Reardon vetoes a proposed tax hike to pay for roads in 2012 budget

EVERETT — Snohomish County Executive Aaron Reardon on Friday vetoed part of the County Council’s 2012 budget that would have brought a small tax hike in unincorporated areas to pay for roads.

The vetoed tax increase would have cost the owner of an average-valued house less than $5 per year in extra property taxes. Reardon’s move doesn’t put the issue to rest. A final resolution is likely to come Wednesday, when the County Council plans to vote on whether to override Reardon’s veto.

In a Friday memo, Reardon said, “I do not believe now is the time to raise our residents’ property taxes.

“In addition, I remain concerned about the growing burden placed on the residents of unincorporated Snohomish County as annexations have pushed a greater levy burden on fewer residents,” he wrote.

The executive’s original budget proposal included no extra road tax.

The County Council added it as it reworked Reardon’s proposed budget. The roads levy passed 4-1, with Republican Councilman John Koster the lone dissenter.

The council will consider overriding Reardon’s veto at its regular Wednesday-morning meeting, Council Chairman Dave Somers said. The council needs four votes to do that. The votes appear to be there to overturn Reardon, provided nobody has a change of heart.

The increase in the roads levy applies to the total amount of taxes collected in unincorporated areas, not to individual tax bills. It would generate an estimated $575,000 next year for county road projects.

Councilman Dave Gossett devoted several meetings during the past year to scrutinizing the executive’s long-term roads planning. He has noted that about a third of all road and bridge projects in the county’s six-year plan have either been delayed or cancelled.

On Monday, Gossett said he found it odd that Reardon would “suddenly become a born again opposer of tax increases.”

This summer, Gossett and others criticized Reardon after learning that the executive’s 2011 budget effectively raised taxes for people in unincorporated areas. That happened because the county neglected to lower the road levy collected from unincorporated areas to compensate for large recent annexations by Lake Stevens and Marysville. That left fewer taxpayers responsible for paying the same levy amount. The upshot was that in 2011, the owner of a house assessed at $300,000 had to pay nearly $30 more in county road taxes — an increase of about 7 percent over the year before.

Gossett, in August, accused Reardon of slipping the increase into the 2011 budget without warning. Reardon denied any such plan.

Reardon on Friday did approve the council’s overall 2012 budget, but not without offering some critiques.

The budget keeps $206 million in operating funds, a tad more than $204 million in 2011. Payroll would be about 2,600, shrinking slightly compared to last year.

In his memo, Reardon said the council’s decision to lower the county’s cash reserves, “will greatly exacerbate difficult budget decisions already anticipated in 2012.”

Reardon’s proposal would have increased reserves to $23.1 million next year — an increase of more than $1 million. The council instead decided to cut reserves by nearly $200,000, saying the change was needed to cover mental-health programs.

The county uses reserves to help pay its ongoing financial obligations and to serve as a rainy-day fund.

Saving money is important right now, Reardon said, to cope with expected fallout from the state’s budget woes. The full extent of Olympia’s budget trouble likely won’t be understood until after state lawmakers start their regular session in January.

Council members said they reduced the county’s cash reserves, also called the fund balance, partly to protect mental-health programs.

“Aaron’s budget increased the fund balance by picking the pockets of the mentally ill,” Gossett said. “We chose not to do that.”

The council shifted funding for some programs away the one-tenth-of-one-percent sales tax that’s intended for mental-health and chemical-dependency programs.

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465; nhaglund@heraldnet.com.

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