County Council chairman proposes a lower tax increase

Brian Sullivan’s plan would cut in half a property tax increase proposed by the county executive.

EVERETT — By trimming here and paring back there, Snohomish County Council Chairman Brian Sullivan believes he can deliver most of the services in County Executive Dave Somers’ recommended budget, but with a smaller tax bump.

The county would still hire five new sheriff’s deputies, as in Somers’ proposal, but stagger their start times throughout the year. The councilman’s plan also would bring on a new code-enforcement officer, to focus on drug houses and other nuisance properties.

The plan Sullivan released Monday cuts in half a tax increase to pay for the county’s general services. It would cost the owner of an average-valued home $5.66 in additional taxes next year. There are no layoffs in the plan, though some vacant positions would go away.

“I have given a great deal of consideration to the executive’s proposal,” Sullivan said. “I have also clearly heard from our citizenry about the ever-increasing tax burden faced by hardworking property owners.”

Somers said he had “some serious concerns” after getting his first look at the plans Monday.

“We’re going to try to work with the council to try to resolve our differences,” the executive said. “… There are some critical staff cuts that were not necessary and that also create some significant risk for us.”

The council is scheduled to resume budget deliberations next Monday at 10:30 a.m.

County services run the gamut from licensing pets to managing Paine Field. Its employees are responsible for conducting elections, keeping streets safe from crime and running human services programs for vulnerable populations. Some of those duties, such as licensing and the airports, are supported through special fees or grants. Other general services rely on property taxes.

Somers in September released a 2018 operating budget of $252 million. His spending plan included $929 million in revenue across all government departments.

To pay for general county services, Somers suggested increasing the county’s general property-tax levy by 4 percent. The rise only applies to the county’s general levy, not to other parts of the tax bill that support schools, fire protection, libraries and other special-service districts. Somers’ plan would cost the owner of a $335,800 house an extra $11.32 next year.

The amount of the proposed county hike is small next to an estimated $272 that the owner of an average-valued house would face next year to pay for new education taxes authorized by the Legislature to satisfy the state Supreme Court’s demands in the McCleary case.

Owners of an equivalent house in Everett and points south would pay $84 next year for mass-transit projects, including an eventual light-rail extension to Everett and more new rapid-transit bus routes. The transit tax took effect in 2017 as a result of the ST3 ballot measure.

Most of Sullivan’s council colleagues have come out against the proposed increase in Somers’ budget. The council chairman said he explored a no-increase scenario, but decided against it, saying, “the cuts were just too deep.” It required layoffs, he said, and would have hurt services.

Cutting back Somers’ proposed budget erased nearly $1.8 million in revenue, however. Sullivan said he made up some of the difference by cutting vacant positions and at least one proposed position — an inclusion manager for the human resources department.

Other approaches include:

Eliminating merit-based pay increases for executive and council staff, saving about $49,000.

Paying for part of one high-level executive’s office manager through the airport’s self-supporting budget, rather than county operating funds, given that director’s role promoting aerospace at and around Paine Field.

Lowering the amount of money that goes toward replacing the county’s fleet vehicles.

Increasing the county’s cash reserves, but slightly less than what Somers recommended.

Public safety was a theme in Sullivan’s budget remarks, including combating drug addiction and homelessness.

Sullivan’s budget would give Sheriff Ty Trenary flexibility to hire another two new deputies, beyond the five in both versions of the budget, if savings are made in other areas.

His budget would put $1 million in taxes collected on real estate transactions toward projects to house the homeless. It also would provide the Snohomish Health District $100,000 in chemical dependency and mental health sales taxes for addiction treatment. The council chairman wants to provide $100,000 for dealing with nuisance properties, particularly ones that have become havens for illegal activity.

The new code-enforcement officer would join four others already on the payroll, who all handle at least 200 active cases at any given time.

Sullivan’s budget maintains current funding for the county’s senior centers.

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

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