Conservation projects tax considered in Benton County

Sara Schilling, Tri-City HeraldJanuary 14, 2014 

A property tax increase to pay for conservation projects could head to Benton County voters this fall.

A survey conducted by a California firm for the Benton County commissioners found majority support for such a conservation funding measure.

A group of local conservation advocates is expected to work with The Trust for Public Land, a national nonprofit conservation group, on a proposal to bring to county commissioners this spring. Commissioners then would consider sending it to the ballot.

The measure envisioned in the survey would cost $11 a year for the average household, bringing in an estimated $950,000 annually in the county. The money would pay for projects from acquiring land for parks and open space, to preserving farmland and conserving wildlife habitat, to creating more recreational opportunities.

David Comstock, vice president of Friends of Badger Mountain, said the results of the survey exceeded his expectations, and "I'm thrilled there's a real potential that we might have an income stream (for conservation)."

"It's an opportunity -- that's what this initiative is about, being able to seize opportunities," added Scott Woodward, president of Tapteal Greenway and Ridges to Rivers Open Space Network.

Woodward and Comstock asked commissioners early last year to invite The Trust for Public Land to provide information about conservation financing.

Commissioners did so, and trust officials gave a presentation outlining options that could be pursued, including a property tax.

Commissioners gave the nonprofit the OK to put out a survey to gauge voters' feelings about conservation projects and their willingness to fund them.

The survey, conducted last fall by the Oakland, Calif.-based Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, Metz & Associates at no cost to the county, included a sample size of 400 registered Benton County voters likely to cast ballots in the November general election. It described a measure that would authorize commissioners to create a Conservation Futures Fund, with the money for the fund coming from a modest property tax increase.

The measure was based on one that's been successful in Spokane County.

The survey found overall initial support at 54 percent, with the reception potentially growing even warmer with a strong "yes" campaign.

Commissioners could impose a tax for conservation without going to voters for approval, but they said they aren't interested in that.

They are receptive to potentially forwarding a proposal to the ballot. "I've never had a problem letting voters vote on a tax," Commissioner Jerome Delvin said Tuesday.

He and his fellow commissioners discussed the results of the voter survey during their regular weekly meeting in Prosser.

County voters may also be asked to weigh in on another funding measure this year -- a sales tax increase for criminal justice needs, such as a mental health court. A proposal is working its way to county commissioners.

-- Sara Schilling: 582-1529; sschilling@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @saraTCHerald

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