By Chris Winters Herald Writer
ARLINGTON — Voters in Arlington are being asked in the April 22 special election to approve a property tax increase to fund basic city services.
If Proposition 1 passes, the increase would raise taxes 58 cents per $1,000 of assessed valuation. The owners of a $200,000 home would see their annual taxes rise $116.
Arlington has the lowest property taxes in Snohomish County, city officials said, with a rate of just $1.375 per $1,000. Even with raising the rate to $1.955 per $1,000, or $391 for that $200,000 home, Arlington would still have the fifth-lowest in the county.
Yet the increase is necessary, Mayor Barbara Tolbert said, in order to maintain the current level of services the city provides its residents.
“April 22 is about them voting on what kind of city they want in the future,” Tolbert said.
Arlington already has made a series of cuts designed to fill its budgetary holes.
From 2008-2009, the city lost $1 million, 25 percent of its sales tax revenue, due to the double whammy of the economic downturn plus the state-mandated streamlined sales tax.
With much of Arlington’s sales tax base coming from high-tech manufacturing operations, the city was no longer able to collect that tax on sales to out-of-state customers. Starting in 2009, the city froze hiring, eliminated 19 positions, imposed a 5 percent reduction in pay for employees (or concessions from labor unions equal to that amount) for two years and canceled equipment replacement and all non-essential maintenance of buildings.
Money from the city’s reserve fund was used to offset losses in the general fund, which pays for most operations of government, from police and fire response to park maintenance and government operations.
When Tolbert became mayor in 2012, the city had just $77 left in its reserve fund. Moody’s cut the city’s bond rating from A3 to A2, which makes it more expensive to borrow money.
Some of the cost-containment measures taken, such as vehicle maintenance, are not sustainable over the long term, Tolbert said, because it costs more to maintain and repair older vehicles.
“We have a ladder truck that we bought used in 1995. We have police vehicles that have over 168,000 miles on them,” she said.
While the city has been able to build its reserve fund back up to about $500,000, that’s still far short of what the city’s own laws require: $1.8 million, the equivalent of one month’s operating expenses plus 8 percent of monthly tax and fee revenue.
But the outlook is still bleak. Without a property tax increase, city officials said, further cuts to city services will be necessary.
Tolbert said that the city is stretched as thin as it is, it’s hard to predict exactly what services will be cut first.
“Will that be park maintenance, will it be our ability to keep our city clean and our streets swept, will it be our fire response because we can’t afford a new ladder truck?” she said.
With no voter’s pamphlet being sent out for the special election, Tolbert has been holding presentations advocating the property tax increase. More information is posted on the city’s website, arlingtonwa.gov.
Tolbert said she’s hoping the city has built a measure of trust with residents, through cost cutting and not taking automatic utility increases for the past two years, that they will support the tax increase.
Proposition 1 needs a simple majority to pass.
Ballots are scheduled to be mailed out by April 3. Ballots must be returned via mail or placed in a designated drop box by April 22.
Chris Winters: 425-374-4165 or firstname.lastname@example.org.