County Council must make honest pitch for Prop. 1 | Guest Column


Even if county government is facing a real budget problem, there is something truly disheartening in the cynical way it is asking us taxpayers to raise our taxes.

It is as if the County Council has become its own cadre of tea baggers and decided that if the fictional notion of “Death Panels” can undercut meaningful discussion about health-insurance reform, then perhaps “Death Panels” can scare county voters into increasing our property taxes.

Why else would the council build its case for a tax increase on the threat that if the tax — Proposition 1 — fails in November the victims will be the handful of county-supported programs almost as close to our hearts as grandma.

The council’s “Death Panel” would kill or cripple things like 4-H, county parks and senior services. Throw in a ban on apple pie and grandma’s fate seems almost incidental.

Take 4-H, for instance. San Juan County has more kids participating in 4-H programs per capita than any county in the state. For many island kids, it is the core of their after-school activities, teaching specific skills along with leadership, the value of community service and teamwork. What is left of our 100-plus-year legacy of the county fair without 4-H?

Fearing the worst, 4-H is put in the position of having to support Proposition 1. On Shaw, Ailish Foley, a 16-year-old product of 4-H, made an impassioned plea for the tax increase at a recent Shaw town hall meeting. Her great presentation was a tribute to the ways 4-H has contributed to her development as a person. Her listeners couldn’t help but agree that the loss of 4-H would be a great loss to us all.

Likewise, when Cy Field, Shaw’s representative on the county Park Board, told us that without passage of Proposition 1 the Shaw park likely would have to be closed. Not only does the park draw hundreds of visitors to Shaw each year to enjoy one of the finest sand beaches in the San Juans, it is a center of activity for islanders, as well, especially the island’s kids. The same is surely true on other islands.

The concern these proposed cuts raise obviously is what the Council intended. The Letters to the Editor already are filled with pleadings on behalf of these fine organizations to save them by voting for Proposition 1.

The cynicism behind the council’s approach is truly brazen. It dares us to risk losing things in the county we value most by voting against Proposition 1.

This is not to say than an honest case for some kind of tax increase can’t be made. Sales and property taxes each account for about a third of the county’s tax revenues. Both rely a lot on new construction to fuel revenue growth, which they have done rather grandly until the last year or so.

Unlike sales taxes, property taxes can’t be raised without a public vote. The intent of the initiative that created that requirement in 2002 was to force governments to fully explain its growth in spending and justify to voters why increasing property taxes is necessary.

That’s not what the council has done. Instead, it’s picked off programs it knows are popular with voters and is trying to hold them hostage to get more money. It’s not the first county to take this approach, and it probably won’t be the last, if voters agree to ransom these programs by approving new taxes.

“Death Panels” are no way to argue honestly against health-insurance reform, and they are no way to try to raise taxes. Voters should defeat Proposition 1 resoundingly to tell the council it must make its case for higher taxes honestly.

— Alex MacLeod lives on Shaw Island. He is retired managing editor of The Seattle Times, and former chairman of the San Juan County Ferry Advisory Committee.

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