New nickel an acre land fee probable

As a result of a state Supreme Court decision, it appears that an assessment on Island County property owners will increase.

But it won’t be a big jump --- just 5 cents an acre.

The county commissioners held a special session Tuesday morning to discuss repealing or revising a 2009 ordinance that imposed a special assessment of $5 per parcel to fund programs of the Whidbey Island and Snohomish County conservation districts.

In the end, the commissioners elected to take the repeal off the table and forwarded two version of the revised ordinance to a March 12 public hearing.

The Supreme Court published an opinion last Thursday that invalidated a Mason County ordinance which was very similar to Island County’s ordinance. The justices ruled that the Mason County ordinance violated state law because it didn’t include a per-acre fee.

State law allows counties to create a special assessment to fund conservation district programs, but it requires a per-acre fee. The ordinances in both Mason and Island counties had flat taxes of $5 per parcel in order to avoid the administrative work of figuring out acreages.

Island County Chief Civil Deputy Prosecutor David Jamieson pointed out the irony of the decision.

“The Supreme Court found the ordinance invalid for not charging property owners enough,” he said. “They should have charged more.”

As a result, the commissioners decided to add an assessment of 5 cents an acre in addition to the flat-fee of $5 a parcel. Commissioner Kelly Emerson proposed that the ordinance be changed so that it expires in three years, instead of the current eight years. After some debate, the commissioners elected to bring both versions of the ordinance to the public hearing.

The Whidbey Island Conservation District originally proposed the ordinance include the 5-cent-per-acre fee, but that was dropped years ago after the former assessor and central services director said it would be too expensive to figure out.

Yet the strongest voice in favor of the assessment at Tuesday’s meeting was the current Republican assessor, Mary Engle. She said her office could do the necessary work and she didn’t know why the former assessor felt it would be too difficult.

When questioned by Emerson, a fellow Republican, about the administrative costs, Engle said it was worth it. She pointed out that the conservation districts help people with forest and farm management plans.

“People in this district would be in a world of hurt if is wasn’t for the conservation district,” she said, adding that the assessment was in the best interest of her office and the taxpayers.

The commissioners allowed public testimony at the meeting Tuesday, but in contrast to the public hearing when the ordinance was first adopted, nobody spoke against it this time. South Whidbey farmer Ray Gabelein said he was in favor of the ordinance, but was concerned that the assessment and conservation districts could grow into something larger.

“My concern is what it could turn into,” he said.

Even Emerson said she’s not necessarily against the assessment, but needs to speak to more citizens first. She spoke against the assessment before she was elected commissioner.

“My decision could have changed from what I spoke out against in the past,” she said. “I’m looking forward to the public hearing.”


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