Snohomish County Council passes a no-new-taxes budget

The spending plan still funds the hiring of five new sheriff’s deputies and a code enforcement officer.

EVERETT — The Snohomish County Council worked into the night Tuesday to whittle down expenses to match the no-new-taxes spending plan they adopted a day earlier.

After uncertainty throughout the day, they passed a budget 5-0. All of the council members said they were pleased with the result. They said their plan would still provide money to hire five new sheriff’s deputies during the course of 2018, plus a code-enforcement officer to focus on crime-ridden properties.

“To get to a bipartisan budget with no tax increase and five votes — it’s a herculean task,” Council Chairman Brian Sullivan said. “And I’m beat.”

Councilwoman Stephanie Wright called it “a good compromise.”

The council on Monday voted to eliminate a tax hike for general services, creating the need to trim $1.8 million from county programs or payroll. The council scrambled to make that happen Tuesday.

They called a meeting for 2 p.m. to hash out what those cuts would look like. More than 20 minutes after the scheduled start time, Sullivan announced a one-hour delay. The recess was later extended another half hour. Sullivan came out a third time to announce they would reconvene Tuesday evening.

The no-new-tax version of the budget was championed by Councilman Nate Nehring, who earned initial support from fellow Republican Sam Low and Wright, a Democrat.

“Everything I voted to take out, I didn’t think was necessary,” Nehring said.

Sullivan and fellow Democrat Terry Ryan initially voted against it, saying the sacrifices necessary to make it work were too steep. A day later, both had changed their tune, saying they’d made it work.

Ryan also said that by working together, they were able to get rid of some early proposals for cuts that he considered fiscally irresponsible.

The plan they passed is $1.8 million leaner than the plan Sullivan proposed Nov. 13. It required $3.6 million in cuts to the $252 million operating budget County Executive Dave Somers recommended in September.

The budget includes more than $900 million in total services, including fee-driven departments such as the county airport and the Solid Waste Division that aren’t supported by property taxes.

On Tuesday, council members were considering dozens of amendments as they attempted to pass a budget that also includes funding to hire five new deputies without layoffs in other departments.

The council relied in part on one-time moves that won’t help in future years. In several cases, including the new deputies, they provided funding for only part of the year, reasoning the jobs won’t be filled immediately on Jan. 1.

In other spots, they used money from special funding sources, such as real estate excise tax and a tax for mental health and chemical dependency.

They said that wouldn’t create a problem in future years, as Somers’ administration has contended. The potential for future problems is sometimes referred to as a bow-wave effect.

Low said there are promising economic signs on the horizon, notably a new terminal for passenger flights at Paine Field that’s scheduled to open later next year. He believes that will bring more business investments that ultimately will benefit government coffers.

“It’s going to be the start of a bow wave of new revenue,” Low said.

The healthy economy provided more government revenue this year, but it’s not enough to keep up with rising costs for salaries, benefits and other expenses of running county government. Members of the county’s largest union are in line for a 2.5 percent raise next year.

The council Monday also voted for a 1 percent increase in levies for roads and the conservation futures program.

Those passed 4-1, with Nehring opposed.

The executive’s proposal would have cost the owner of a house assessed at the countywide average of nearly $336,000 an extra $11.32 next year. While not large in itself, the county hike comes at a time when the same homeowner faces an estimated $272 increase next year to pay for new education taxes authorized by the Legislature to satisfy the state Supreme Court’s demands in the McCleary case.

In Everett and areas to the south, homeowners also are paying higher property taxes and new car-tab fees for the Sound Transit 3 light-rail and bus package that voters passed last year. There are also new taxes for fire protection in south Snohomish County.

“The people in my district are going to be feeling the effects of McCleary, Sound Transit and potentially the Fire Authority,” Wright said.

Taxes for general county services account for just under 8 percent of the average property-tax bill. That’s less than the portion of the bill that generally goes toward fire protection and emergency medical services. More than 60 percent of the average bill goes toward education.

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

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