Sound Off: State mandates cost counties big, funding should follow

It’s a fact that it takes money to run the government. And, “government” is often seen as a bad word. But, let’s remember what government is – government is ensuring access to justice for everyone, it’s patrolling our streets to keep us safe, it’s keeping those same streets in a drivable condition, and it’s making sure your favorite restaurants are sanitary.

In Island County, it’s also providing for beach access, walkable trails, and monitoring our groundwater quantity and quality.

Washington state has a good economy and the state has more money than ever before, yet the legislature is considering new taxes because their costs of doing business are up even more than revenue. County expenses, however, outpace revenues on a near permanent basis because the bulk of county revenue comes from property taxes. Property tax collection is capped at one percent growth for local governments, a restriction the legislature waived for themselves when addressing the McCleary education funding court order.

That means counties, whose revenue does not grow like the state’s and that need voter approval to raise taxes beyond one percent per year, have to figure out how to keep doing all the things they already do and pay for all the new mandates resulting from the current legislative session. Counties are continually being asked to do more, for a growing population, without adding new funding.

Counties have been asking legislators to recognize the incredible strains they are putting on county budgets for a number of years now. At a time when the state’s economy has never been better, counties are facing budget shortfalls, staffing reductions and the elimination of services that residents expect from their local government. This legislative session alone is expected to see tens of millions in additional costs to counties with almost no new funding to cover these mandates.

Anyone who has ever watched a crime show on TV knows the line, “If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you.” It’s a constitutional right given to everyone, but the state pays just $6 million of that cost compared to the $156 million spent by counties. This cost has increased by 30 percent since 2008 in Island County, over half of that increase has been since 2015.

Counties run elections, even the elections for state offices and initiatives. All local districts pay a fair share of their election costs, but the state doesn’t pay for the costs of printing ballots, sending voter pamphlets and ensuring voters have access to ballot drop boxes. In Island County that meant local taxes had to cover $273,000 in state election expenses in 2016 alone. Unfortunately, a bill to require the state to pay their costs for elections stalled in the legislature this year.

If the legislature won’t give local governments the funds they need to do the jobs required of them, then the legislature should allow counties some flexibility within the existing resources, which are often earmarked for specific purposes, regardless of where the need is greatest.

When the state doesn’t cover their fair share of costs and won’t allow counties to raise additional revenue or give them the flexibility to use funds to meet the needs of their communities, counties are forced to divert money from other vital local services. It’s well past time for the state to step up and do what’s right.

The legislature needs to stop passing their costs on to the counties, and they need to pay for the services they are mandating at the local level.

Commissioners Helen Price Johnson, Dist. 1, Jill Johnson, Dist. 2, and Janet St Clair, Dist. 3; Sheriff Rick Felici; Assessor Mary Engle; Auditor Sheilah Crider; and Treasurer Wanda Grone

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