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In Our View: Snohomish County's 2013 budget

The start of taxing season

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Benjamin Franklin meant to insert an asterisk after scribbling, "Nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes." As all budget-bird-doggers know, those certain-as-death taxes are jawboned in the third quarter of the holiday rush. Families soak in "The Wizard of Oz," but they pay no attention to the man behind the (tax) curtain.
Last Monday, the Snohomish County Council took that unenviable seasonal step, voting 3-2 in favor of a property tax bump, a full 72 hours before the turkey-tryptophan haze. As The Herald's Noah Haglund reports, the council vote raises the county's general levy by approximately 3 percent, adding $2 million to the budget. This translates into an additional $6.70 in taxes for the average (property assessed at $241,000) homeowner.
The County Council has bypassed property tax increases for nearly a decade. And budget austerity has consequences. Since 2008, the county government has laid off 350 employees, in addition to curtailing services. Sheriff John Lovick and County Prosecutor Mark Roe's offices have been especially slammed. The budget strategy embraced by County Executive Aaron Reardon revolves around an annual attrition rate of 2.5 percent. Over the long term, however, an attrition strategy undermines innovative budgeting. It's more sensible and efficient to recommend a department director cut programs by X percent rather than prohibit hiring an essential, left-vacant position.
The budget is also a corrective. Snohomish County has not expanded programs for mental health and drug-treatment programs pursuant to its 0.1 percent sales tax increase. Thanks to council members Gossett, Sullivan and Wright, that appropriation wrong was mended.
One cut-it-to-the-marrow criticism is the first phase of a courthouse redevelopment plan budgeted at $68 million. Councilmember Dave Somers, a budget dissenter along with Councilmember John Koster, said, "It's kind of like putting a rebuilt engine in an old car." A rebuilt engine is an instructive metaphor for the process a whole, with so much tinkering and parts trading that it's hard to avoid cynicism.
In the end, however, the council managed a no-frills, keep-it-level 2013 budget. All of the council -- including the budget scoffers -- exhibited conscientious, in-the-weeds public service. We hope that the county executive, who promised to sign the budget, keeps his word.
With so many taxing districts, it's also easy to forget the Port of Everett. Here the taxing process, while adhering to the letter of the law, is a little more opaque. Notice was just sent regarding a public hearing and special meeting of the Port Commission that includes discussion and a vote on the 2013 property-tax levy. Resolution No. 975, the levy in question, is not available on the port website. This puts the burden on citizens to scramble with day-of homework to participate in any meaningful way. We hope the Commission uses the meeting scheduled for this Tuesday, Nov. 27, at 9:00 am to discuss the resolution, but postpones the levy vote by a week. Taxes may be certain, but a seasonal pardon for budget watchdogs is only fair.

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