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Car-Tab Critics Call Increases Regressive

Joshua McNichols

The Seattle City Council has unanimously agreed to ask voters this November for a $60 car–tab fee increase. Critics say the tax is regressive. That's because all car owners would pay the same, whether they're rich or poor. KUOW's Joshua McNichols has more.


John Fox runs the Seattle Displacement Coalition, an organization that advocates for homeless people. He's clearly frustrated by the car–tab fees. That includes the $60 increase now headed for the fall ballot and the $20 the council already approved last May.

Fox: "The person who drives a Lexus to an office job is going to pay $80 just like the family, a working family, with a 30–year–old Chevrolet who needs that car to take their kids to daycare or somewhere else to go to work. It's a colossally regressive tax."

City Councilmember Sally Clark agrees. But she says the council hasn't been granted the right by state legislators to give low–income people a break.

Clark: "It's a user–based fee. And yeah, it could be more equitable. And if we had the choice, we would probably do it based on the actual value of the car. And we don't have that flexibility right now, but we look forward to continuing to move for that via our friends in Olympia."

Flat taxes, like the car–tab fee, tend to impact low–income families more. That's because car–tab fees take a bigger chunk out of their income.

The car tabs would raise $20 million a year for 10 years. One of the biggest beneficiaries would be King County's Metro buses. They'll get about $8 million a year.

After the council vote, I hopped on a northbound bus in West Seattle's Delridge neighborhood. There, I met rider Shirley Startino. I asked her what she thought of the car–tab fees.

Startino: "A friend of mine called me this morning complaining about that."

Joshua McNichols: "Do you know anybody who won't have a car because of the additional fee?"

Startino: "I do know people who sometimes park their car because of insurance and all the stuff that goes with it. I know people who used to drive and now they say it's too expensive to have a car, because by the time they pay the tabs, the license, the insurance."

Startino said as her friends give up their cars, they'll stop giving her rides. Then, she'll rely more heavily on bus service. She already takes long bus trips out to places like Snoqualmie Falls.

Startino: "Sometimes it's relaxing to take a long ride out somewhere and just enjoy the scenery. Sometimes I don't know where the bus goes, but as long as it will bring me back, I'll ride just to look around and see what's out there and just enjoy a quiet afternoon."

In the U–District, Mohsin Gulamhussein parked his car and fed his credit card to the parking meter. Gulamhussein works two jobs. In the daytime, he works at a video editing firm. At night, he works in a restaurant. Gulamhussein said when you combine city and county car–tab fee increases, they add up to $100, and that's hard to swallow.

Gulamhussein: "Given that I'm living paycheck–to–paycheck almost, the $100 would be a bit of a struggle. But it's a lot easier to travel with a car around rather than catching a bus or — it's just easier and more practical for me to drive my car. And upping the price of that, for someone else, is a little bit of a problem for me."

The city and county councils are looking at ways to reduce the impact of the car–tab fees on low–income people. The county plans to give out eight free bus tickets for every car tab renewed. Seattle Councilmember Mike O'Brien has suggested offering a $40–$80 discount on electric bills.

For KUOW News, I'm Joshua McNichols.

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