People speak out against proposed county tax hike

Executive says without the bump, $3 million would have to be trimmed.

EVERETT — A handful of taxpayers gave the Snohomish County Council an earful of opinions Wednesday morning about reshaping next year’s budget for government services.

A common theme was slimming down a tax increase that County Executive Dave Somers recommended, which would cost the average homeowner a little more than $11 more next year. While not large in itself, the county hike would come at a time of ballooning taxes for state schools and regional transit.

Jeff Estes, a homeowner from the unincorporated Startup area, said he’d like elected officials to look for savings instead of new taxes.

“It’s adding one more thing here and there and the next thing you know your tax bill is outrageous,” Estes said after a budget hearing. “I’m not anti-tax, because definitely services are necessary. But how many new county rigs do I see driving to and from Everett?”

People had another chance to testify about the budget in council chambers on Wednesday evening.

It’s up to the council to pass a final budget. That could happen as soon as Nov. 13.

Somers has suggested a $252 million operating budget, with $929 million in total spending and more than 2,900 employees.

The local economy remains healthy, but costs for government services are growing faster than the money the county brings in. That’s largely due to rising salaries and health care costs.

Without any increase, the county would have to trim $3 million.

To avoid that, Somers wants to raise the county’s general levy by 4 percent. That’s among the half-dozen or more levies that appear on the typical homeowner’s property-tax bill.

That increase is needed, Somers contends, to hire five new sheriff’s deputies and another code enforcement officer, without laying off employees in other departments or risking financial instability by dipping into the county’s emergency cash reserves.

The sheriff’s office now employs about 270 commissioned sheriff’s deputies. The planning department’s code-enforcement staff has four officers to investigate land-use and environmental complaints.

The executive’s spending plan would add $11.32 in property tax for a home assessed at the countywide average of $336,000. The owner of an equivalent home in an unincorporated area would pay an additional $4.78 in county road taxes.

Three of the five council members have said they won’t support raising the general levy. Councilman Nate Nehring said he opposes any tax increases, with colleagues Terry Ryan and Sam Low open to something on a smaller scale. They all want to hire more deputies.

Any bump in the county’s share of property tax would be much smaller than what state lawmakers and voters have approved during the past year.

The tax bill for the average-valued house would jump an estimated $272 next year under a school-funding package the Legislature passed this summer. Owners of an equivalent house in Everett and points south will pay $84 next year because of the Sound Transit 3 ballot measure to build light rail to Everett and transit projects in the coming decades.

Estes, the Startup homeowner, said the county’s portion of the increase is small, but it all adds up. He said people in his area, which is outside Sound Transit’s district, also face possible votes next year on taxes for fire protection and schools.

Mukilteo-based initiative promoter Tim Eyman asked council members to keep any increase at 1 percent, in line with a ballot measure that he championed and voters passed in 2001. Elected officials can ask for more, in Eyman’s view, so long as they put it to a public vote. He, too, put the county increase in context with transit and state school taxes.

“Next year, taxes are going to go up like never before,” Eyman said. “It’s the cumulative impact.”

Snohomish County voters in 2016 rejected a sale-tax increase to support public safety and human service programs. Had it passed, it would have added 2 cents to a $10 purchase.

Not everyone who spoke at Wednesday’s meeting had an anti-tax message.

Hal Howard, an at-large advisory board member for the Veterans’ Assistance Fund, asked the council to support human services needs for indigent vets. Snohomish County provides less funding for such programs than almost any other community in the state, said Howard, a Vietnam vet who was in the Medical Service Corps.

“Buddy, can you spare a penny for a vet?” asked Howard, paraphrasing a song title from the Great Depression.

Somers’ budget would add about $200,000 to programs to help eligible veterans with housing, counseling and other emergency assistance. Total funding would top $1 million.

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465; nhaglund@herald Twitter: @NWhaglund.

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