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Snohomish adopts sales tax for mental health, affordable housing

The Daily Herald - 11/26/2021

SNOHOMISH — The city of Snohomish appears to be the first local government in Snohomish County to use a new law to adopt a local sales tax dedicated to funding affordable housing and mental health care, according to city and county officials.

State House Bill 1590, which was signed into law in June 2020, allows city and county councils to impose the 0.1% local sales tax for affordable housing without a vote of the people.

The Snohomish City Council unanimously adopted the tax this month. Based on the city's sales tax revenue from the first nine months of the year, it will generate an estimated $600,000 a year. The funds can be used for the construction, purchase and rehabilitation of affordable housing, as well as housing-related services like mental or behavioral health care.

Over the past year, about 730 people living in ZIP codes 98290, 98291 and 98296 requested housing and shelter assistance, according to data reported by 211 Washington.

The tax and its intended use "is completely congruent with the city of Snohomish that I've known for the last 20-some years," Snohomish resident Mark Miller told council members. "In terms of the care that so many citizens have for others."

Meanwhile in Lynnwood, City Council members sent a letter to Snohomish County Council members, asking them "to please refrain" from any action that would increase sales tax.

Lynnwood City Council President George Hurst told The Daily Herald the council is not "anti-housing," but the city's combined sales tax is already among the highest in the state, he said.

"We oppose any increase in the sales tax rate in our county and specifically in the City of Lynnwood," the letter states. "Sales tax is a regressive form of taxation, and we appeal to you and to our state Legislature to find other forms of revenue to address the pressing issues of housing and mental health."

In Edmonds, council President Susan Paine said the council adopted a similar sales tax for affordable housing at the maximum permitted rate in 2019.

The 2020 law empowered cities to impose the 0.1% tax and maintain local control of the funds if the county did not implement the tax by Sept. 30, 2020. Snohomish County has not done so.

Hurst said the Lynnwood City Council could move to impose the tax so the city can maintain control of the funds.

"I'd be inclined for our City Council to take action before the county," he said.

The Snohomish City Council won't begin deciding how to spend the new tax revenue until 2022. However, some already have ideas. Councilmembers Steve Dana and Judith Kuleta said they want to prioritize mental and behavioral health services.

"If we can collect this money and use this money to provide services … I think our community benefits best," Dana said. He suggested beginning with one mental health counselor, or hiring a few and opening an office to get "a good start on mental health counseling."

Kuleta said there are not many behavioral health resources in the city, and people seeking treatment are forced to be separated from their "support systems."

"The significance of the tax in Snohomish is that we may be able to maybe meaningfully try to address that for residents of our community," said council President and Mayor-elect Linda Redmon, "whereas we didn't really have any way to do that before."

Snohomish planning director Glen Pickus said the city should begin collecting funds in April 2022.

Redmon said the council has felt a sense of urgency regarding determining how to spend the funds.

"I think the community can expect that we're going to be trying to have many more conversations … about what they see as important for Snohomish," Redmon said.