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Latest Eyman effort worries officials

Tim Eyman is back to haunt the dreams of local elected officials.

Since Eyman’s Initiative 747 passed in 2001, officials have responded to the property tax-limiting measure with layoffs and service cutbacks.

They thought the worst was over, but perhaps not. Last week, Eyman filed a new initiative that, if it makes the ballot and is approved by voters, would lead to more reductions in community services.

Instead of further limiting property tax increases, this time voters will be asked to approve an initiative that would slash local property taxes by 25 percent. It would not affect the state property tax.

In a telephone interview, Eyman said the tax cut targets not only county and city governments, but other junior taxing entities including fire districts, cemetery districts, ports and weed control boards, among others.

He claimed the taxes levied by the local districts combine to put a heavy burden on the taxpayer.

“The biggest culprit is the local taxing districts,” said Eyman, arguing that cutting such taxes would provide tax relief and helps boost the economy.

Should the initiative pass, homeowners would receive, on average, a $255 reduction in property taxes, by Eyman’s estimation.

Spared from the tax cut would be voter-approved tax increases such as school levies.

Not surprisingly, Eyman’s effort is strongly opposed by those in charge of the public purse.

“In theory it sounds awful,” Coupeville Mayor Nancy Conard said.

Should the 25 percent property tax initiative pass, Conard said the town would lose more than $60,000. Property tax revenues currently fund $264,000 of the town’s $1 million budget.

“That would be a big cut for us,” Conard said. “We’ve been trying to work smarter but with this amount of money we’d have to cut back services.”

She speculated that the town would have to look at parks and streets as possible targets for cutbacks.

The town undertook a cost-cutting measure this year by closing Town Hall on Fridays and reducing staff.

Conard believes that any issues residents may have with taxes levied by junior districts should be handled locally rather than through a statewide ballot.

Eyman counters that local districts can turn to the voters to gain approval to increase taxes.

Oak Harbor Mayor Patty Cohen said that she would rather see community needs drive the city’s budget.

The timing of the new proposal comes as Oak Harbor has stabilized its budget — a process the city has worked on since 2000.

“We did an incredible job lifting ourselves out of this deficit hole and with this proposal, we’ll be pushed right down there again,” Cohen said.

The city lost 10 percent of its revenue as a result of Eyman’s tax-cutting initiatives. Cohen said that the city worked hard to try and insulate residents from budget cuts.

Property taxes currently make up nearly 27 percent of the city’s $9.9 million budget.

Cohen said that another revenue loss could reduce services. To resolve any future shortfalls, the council would have to look at staffing levels and the types of services the city offers.

Island County also had to cut back employees to make up for recent shortfalls caused in part by I-747. The equivalent of 13 employees were eliminated to make up a $700,000 shortfall in 2002.

One commissioner said the county would likely be facing further reductions because Eyman’s initiative would probably be well-received by the voters.

“Frankly I feel if it is put to the voters it’s going to pass,” Commissioner Bill Byrd said. “It’s going to hit us hard.”

Should the county lose more money from another tax cut, than the commissioners would have to take a hard look at prioritizing services.

“It boils down to operating 25 percent less (property taxes) than before and we didn’t meet our budget line this year,” Byrd said. The county had to dip into reserves to resolve a shortfall this year.

He pointed out that the county receives 17 percent of the property taxes that are collected. The remainder is doled out to state schools, local schools and the various junior taxing districts.

The large number of taxing districts is a target of Eyman’s initiative.

Eyman said the 1,700 taxing districts in the state is an inefficient way to manage government and puts an undue burden on the taxpayer.

“This is a monstrosity of redundancy and bureaucracy,” Eyman said, predicting the tax cut would produce a more efficient government.

Eyman and his supporters have until July to come up with the 200,000 valid signatures needed to get the measure on the November ballot.

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