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District land fee seen as ‘train wreck’

At a meeting with Island County commissioners Wednesday, county Assessor Dave Mattens outlined “a whole slew of concerns” with the conservation district’s proposed special monetary assessment.

“I’m trying to get out in front of this train wreck,” he said in an interview afterward. “I’m quite supportive of the conservation district’s mission, but there are a lot of unanswered questions.”

Residents will also get a chance to ask questions at the Island County commissioners’ special session on the proposed assessment at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 14 at the county annex building in Coupeville.

The Whidbey Island Conservation District and the Snohomish Conservation District, which serves Camano Island, have proposed a special yearly assessment of $5 per parcel of land, plus an additional 5 cents per acre. It would be charged to all parcels in the unincorporated county and within Oak Harbor, Langley and Coupeville, except those not subject to property tax or land zoned “rural forest” under the county’s zoning code.

The county commissioners will ultimately decide whether to approve the assessment. Mattens explained that it’s not a levy that would need to go on the ballot. Instead, the special assessment is supposed to fund a special benefit to those who pay it; Mattens compares it to a mosquito control district in which everyone pays for spraying and the direct benefit is fewer mosquitoes.

With the conservation district assessment, Mattens questions what the specific benefits are for each parcel.

“What I’ve seen is all very vague,” he said.

The state statute authorizing special assessments for conservation districts states that, in order to approve the assessment, the county commissioners “must make findings that both the public interest will be served by the imposition of the special monetary assessments and that the special monetary assessments to be imposed on any land will not exceed the special benefit that the land receives or will receive from the activities of the conservation district.”

The notice of public hearing states the money will finance “natural resource planning and technical assistance, low impact development, preserving sustainable farm and forest lands, and outreach, education and partnerships.” It also says that the assessment “is not a tax” and that conservation districts aren’t authorized to impose a system of taxes.

Mattens points to a case in Mason County is which a resident successfully argued in Superior Court that a special assessment for a conservation district amounted to an unconstitutional tax. The case is set for oral arguments in the state court of appeals Monday.

Island County Prosecutor Greg Banks said his office is monitoring the case, but it may be several months before the court of appeals issues a decision.

If the commissioners approve the assessment, it would bring in an estimated $240,000 next year to fund operations of the two districts. The purpose of the conservation districts is to help residents conserve natural resources.

Mattens said he is concerned about whether the conservation districts will be able to provide his office with a list of all the properties that will be assessed. He explained that the state statute clearly states that it’s the responsibility of the districts to provide the assessment roll.

The assessor’s office was hit hard by budget cuts, losing 17 percent of its funding. That translated to three layoffs and reductions in other employees’ hours. Mattens said his staff doesn’t have the time to do a giant project like making the assessment roll, especially with so little time left in the year.

“I’m saying don’t wait until the eleventh hour and then ask me to do something we don’t have the time or money to do,” he said.

Mattens feels that the 5-cents per acre assessment is problematic. The county doesn’t have accurate acreage data for the odd-shaped parcels. Also, he wonders how someone with a half-acre of land would pay 2 and a half cents.

“That to me is pretty vague,” he said.

There’s also a timing issue. State law says residents can petition to cancel the assessment. The petition has to be signed by at least 20 percent of the owners of affected land and filed with the county before Dec. 15. Mattens wonders that would happen if the commissioners passed the ordinance after that date.

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