By WARREN CORNWALL
Parks and planning got multimillion-dollar boosts, but a proposal to more than double a utility fee was roundly rejected in the 2001 budget approved by the Snohomish County Council Tuesday.
In a 4-1 vote split down party lines, the council endorsed a $581.6 million budget for the coming year, an overall drop in spending of nearly 5 percent compared with the 2000 budget.
Council Chairwoman Barbara Cothern said the budget, though tight, marked a new effort to deal with the fast-paced growth in much of the county.
She highlighted a plan to borrow $17.4 million to buy park land and speed planning to manage the county’s watersheds.
"Both parks and planning are critical investments for today and for the future," Cothern said. "We need to invest up front."
Gary Nelson, the council’s sole Republican, cast the lone vote against the plan. He warned that the council was embarking on vague new entitlement programs without enough details to ensure the money was well spent.
He directed his comments to the $5 million parks spending, and an additional $2 million carried over from 2000 and earmarked for neighborhood improvement projects.
"Let’s face the fact it is in fact an entitlement," he said.
The $17.4 million in loans are supposed to be paid off with a combination of $500,000 in higher-than-expected tax revenues and $1.1 million per year in taxes paid when real estate is sold.
Council members overcame differences long enough to reject an increase in the annual fee paid by landowners to a county utility that manages surface water such as streams and water runoff.
The unanimous vote on that budget section was a defeat for County Executive Bob Drewel, who had sought an increase from $31.77 to $65, with another $15 increase in 2002 for people living near cities.
Council members said little at the time of the vote. But several had earlier questioned how the additional money would be spent. In public comments Monday, a number of prominent environmentalists warned that the county would be wasting money if it increased the fee without toughening development standards.
Drewel said his office would seek to work with the council to answer their concerns. But he noted the water management agency still faces growing demands to protect water and salmon in the county.
"We’ll continue to work with them," he said of the council. "We heard the public testimony."
All sides, however, warned that the county was going to face tough financial times in the future in the wake of voter-approved tax limits.
The recently approved Initiative 722 caps overall increases in property tax revenues at 2 percent per year. That forced the county to lower planned increases for road construction and a fund to protect open space from 6 percent to 2 percent.
The road fund would get $1.4 million less in property taxes than expected in 2001, according to county council staff. That impact could grow to a total of $65 million over the next six years, according to the county’s finance department. That includes federal and state road money lost because it requires matching funds from the county.
"I am not unaware of the message that the voters sent as far as 722," Drewel said. "I am not convinced they understand the relationship with how the county raises money for transportation projects."
Councilman Dave Somers said county officials need to communicate better with citizens to help them understand what their tax dollars buy and what may be lost with tax cuts.
"There’s a real disconnect between the public and county government and other levels of government," he said. "We have a lot of work to do to reconnect with the citizens."
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