County Council OKs tax increase to bolster budget

EVERETT — A divided Snohomish County Council voted Monday to raise property taxes as part of a budget plan to fill vacant government jobs and rebuild the county courthouse.

The result was a 2013 budget that squeaked by on a 3-2 vote.

Council Chairman Brian Sullivan said the decision to raise taxes was difficult, but necessary. The plan that passed is likely to cost the average homeowner about $6.70 in additional taxes next year.

“This balanced budget protects the core services that the county taxpayers depend on most,” Sullivan said.

The $213 million spending plan the County Council passed adds about $2 million to the operating budget County Executive Aaron Reardon proposed earlier this fall. Reardon’s budget proposal included no increase in property tax, although he had earlier sought a bump in the sales tax to solve some of the same budget troubles.

The executive is expected to receive the council budget later this week. Then he’ll have until Dec. 7 to sign it, veto it or let it take effect without a signature.

The council’s 2013 budget raises the county’s general levy by about 3 percent. The county expects to collect about $76.8 million from the levy compared to the $74.7 million it would have brought in without the tax increase.

Put another way, the county general levy is estimated to go up next year by about 2.8 cents per $1,000 in assessed value. The current levy is nearly $1.03 per $1,000.

The county last increased its general levy in 2003.

Since 2008, the county has lost about 350 positions because of budget cuts.

County leaders have said they plan to use the additional levy money to fill vacant jobs, start overhauling the county courthouse and build a new south precinct building for the Sheriff’s Office at the county’s Cathcart property.

The plan also shifts the way the county uses money from a 0.1 sales tax for mental health and drug treatment programs to reflect the intent of voters in 2008. The money was supposed to expand programs, but a large chunk has gone to fund pre-existing efforts.

When it came to make the final budget vote on Monday, Councilman Dave Gossett and Councilwoman Stephanie Wright voted with Sullivan in the majority.

“This is about solving some specific projects that we as a county and our citizens face,” said Gossett, the architect of the council’s 2013 budget plan.

Current county budget policy forces all departments to keep a percentage of their budgeted positions vacant, even though those jobs exist on paper. The new revenue in the 2013 budget should allow the sheriff to fill more than 20 jobs that are now being held vacant. The prosecuting attorney should be able to fill five.

Another aim of the budget increase is to begin working on an $68 million plan to renovate portions of the county courthouse and to add another three-story justice building that could be expanded in the future.

Councilmen John Koster and Dave Somers voted “no.”

“Property taxes affect everybody, whether you own the home or rent the home,” Koster said.

Koster, the lone Republican on the County Council, said he was loath to raise taxes when the county still funds many programs that, while noble, aren’t required.

Koster also said he was “acutely aware of” the problems with the courthouse, and went on to list them.

The outdated courthouse poses numerous well-documented deficiencies, running the gamut from public safety, to air quality and leaky infrastructure.

Rather than raising property taxes, Koster said a better way to pay for the upgrades would be to make a case to the public, and ask voters to approve a sales-tax increase. Reardon earlier this year suggested seeking voter approval for a sales tax, but failed to interest many other county leaders in the idea.

Somers said he’d have trouble looking taxpayers in the eye and telling them he was confident that the courthouse replacement plan the majority of his colleagues supported was the best course of action.

“It’s kind of like putting a rebuilt engine in an old car,” Somers said.

A rebuilt courthouse might get the county a few years down the road, he said, but is unlikely, in his opinion, to be the best long-term decision.

Somers agreed that the courthouse is obsolete, unsafe and unhealthy. Before committing to a plan to improve the facilities, though, Somers said he’d like to see engineering studies of issues such as whether it’s better to renovate, or to replace, certain buildings. He also wondered whether it was feasible, as his colleagues proposed, to build a new three-story courthouse building, with the option of adding additional stories at some point in the future.

In addition to a bump in the county’s general levy, the council’s 2013 budget also includes a 1 percent increase in the levy that supports county road and bridge projects. The tax increase for people in unincorporated areas would raise an additional $620,000 in 2013 to for road projects. It would cost an average homeowner about $4.80 more next year.

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

What the bump means

The 2013 budget that the Snohomish County Council passed Monday includes a 3 percent increase in the county’s general levy. What that means is that the county would collect 3 percent more in property taxes, bringing the levy to about $76.8 million, compared to $74.7 million without any increase. That would raise a little more than $2 million for the county’s operating budget next year.

The effect for homeowners would be an increase of just under 3 cents (about 2.8 cents) per $1,000 of assessed value to the current rate of nearly $1.03. As a result, the owner of a home assessed at $241,000, the average for the county, would have to pay about $6.70 more in taxes next year.

The budget includes another 3 percent increase for the 2014 general levy.

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