Counties unite against unfunded mandates

Island County is joining an effort to get the state’s attention regarding unfunded mandates. The members of the Washington State Association of Counties believe the state legislature needs to stop telling counties what to do without providing the money to do it.

The organization is collecting $400,000 for the effort, with the money coming out of the budgets of each county. Each county pays $2,500 and the remainder of the share is calculated based on population. Island County is paying $6,100 out if its current expense fund.

“The association has taken a stance out of frustration, really,” said Island County Commissioner Helen Price Johnson.

She said counties have been trying to get the state legislature’s attention on this issue for a long time. The money being gathered is mostly for communication, but if that doesn’t work the association is prepared to sue.

“Frankly, it just seems like the legislature only pays attention to lawsuits these days,” she said. “I would hope that trend would end.”

Commissioner Rick Hannold said a lawsuit is not his preferred option, but agreed it often seemed to be the most effective.

For instance, state funding for public health programs has significantly decreased over the last 10 years, said Budget Director Elaine Marlow. In 2008 Island County Public Health received $1.5 million in state and federal funding, but only $900,000 is expected for 2017.

State funding for public defense has also decreased significantly, despite the cost of operating having increased. Counties are limited in how they can raise their own local funds by a 1 percent cap on tax revenue. The revenue from a 1 percent levy increase is less than the cost of just one patrol deputy.

Hannold doesn’t think it should be up to the county to raise taxes anyway. “The county should not have to be the bad guys that have to go out and raise local taxes,” he said.

“If a higher authority is telling us that we must do this, then they should pay for it,” he later added.

Recently, the state mandated an update to 911 systems and promised reimbursement for the cost. The county paid $250,000 of local money and received around $40,000 back, according to Price Johnson.

“We’re stable financially right now, but when we project out five years, we can’t continue to subsidize all of these state programs at ever increasing rates,” she said “We have to get the attention of the legislature that something needs to be done.”

Without having to supplant state programs, Price Johnson said the county would be able to use local funds to hire more deputies and address the opioid crisis through law enforcement as well as put more money into parks and trails.

The commissioners recently met with Rep. Dave Hayes, R-Camano Island, Sen. Barbara Bailey, R-Oak Harbor and representatives of Rep. Norma Smith, R-Clinton, to discuss these concerns.

Price Johnson said the legislators were receptive, but she still had doubts as to how the legislature as a whole would work to make changes. However, she said the association would rather work in a partnership with the state than seek legal action.

“We’d love to have the legislature solve these issues without having to go to court, that’s absolutely the best path,” she said. “But it’s a tool in the toolbox.”

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