In 1990, the State of Washington adopted the Growth Management Act to help our state plan for future growth, with a focus on urban and suburban areas.
One component of this Act was “Encouraging the involvement of citizens in the planning process” (RCW 36.70A.030). Another component stated that, “In general, cities are [the units of local government] most appropriate to provide urban governmental services” (RCW 36.70A.110).
Stuck in the middle of these two components was another state law that allowed a city to abolish and take over one type of public utility district—a water/sewer district—without the citizens having the right to vote on that action (RCW 35.13A).
According to this law, all a City had to do to take over a water or sewer district was to get a majority vote by their City’s Council. This takeover process was called an “assumption.”
Why Only Water/Sewer District Assumptions?
Water/sewer districts are the only two utilities on which a City can impose additional taxes—without any limit, without restrictions on how the funds are repurposed for other uses, and without a vote of the citizens—once a City assumption has taken place.
In essence, water/sewer districts represent a potential income stream to Cities, post-assumption.
Cities Versus Citizens’ Right to Vote
As far back as 1890, Special Purpose Districts have been established by a vote of the citizens to provide a specific, special service—ranging from Public Utility Districts, to Fire and School Districts. Because Special Purpose Districts offer maximum focus with minimal overhead, they continue to be an effective way of managing community services, as evidenced by the City of Shoreline’s recent establishment of the Transportation Benefit District.
Because these Districts were put into place by a citizen vote, it seemed only natural that citizens should be able to vote on whether or not a City could take over something the citizens created.
We at North City Water District felt similarly. As a Special Purpose District, we take great pride in our focus on your water system, and the fact that we dedicate 100% of your dollars back into your water system. We saw no significant benefit to a City-owned water or sewer district, particularly in light of the City’s ability to impose an additional tax on water or sewer bills—a tax that could be raised as high and as often as a City deemed necessary, and used for whatever project the City deemed appropriate (i.e., not required to be invested back into the water system)—in yet another process for which citizens would be denied a vote.
Legislators Restore Citizens’ Voice
32nd Legislative District Senator Chase couldn’t have agreed more. She introduced Senate Bill 5048 during the recent legislative session to restore the citizens’ right to vote about a Water/Sewer District assumption. A companion bill was introduced in the House by Representative Dean Takko (House Bill 1417) at the same time.
After months of review and discussion, Governor Jay Inslee signed Engrossed Substitute Senate Bill (ESSB) 5048 into law on Wednesday May 6, 2015. When this law goes into effect in July, it will permit a referendum that enables voters of a Special Purpose District to file a qualifying petition, when a City is attempting to take over (do an assumption of) their District.