Error puts Island County on hook for school costs

Island County officials are busy this week correcting an error that could have cost the Coupeville School District $158,000.

It looks like the financially struggling county may have to absorb the assessor’s $158,000 mistake, at least until next year. Taxpayers who were off the hook this year will probably have to pay double next year to make up for the mistake. Fortunately, it equates to a modest amount for each property owner in the district.

County and school district officials are working to ensure the school district receives the full amount it can collect.

“They shouldn’t be short-changed for a mistake in the assessor’s office,” County Commissioner Helen Price-Johnson said of the school district.

Staff at the Island County Assessor’s Office misread a footnote on information provided by the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction about the school district’s maintenance and operations levy. That mistake prompted the Assessor’s Office to account for the district’s levy rollback twice.

Island County Assessor Dave Mattens said Tuesday morning that county lawyers are reviewing possible solutions and he hopes to have a resolution by the end of the week. He said several options are being explored to ensure the school district receives its full tax collection. County officials are looking at loan options or dipping into reserves.

If the county has to make a loan or use fund reserves, the county would make a levy correction and collect the $158,000 amount from taxpayers next year. Mattens said there is a state statute that helps resolve such mistakes.

With voter approval, the Coupeville School District is allowed to collect a maximum of 24 percent of the school district’s basic education revenue for its maintenance and operations levy. In 2010, the Coupeville School District is scheduled to collect $2.179 million.

However, when the Coupeville School District budget declines, officials have to roll back the maintenance and operations levy to ensure they don’t collect more than they are allowed by law.

“We appreciate they realize there was an error and how critical it was for the school district,” Coupeville School District business manager Janet Fisher said Tuesday morning.

The levy mixup comes after the assessor’s staff made an error calculating the Camano Island tax levy. That meant the treasurer’s office had to re-send tax statements to Camano Island residents.

A $158,000 shortfall represents a significant loss for the 1,000-student Coupeville School District.

“In rough figures it’s two teachers,” Superintendent Patty Page said.

School officials announced the error during Monday’s school board meeting. They were concerned that resolving the error would affect the 2010 to 2011 school year budget.

“We should not have to wait a year for the money,” Page said Monday night.

After years of cutbacks, a bit of good news was announced Monday night. Preliminary budget numbers show leaders will likely avoid having to lay off staff in order to balance the budget.

“It’s the best spot we could be in,” Page said. She said after the meeting that if the school district doesn’t receive the $158,000, then staff may have to look at staff layoffs.

Mattens said he is working to educate staff on the issues involved.

“We’ve also looked at ways of preventing this from happening in the future,” he said.

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