Issaquah council debates fees for public record requests

Also: The city council adopted the 2024 property tax levy ordinance.

The Issaquah City Council held its general meeting on Dec. 4, in which the council adopted three agenda bills, including the 2024 Property Tax Levy, Transportation Benefit District Councilmanic Sales Tax and the 2023-2024 Mid-Biennium Budget. The council withheld the adoption of the Public Records Policy and the Fee Schedule resolution, moving the item to the community of the whole Jan. 8 meeting.

The council also discussed future planning for the Central Issaquah Pioneer Program.

2024 Property Tax Levy

The city council adopted the 2024 property tax levy ordinance. Each year, in Washington State, jurisdictions can adopt a levy property tax up to 1% plus the value of new construction each year, known as the excess levy.

With the approval of the levy, the revenues from the property tax are placed into the general fund and used for public safety, planning, parks, administration and other basic governmental services or goods, according to the agenda bill.

The bill notes the excess tax revenue will specifically help the city pay its debt to services such as Fire Station 72 and various parks and city facilities.

In 2023, the average homeowner with a home value of $1.375 million paid $791 for the regular levy and $126 for the excess levy.

However, with the adoption of the 1% increase in property tax in 2024, the average homeowner is estimated to pay $716 for the regular levy and $112 for the excess levy.

The decrease in property tax payment for the average homeowner is due to the projected drop in median home value, moving from $1.375 million in 2023 to an anticipated average of $1.125 in 2024.

This downturn will reduce property taxes by an estimated $91 for the average Issaquah homeowner.

Transportation Benefit District Councilmanic Sales Tax

This city council adopted the Transportation Benefit District (TBD) 0.1% sales tax for transportation infrastructure and programs as part of the 2024-2029 Capital Improvement Plan.

This tax will accumulate around $2.2 million annually and expire after 10 years.

According to the bill, the average household within the city is expected to pay less than $100 annually for this sales tax. The tax will also impact anyone who comes into the city and purchases items — gasoline and most grocery items are not subject to sales tax.

The bill provided specific projects the money would go to, such as the non-motorized improvement project on Northwest Sammamish Road and the Intelligent Transportation System — a package of projects to update management controls of traffic signals and intersections — approved at the Nov. 6 general meeting.

The TBD was formed in 2018, which allowed for a new source of funding for transportation and mobility projects within the city. Until now, the city council had not yet approved revenue that would go into the TBD.

The bill was approved, in part, due to the general fund and real estate excise tax — which primarily funds transportation projects — experiencing a downturn in revenue over the past year and a decline in state and federal assistance for local transportation projects.

In response to these declines, the city has lacked funding sources for several transportation projects over the years, and Issaquah residents have identified traffic flow, transportation and mobility as the number one issue in the city, according to the bill.

Public Records Policy the Fee Schedule

The city council listened to a presentation about the public records policy and the fee schedule at the meeting. Council members concluded they were not ready to make a motion on the resolution at the time, and on a 5-1 vote — council member Tola Marts opposing — the council decided to move the resolution to the Committee of the Whole meeting on Jan. 8.

According to the bill, this resolution proposes fees to cover and recover the cost of staff time; the price of copying public records, police records and collision reports; the dissemination of criminal history; and the redaction of police body-worn camera video footage.

Another purpose for fees, stated in the presentation, is to urge requestors to narrow their requests, in turn receiving only the specific records they need, eliminating unnecessary documents and reducing staff time and expenses.

This resolution would attach various costs to different public record requests in the city.

According to the bill, requestors would be required to pay $9 for the first 10 records received through the GovQA portal and pay $0.25 for every record after the first 10. The bill noted requestors would also potentially be charged $0.10 per gigabyte for files uploaded to the portal.

Requesting police records, such as police-body-warn cameras — a program being piloted in 2024 — will cost requestors not involved in the incident $0.80 per minute.

Whether the requestor is involved or not, police reports or collision reports would charge $8 and $15 for clearance letters.

However, charges will vary according to whether a requestor views records at city hall, requests paper copies or requests to pick up records on USB at city hall or mailed to them.

The bill proposes a low-income waiver fee, allowing requestors who earn 50% area median income or lower to access records at no charge.

The waiver does not apply to clearance letters, police body-worn camera redaction, or customized data or record compilations.

The city council members had varying views on the resolution, but many agreed the resolution needed more time and should go to a committee for more evaluation.

Hunt was skeptical that the current proposal would encourage requestors to narrow their requests.

“I don’t know if this current fee structure … would get us that end result because of the way it structured, such you have 10 responsive requests for the $9 flat fee, then the cost goes down,” council member Victoria Hunt said, “It seems to me like maybe there is a different structure that might better address [narrowing requests].”

Council member Tola Marts said he was against all fees. He said the council needs to be cautious about putting barriers between the public and the information surrounding the work they do.

“If the public wants to be reassured that the police are operating safely and humanely, I want them to get that information,” he said.

Barbara de Michele was in favor of the fees, she said especially when it came to the body-worn cameras due to the cost and sensitivity of the footage. However, she aligned with many council members who felt the bill needed more work before being adopted.