All county taxing districts face cuts if I-747 passes

An expert on county government sees an item on the Nov. 6 election ballot as a potential “real problem.”

This description from a representative from the Washington State Association of Counties (WSAC) at a gathering of Island County elected officials this week, set the tone for what appeared to be a rather dicey economic forecast for local government.

At Tuesday’s special session meeting in Coupeville, WSAC Executive Director Bill Vogler delivered a report on recently passed legislation affecting county governments, as well as his organization’s plans for lobbying on behalf of counties during the coming legislative sessions. But his main focus was Initiative 747, which would limit annual property tax increases to 1 percent without a vote of the people.

Attending the meeting were Island County Commissioners Mike Shelton and Bill Thorn, Treasurer Maxine Sauter, Clerk Jane Koetje, Sheriff’s Department spokesperson Jan Smith and Coroner Robert Bishop.

“You’re now entering a very difficult period of time,” Vogler told the group, noting in particular that with the possible passage of I-747 in next month’s election, Island County as well as counties around the state may be facing a serious revenue crunch for years to come.

The initiative would cut state funding to the various Island County taxing districts by approximately $590,000 in 2002, according to a recent study by the state Dept. of Revenue. Over a six-year span, I-747 could cost over $4.5 million in Island County.

Couple this potential loss of revenue with the current international crisis and an impending recession, Vogler said, and the county may be facing a severe crisis in its ability to provide important public services provided by fire districts, emergency services and various law enforcement agencies.

“It takes money to provide services,” Vogler said. “If we don’t have the money, there’re going to be some cut-backs.”

Vogler further noted that, in light of the events of Sept. 11 and growing concerns over terrorism, “I don’t think that’s the time you’re going to cut law and justice.”

At one point, Shelton said that, until recently, the county’s Emergency Services Department had “always been the red-headed stepchild of Island County.” However, he added, now that “we’re into a bio-terrorism time,” the department could prove critical were anything momentous to occur on Whidbey or Camano islands.

Shelton said that, if the county loses revenue to I-747, it might be necessary to make personnel cuts. He added, however, that looking at the current situation, “I have not a clue where there are going to be cuts.”

Thorn elaborated, saying, “We don’t have a single department you could look at critically and say it’s overstaffed.”

The potential loss of funding to Island County fire districts alone could be significant under I-747, running from a cut of $219,00 in 2002 to an aggregate loss of over $1.6 million by the year 2007.

“You are in a world of hurt without fire districts,” said Vogler.

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