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Some Island County parcels escape utility assessment

Administrators of the controversial clean water utility program discovered that more than 1,400 additional parcels must be assessed in 2014.

Island County Treasurer Anna Maria Nunez, who was out of the state for three months because to an illness in her family, told the Island County Board of Commissioners Wednesday that a computer glitch was to blame for the error.

Properties designated as tax-exempt were not charged the utility fee even though they are not exempt.

The new parcels primarily comprise those in water districts and home owners associations, according to Public Works Director Bill Oakes.

Nonprofits will also begin to be charged the fee. This includes churches, parks, tribal lands, fire and EMS properties, hospitals, senior centers, Island Transit locations, universities and veterans organizations.

“We do apologize for the error,” Nunez said.

While the commissioners considered going back and assessing those parcels to regain more than $56,000 in revenue, they agreed to fix the problem moving forward and begin charging those parcels in 2014.

“I want people to know that we thought about it, but it makes no financial sense to go back to collect that now,” said Commissioner Jill Johnson.

Johnson said she is worried the new fee may be a hardship on organizations that already set their 2014 budgets.

“This can be a game changer for those on small budgets,” Johnson said.

The utility fee, adopted in late 2010 by the commissioners, was created to address water quantity and quality concerns by generating revenue for surface and ground water programs.

The program collected $1.46 million in 2012 and is estimated to collect roughly $1.5 million each year moving forward. Critics have said that the roughly $40 that appears on property tax statements is a fee that was not approved by the citizens.

“I have never agreed with this utility,” said Commissioner Kelly Emerson. “This unfortunately will not gain support to eliminate the utility. I have tried that before.”

At minimum, Emerson said, the board should consider exempting agricultural land from the fee.

Price Johnson pointed out those who are not assessed the fee by law cannot benefit from the fee, which pays for assistance with rural drainage systems and other water projects. She added the board may need to revisit what types of parcels could be exempt from the fee.

“When we created it, it was to create designated programs that are, in my opinion, essential for the community,” Price Johnson said. “We also knew it wouldn’t be perfect so it may need to be modified.”

Despite her support for the utility, Price Johnson said the error was “unfortunate.”

“I guess people can be happy they had a two-year break,” Price Johnson said.

Johnson said the computer program used to assess taxes and fees may not be the only issue.

Those with tax-exempt status who should have been charged the utility must be entered manually, she explained.

“It’s true to say it’s a software error,” Johnson said. “But you have to tell it what to do. This is definitely on the county’s side.”

This is not the only problem discovered recently in the Island County Treasurer’s office.

In October, the Washington State Auditor’s Office found that the office had been consistently behind in processing property tax supplements.

Nunez said last month that the backlog was created due to lack of staffing and that they plan to be caught up by mid-2014.

 

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