Uncertainties dog county budget writers

By WARREN CORNWALL

Herald Writer

As Snohomish County politicians sit down with calculators and computers to craft the coming year’s budget, there’s one other tool they might wish for: a crystal ball.

On top of the usual uncertainties about the economy, policymakers this year face a pending state Supreme Court ruling and two statewide initiatives that could cause a major shakeup in the county’s financial future, cutting off millions of dollars in expected revenue.

"Trying to manage in this local government financial arena is very tricky," deputy executive Joni Earl said of the political climate. "The private sector wants predictability from the government, and we’re not getting financial predictability."

One big uncertainty is the fate of Initiative 695, the 1999 ballot measure that, among other things, requires voter approval of most tax and fee increases.

The proposed 2001 budget unveiled Friday by Snohomish County Executive Bob Drewel essentially ignores that portion of the initiative.

It would more than double an annual fee homeowners pay to control and protect water in the county, and would raise the price of more than two dozen development and construction permits. All told, the increases amount to more than $4 million, with no plan for a vote on whether they should go up.

The plan counts on the Supreme Court to uphold a King County Superior Court ruling that the initiative was unconstitutional. The decision rendered the initiative powerless for now.

County budget officials say the Supreme Court should rule before the county council has to make a final decision about the budget. And they are confident the court will back the lower court’s decision.

But the new budget galled Tim Eyman, a Mukilteo businessman and architect of I-695.

He predicted the Supreme Court would overturn the lower court’s ruling. He also accused Drewel of ignoring popular support for votes on fee increases.

"The fact that they’re not willing to do that says a lot about how unlikely they think it is that the voters will think those are justified," Eyman said.

Holding a vote that’s not required would mean spending hundreds of thousands of dollars for a plan that, in the case of the building permit fees, would raise less in a year than the cost of the election, Drewel said.

"I think it’s much better to do this than to spend $600,000 to try to raise $500,000," he said.

Drewel has said the water fee increases are needed to keep pace with federal protections for chinook salmon and bull trout, and to bring the fees in line with other Puget Sound communities. The building fees, he said in his budget address, would help cover costs of overseeing developments.

Regardless of what happens to I-695, local governments still might have to contend with Eyman’s two latest creations, Initiatives 722 and 745.

The first would cap property tax increases at 2 percent per year, while the second would require that 90 percent of all transportation dollars spent in the state go toward road building and maintenance.

If voters approve the initiatives in the Nov. 7 general election, I-722’s property tax limits could cost the county more than $1.9 million in 2001, assistant finance director Roger Neumaier told the county council Monday. By 2006, the county would have missed out on more than $49 million in increased tax revenues, two-thirds of it earmarked for road projects, he said.

Depending on how I-745 is interpreted, the sheriff’s office could lose $1.5 million out of the county’s road fund, Neumaier said.

Drewel criticized Eyman for promoting two contradictory initiatives.

"He’s out there peddling 745 as the big road funding strategy while he’s taking away a funding source for roads in 722," Drewel said.

Eyman, however, said the property tax cap would protect homeowners from dramatic jumps in property values that can drive up taxes. It’s too soon to say how the road initiative would affect the county, because it’s up to the state Legislature to decide how to allocate the money, he said.

The fiscal belt-tightening from the initiatives, rather than hurting governments, has forced governments to take a closer look at how to spend the money, Eyman said. He pointed to the debate over whether the county should hire more than the two additional sheriff’s deputies called for in Drewel’s proposal.

"Clearly it’s bringing about a debate about priorities, and I think that’s a healthy thing," he said.

The county council will review the budget, with a public hearing scheduled Nov. 21.

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