Elections

Voters will decide county property tax increase in November; would add $54 to annual tax bill of $450K home

Twelve cents for each $1,000 of assessed value.

That’s how much more local landowners would pay in annual property taxes over the next six years to prevent an even deeper cut into county-run programs under a revenue-generating ballot measure which islanders will weigh-in on in November.

In a unanimous decision, the San Juan County Council agreed Aug. 11 to let voters determine the fate of a fleet of popular programs slated to be jettisoned from the expense side of the county’s budget by 2010.

Unless an equivalent amount of revenue can be raised, another $720,000 in yearly operating expenses is poised to eliminated from the county’s general fund in order to balance next year’s budget.

Councilwoman Lovel Pratt, San Juan South, said she was heartened by the results of a straw poll taken at a town hall meeting the night before. She said a majority of the 40 people who attended favored a 12-cent tax increase, as did a majority of about 100 islanders who turned out for a similar town hall meeting on Orcas Island, hosted by Councilman Richard Fralick, the week before.

“I think it’s important to remember we’ve already reduced this year’s budget by almost $1 million and that our options for raising revenue are limited,” Pratt said. “It’s not as if we’re just going to voters and asking them to bail us out.”

The pending cuts in programs and services would be in addition to a reduction of roughly $880,000 in expenses which, in order to balance this year’s budget, the council authorized in July.

The general fund, which covers the bulk of the county’s day-to-day expenses, including payroll, would no longer be used to finance an assortment of so-called “discretionary” programs, such as WSU’s Extension programs, county parks and senior services, without a influx in revenue.

Yearly expenses would also be reduced by scaling back service levels in several “core functions” which the county provides as an agent of the state, such as reducing the hours of a correctional officer and deputy prosecutor to part-time.

Council members agreed to limit the duration of the property-tax hike proposal to six years rather than to seek a permanent increase in the levy that feeds the general fund. The levy rate would fall back after six years to where it would have been without the increase, unless it is reinstated by voters. A similar property-tax levy that fuels the county Road Fund will not be affected by the proposed increase.

If approved, the increase would add about $54 onto the annual property tax bill of a $450,000 home.

In 2008, property owners in the San Juans paid the lowest county property tax levy collectively — $5.52 per $1,000 of assessed valuation — of all 39 counties in Washington. Property owners in Whitman County paid the highest at $12.97.

Whether it’s for a county, a port or a cemetery district, a property tax levy can increase no more than 1 percent annually without voter approval. That’s since Initiative 747 was approved by voters in 2001.

AT A GLANCE
If approved, a county property tax increase of 12 cents per $1,000 of assessed valuation would raise about $960,000 a year and fund the following programs.

— Senior services: $211,000.
— Parks: $200,000.
— Reduce number of days county offices are closed: $140,000.
— WSU Extension: $129,000.
— Public Health and immunization clinics: $112,000.
— Department of Emergency Management manager’s salary: $50,000.
— Restore deputy prosecutor to full-time: $45,000.
— Restore correctional officer to full-time: $42,000.
— Maintenance of building and grounds: $18,000.
— Islands Oil Spill Association: $8,000.
— Fair: $5,000.

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