Island County commissioners hike three tax levies

The owner of a $400,000 home in Island County will pay a total of $16.17 more in property taxes next year because county commissioners increased three different levies.

The commissioners on Dec. 14, made findings of “substantial need” to increase the current expense levy, the road levy and the conservation futures levy by 1 percent‚ plus” banked capacity.”

Under state law, the levy can only be increased by the lower of either 1 percent or the implicit price deflator (IPD), a measure of economic growth, unless there’s a finding of substantial need. This year the IPD is in negative territory, at minus 0.85 percent.

“If there ever was a time, this is the time we do indeed have a substantial need,” Island County Commissioner John Dean said, referring to the budget crisis that has forced three rounds of cuts and layoffs.

In addition, the commissioners used the banked capacity for both the current expense and roads levy. That’s a levy increase that past commissioners didn’t adopt, but they banked so it could be used in a financial emergency.

The current expense fund has $66,000 in banked capacity. The roads fund has $270,000.

Only two people spoke during the hearing. South Whidbey resident Rufus Rose questioned whether the county’s claim to the lowest tax rate in the state really amounts to lowest taxes with the high value of homes. Coupeville resident Lynn Peterson urged the commissioners not to be afraid to raise taxes because of the “Tea Party” fervor.

“There’s nothing reasonable you can do that will satisfy them,” she said.

In total, the current expense fund levy was increased by $138,498, which is a 1.93 percent increase from the previous year’s levy. Budget Director Elaine Marlow said that translates to a $4 increase in a property tax bill for someone with a $400,000 house.

The total road levy was increased by $343,970, which is a 4.67 percent hike. That translates to a $12 increase in property taxes for the owner of a $400,000 home.

While the current expense and road levies are separate pots of money, there is some inter-mingling. The sheriff’s office will receive about $600,000 from the fund next year for traffic safety.

In addition, the commissioners considered two different levy proposals for conservation futures, which is a land preservation program for protection of threatened areas of open space, timber lands, wetland, habitat areas and farm land.

One of the proposals would have decreased the levy by the negative IPD. The other levy proposal would increase it by 1 percent with a finding of substantial need. Marlow drafted the two proposals since the commissioners didn’t reach a consensus earlier about which route to take.

For the owner of a $400,000 home, the decrease in the conservation future levy would mean 15 cents less in property taxes. The levy with an increase translates to a 17-cent hike.

During discussions Monday, Commissioner Helen Price Johnson said she was in favor of the levy that decreases the levy. She said the levy was discretionary.

“The issue of substantial need is less obvious when it is discretionary,” she said.

But Commissioner Angie Homola argued that they should increase the levy because of the importance of preserving open space, farm land and other property. Also, she pointed out that the fund pays the debt on the Greenbank Farm and two other property purchases.

“From my perspective, it is a very critical tool for Island County,” she said.

In the end, Commissioner Dean joined Homola in approving the conservation futures levy increase.

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