Property taxes on agenda

OLYMPIA - Olympia voters would decide in August whether to raise their property taxes by 25 cents on every $1,000 of assessed value to pay to staff a new fire station, according to a proposal the Olympia City Council will discuss tonight.

The city staff is recommending that a measure to increase the limit on property tax levies be placed on the August primary ballot. The extra money would be used to pay the salaries for 13 firefighters to staff the fire station set to open next spring at 3525 Stoll Road in northeast Olympia. The council could give first reading to an ordinance as early as April 27 to put the measure on the August ballot.

Councilman Stephen Buxbaum, temporary chairman of the Finance Committee, said he supports asking the voters whether a tax increase is in order.

“If we don’t do this, I think that we’re facing extremely difficult cuts,” he said. “What we need to be working on simultaneous to putting something on the ballot is seeking efficiencies, making sure that we’re insisting on the highest, that we’re making choices that are in the highest possible good in the public interest as we go into continued very difficult revenue times.”

He stopped short of saying he supports the measure.

Voters approved a 20-year tax increase in 2008 to raise up to $16.5 million for the new station and training center. But that levy is paying for the buildings and fire equipment, not staffing. The city had planned to staff the station from revenue from planned state building projects and steadily increasing property tax revenue, said Jane Kirkemo, the city’s finance director.

But the city’s sales tax revenue declined sharply late in 2008 as the nation entered a recession and has not recovered. Also, state projects such as the Heritage Center did not materialize, costing further revenue.

If the fire department can’t find the money to staff the station by the time it opens, the department would move a three-man ladder crew from the downtown station, Fire Chief Larry Dibble has said. But that would reduce coverage for the rest of Olympia.

The city has until May 25 to approve a resolution in order to get the levy on the August ballot, Kirkemo said. That would allow revenue from the tax increase to begin in May. The city could finance the short time between the station opens and the revenue begins, she said.

The proposed 25 cent tax increase would be permanent, but the council will also consider a temporary $1.25 per $1,000 increase for an undetermined period. The rationale behind a temporary increase is that it would last only until the economy improves.

But Kirkemo said that the staff doesn’t support a temporary increase because it’s not known when the economy will improve, and she said it’s not happening anytime soon.

The council had discussed including funding for police in a tax measure. Police Chief Gary Michel said the number of officers had dropped from 70 to 65, and he’d like to replace them.

Buxbaum said, “I didn’t see a compelling case to include police in a levy lid lift,” for now.

Councilwoman Karen Rogers said she’s undecided but skeptical about whether the measure should go on the ballot. “After going door to-door for six months last year, I heard a lot of people say they don’t want new taxes,” she said.

“We have to be able to show clearly that there is no other way, that we’ve made all the efficiencies that we can, that we’re making the best use of city dollars,” she said.