Small tax hike, big cuts balance budget

In the end, Island County commissioners raised taxes slightly and cut spending sharply to balance next year’s budget.

A difficult budget process, accentuated with a round of layoffs, quieted culminated Monday with no surprises or pain-free solutions to a $2 million shortfall.

“This is one budget that’s fried up in midnight oil instead of snake oil,” said resident Richard Bryan, who questioned the commissioners extensively about spending plans. He couldn’t find anywhere else to cut.

Island County Assessor Dave Mattens said the property tax increases are significant for the county, but probably not so much for the average homeowner. For the owner of a $300,000 house, he estimates that all of the county tax increases passed Monday will amount to an extra $5.74 in property taxes a year.

Commissioner Helen Price Johnson attended the commissioner meeting via speakerphone from her vacation location. She and fellow commissioners Mac McDowell and John Dean unanimously voted to increase property taxes for current expenses by 1 percent, plus the value of new construction. The 1 percent, which is the maximum without a public vote, will amount to an extra $69,976 for the county.

The commissioners unanimously voted to increase property taxes for the county road fund by an additional 1 percent, plus the amount resulting from new construction. The 1 percent amounts to an extra $70,690.

By a 2-1 vote, the commissioners also chose to “unbank” an additional $105,000 of county road funds in order to offset the increased price of oil, concrete and other materials. In previous years, the commissioners “banked” property taxes increases that they did not pass; they can unbank the hikes in subsequent years.

Price Johnson, the new Democrat on the board, was against the unbanking, but she was outvoted.

“I’m not willing to support increasing property taxes more than 1 percent,” her disembodied voice said.

The board unanimously increased Conservation Futures fund by 1 percent, which amounts to $6,900, plus an amount from new construction.

Dean made a motion to increase taxes for current expenses an additional $65,979 by using banked capacity, but the motion failed for lack of a second.

Following the round of modest tax increases, the commissioners unanimously adopted the 2009 budget with some reluctance. More than $2 million had to be cut from the budget because of declining revenues in the distressed economy.

McDowell said he objected to the creation of new fees for septic inspection, as well as the decision to give the sheriff “a pass” on a proposal to cut two deputies.

Price Johnson objected because taxes for the county road fund were hiked by more than 1 percent.

Budget Director Elaine Marlow said a total of 31 full-time equivalents, or FTEs, were cut from the budget. Some positions were completely cut, she said, while others lost hours. About 17 positions were cut through attrition.

The county gained six positions in the new Human Services department, which is funded by the newly established sales tax for mental health issues.

The total adopted budget was $67.7 million, which includes current expense, capital, health, human services, public works and a long list of miscellaneous funds. It’s an 8 percent decrease from the 2008 adopted budget.

Marlow seemed relieved after the final vote.

“I just want to thank all elected officials, department heads and employees for their participation in a very, very tough budget process,” she said.

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