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Island County’s $5 land tax tossed by court

A Supreme Court ruling filed Thursday likely means that a special $5-per-parcel assessment to fund the Whidbey Island and Snohomish County conservation districts violates state law.

In response, the Board of Island County Commissioners is holding a special session at 8:30 a.m. Tuesday, Feb. 21 to consider whether to schedule a public hearing to repeal the 2009 ordinance that imposed the special assessment.

Among the likely topics of conversation is whether the county will have to refund the assessments, a total of about $470,000, for the two years they were collected. Under an interlocal agreement between the conservation districts and the county, the districts are financially responsible if refunds have to be given, according to county Budget Director Elaine Marlow.

Yet Island County Treasurer Ana Maria Nunez said Friday that, under state law, the county isn’t required to refund property taxes that are found to be illegal or excessive unless an individual taxpayer has submitted an official protest of the tax to the treasurer. She’s not aware that anyone did that.

Karen Bishop, manager of the Whidbey Island Conservation District, said the district will work with the county commissioners “to appropriately amend the ordinance to insure that it is in compliance with the state law in light of the recent Supreme Court Decision.”

Commissioner Kelly Emerson took the opportunity to gloat. She wasn’t on the board at the time the ordinance was adopted, but she said she spoke out against it.

“I’m celebrating another occasion in which I was right,” said Emerson, the lone Republican on the board.

In 2009, the county officials modeled their ordinance after Mason County’s ordinance, which had been upheld by the Court of Appeals. But the appellate court decision was appealed to the state Supreme Court, which ruled Thursday that the Mason County ordinance is invalid. The decision was unanimous, though one justice did not participate.

The Supreme Court ruled that the Mason County ordinance violated state law because it didn’t include a per-acre fee. The justices did not address the issue of whether the ordinance was an unconstitutional tax, so that issue remains unresolved.

State law authorizes a county to impose a special assessment to fund a conservation district, but the law states the assessment must either be a uniform per-acre assessment or a flat per-parcel plus a uniform per acre fee. Either way, there’s supposed to be a per-acre fee.

Mason County officials were concerned about the administrative costs of collecting a per-acre fee, so they elected to only impose the flat $5-per-parcel fee. Four Mason County citizens challenged the assessment, arguing that it violated the state law and was an unconstitutional property tax.

After the Appeals Court sided with Mason County, the Island County commissioners adopted a similar ordinance. Bishop said that originally the district proposed a per-acre fee, but the Island County assessor argued that it wasn’t possible to calculate parcel acreage.

Commissioners Helen Price Johnson, Angie Homola and John Dean unanimously approved the ordinance. It wasn’t without controversy, as some citizens concerned about a new tax spoke out against it.

Island County’s assessment has generated around $235,000 per year. It is split between the Whidbey Island Conservation District as well as the Snohomish County Conservation District, which covers Camano Island and can only use the money for activities on Camano Island. The districts used the money for natural resource planning and technical assistance, low-impact development planning, preservation of sustainable farm and forest lands, outreach and education.

 

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