negative effect on the ferry system was not clear in the months preceding the 1999 election and voters had no idea they were taking money from the ferries. She said the state is now trying to make up for its failure to establish a new source of money for the system in the last 10 years.

“It does sound like backfill,” said Lent, who called Gregoire’s proposal “lackluster.” “The Legislature has not looked at other revenue sources to make up the difference.”

Rolfes said she agrees with the idea of establishing greater regional control. The ferry district proposal indicates that district board members would be elected by ferry communities, which Rolfes said could be helpful in bringing recommendations to the governor and Legislature.

“I like the idea of the Puget Sound region having more influence per se than they have today,” she said.

However, she is continuing to explore other cost savings to prevent service cuts, such as outsourcing information technology and maintenance services.

Brockus said that while Gregoire’s intentions were good, her ideas were not.

“I think the governor’s heart is in the right place in trying to find a solution for the ferries,” he said. “I’m afraid I can’t endorse what she came with.”

University of Washington Olympia intern Janelle Kohnert contributed to this report.

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