The 2015 legislative session isn’t over, but state Rep. Larry Haler is already working on a bill for 2016.
Haler, R-Richland, wants to address the problems that counties across the state are facing because of a 2001 voter initiative capping the amount local governments can increase property taxes to 1 percent a year.
County officials say they need a new formula tied to inflation and population growth because they can’t keep up with the cost of needed services, especially law enforcement.
Counties are particularly squeezed because 60 percent of county revenue comes from property taxes, while cities and the state have other sources, such as sales taxes and user fees.
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The Washington State Association of Counties said the cost of providing essential services has been climbing 3 to 5 percent a year, while revenue collections remain staying relatively flat.
County agencies, including prosecutors and sheriff’s departments, have tried to deal with the issue by cutting staff; using furloughs; cutting programs; training and services; shrinking reserve funds; delaying road repairs and more. And the problem compounds each year, the association said.
Benton County Commissioner Jerome Delvin, a former legislator, told the Tri-City Herald Editorial Board that the Tri-City economy faired the recession better than many parts of the state, so it hasn’t felt the squeeze as severely as other areas.
The public safety tax passed by voters last year will help, but it can be spent only on specific projects, he said.
Delvin, along with Benton County Prosecutor Andy Miller and Franklin County Prosecutor Shawn Sant, said county commissions need more flexibility.
Haler has his staff looking into a proposed bill, and he plans to use the time before the next session starts in January to have counties and cities fully vet the issue.
“There are a couple of things I will be looking at,” he said. “I can’t guarantee what it will come out as is .”
Haler said it’s likely too late to introduce the bill this session, because it is set to end April 26.
“We can introduce bills right now, but they won’t be heard by committees,” he said.
Brian Enslow, senior policy director for the Association of Counties, is hopeful that something can still be passed this year. The association organized a news conference on the issue last week on the steps of the capitol.
He said the answer could be in school levy reform that has been proposed to make school districts less reliant on local votes, and, instead, get more of their funding from the state. If that were approved, the same rules would likely apply to other taxing districts, including counties.
“They understand that funding needs to have some sort of mechanism to keep up with inflation and population growth,” he said.
Enslow expects state Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn and Treasurer Jim McIntire to release a proposal on levy reform this week. But he admitted that, since it’s not in the proposed budgets for the House, Senate or Gov. Jay Inslee, it could be tough to pass a change this year.
“I’m being optimistic and holding out hope that we can get something done this year,” he said. “Rep. Haler is probably being more pragmatic about it.”
Franklin County Commissioner Rick Miller said he’s not sure how he feels about the proposed change.
“I’d have to see how the bill looks before I can agree to change the law. What I don’t think is good is that we can automatically increase taxes all the time because we have the ability to,” he said.
But King County Executive Dow Constantine was clear on his position on the issue.
“After a decade of revenues falling behind population growth and inflation, we are well past the point where innovation, efficiency, and rainy-day funds can balance our general fund. The arbitrary cap on revenue now threatens our ability to maintain the health and safety of our communities,” he said in a news release last week.