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Sound Transit CFO’s explanation confuses car-tab issue even more

The reasoning behind Sound Transit's formula for calculating car-tab fees is being questioned by voters and lawmakers alike. (Sound Transit)

If you thought Sound Transit’s reasoning for not changing how it calculates car-tab fees was confusing, then what the agency’s chief financial officer told lawmakers recently won’t help.

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But first, a little background.

After voters across King, Pierce, and Snohomish counties approved a new tax package in November to fund light rail expansion throughout the region, car-tab fees for those within the taxing district increased. Car owners began seeing higher car tab fees related to the Sound Transit tax this month.

Voters who paid attention to their ballot probably weren’t as surprised by the higher fees than those who didn’t. But even those who were in the know may not have expected just how much their tabs would cost. That’s because the agency uses an outdated method of determining a vehicle’s value.

So a tax increase of eight-tenths of 1 percent turned out to cost car owners a bit more than they expected.

Sound Transit CFO Brian McCartan told lawmakers in Olympia that the agency’s hands are tied. It must use the old car tab valuation until the original bonds — the ones issued in 1999 — are paid off.

KIRO Radio’s Chris Sullivan pointed out that Sound Transit actually had a chance to use a more “driver-friendly” depreciation schedule when it drew up Sound Transit 3 for the November ballot.

And this is why McCartan says the agency opted out:

In case you didn’t catch that, here’s a transcription:

“It was seen as clean or simple, or to be able to have a single evaluation schedule that was used, and because the prior schedule is required to be used that was the way the statute was written — was that the ST3 collections would use the schedule that was in place at the time that the bonds were issued,” he said.

If that is how the agency is justifying its decision to charge people more, then it should come as no surprise that lawmakers are responding with their own legislation.

Senate Bill 5851 and House Bill 2132 would require Sound Transit to use Kelley Blue Book or the National Automobile Dealers Association values when they calculate vehicle excise tax.

It also shouldn’t come as a surprise that a bill, which would require that Sound Transit Board members are elected instead of selected, passed the Senate; or that lawmakers proposed a bill that would allow cities and counties to remove themselves from the agency’s taxing district.

Of course, the efforts to change how car-tab fees are calculated face an uphill battle in a Democratic-controlled state House. Democratic chairperson of the House Transportation Committee Judy Clibborn may have put it best.

“I’m not sure you can do that legally, but we’ll find out,” she said.

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