EVERETT — A debate is brewing over a proposed tax hike to pay for Snohomish County government services next year.
County Executive Dave Somers said it’s necessary to raise the property tax slightly to hire five new sheriff’s deputies and a code-enforcement officer, without resorting to layoffs or raiding the county’s rainy-day fund. Somers’ plan would cost the owner of an average-valued home a little over $11 next year.
A majority of the council isn’t sold on the increase. They still would like to hire more deputies, though.
“It’s a big puzzle,” County Councilman Terry Ryan said. “I believe we can pay for those five deputies by cutting some of the proposed spending that the executive has in the budget.”
Ryan said he’s working on a “more modest proposal” with a smaller tax increase.
Councilman Sam Low also wants to keep new taxes to a minimum, if any. County Councilman Nate Nehring goes further: He has come out against any tax increase whatsoever.
The three declared skeptics all have a history of holding a tight line on finances. They’re all also up for election this fall.
That could lead to interesting discussions over the next month about how to make ends meet.
People are invited to learn more, and share their thoughts, at two public hearings Wednesday. The meetings are set for 10:30 a.m. and 6:30 p.m. in County Council Chambers. The council could vote on a final budget as early as Nov. 13.
Expenses are going up faster than revenues in county government, despite the strong economy.
“This has been a pretty good year,” Deputy County Executive Marcia Isenberg said. “Our revenues have increased about 3.5 percent. Costs are up about 5.3 percent. That’s without adding a single deputy.”
With no change in taxation, the operating budget would start in a $3 million hole, just to keep services and staffing status quo. The imbalance owes largely to rising salaries and health care costs. Hiring five new deputies would cost about $925,000, for pay, benefits and other expenses, Isenberg said.
Property taxes are the simplest tool elected officials have for raising money. They’re limited to a 1 percent yearly rise, but also can reclaim increases they haven’t taken in the past.
Each additional 1 percent in the general levy would add about $865,000 to county coffers next year. Somers proposed a 4 percent increase, which would cost the owner of a house assessed at the countywide average of $336,000 an extra $11.32 next year.
Somers’ suggested operating budget would total $252 million. His plan includes new equipment at the sheriff’s office. It would pay for a new code-enforcement officer to help the county planning department investigate land-use and environmental complaints. Somers also put more money toward services for military veterans.
Ryan wants to carve out a position for an urban planner to figure out infrastructure needs in the fast-developing North Creek area, from Mill Creek and Bothell east to Highway 9.
Somers’ draft plan would add six new employees to next year’s operating budget. That number excludes departments funded through fees, grants and other dedicated sources. The county’s total payroll exceeds 2,900.
The county also levies taxes for road work and land conservation. Separately, the County Council is considering a new rate system for the Snohomish Conservation District. The proposal would cost most property owners in unincorporated areas and some cities another $5 next year, though payments for some would go down. The council postponed that vote until 10:30 a.m. Nov. 22.
The county’s tax increases are small compared to the extra load homeowners shouldered for voter-approved Sound Transit tax hikes, starting this year, plus more on the way in 2018 thanks to the Legislature’s school-funding plan.
The same homeowner facing a $11.32 property-tax bump for county services is looking at a $272 rise for state school funding, or an estimated 81 cents per $1,000 of assessed value. The ST3 package that voters in more urban parts of Snohomish, King and Pierce counties approved last year adds $84 to that same tax bill, or 25 cents per $1,000 of assessed value.
County Council Chairman Brian Sullivan, who has a lead role reshaping Somers’ budget, said it’s too early to say where things will wind up.
“There are so many moving parts, to speculate would be premature,” Sullivan said. “I really need to work on this as hard as I can and to get this to a winning majority.”
Hearings are scheduled Wednesday on the proposed 2018 budget from Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers. People are welcome to testify about county spending at 10:30 a.m. or 6:30 p.m. at the Henry M. Jackson Board Room, 8th Floor, Robert J. Drewel Building, 3000 Rockefeller Ave., Everett. The budget includes $929 million in total revenue for public safety, roads and parks, solid waste, building services and more.