As Washington lawmakers sail into their first overtime session, they are rightly focused on school funding. That much is unavoidable. The Legislature is under state Supreme Court orders to fix the state’s unconstitutional system of funding K-12 schools.
But as legislators tinker with the property tax system that is at the heart of the school funding debate, they will be remiss if they fail — as they did in 2015 — to give local governments more leeway to set their local property tax rates.
Many county governments around the state are struggling to meet public demands after the Great Recession shrank services and staffing. The average county government’s staffing in our state is still about 11 percent lower than before the cuts, said Eric Johnson, executive director for the Washington State Association of Counties, in a meeting last week with The Olympian Editorial Board.
This squeeze is felt acutely by police agencies, jails and courts that are battling to keep up with growing problems. In Thurston County, for example, the sheriff’s office is still operating with a bit fewer deputies than in 1997, Sheriff John Snaza says. In the prosecutor’s office, staffing is still below prerecession levels, even as Prosecutor Jon Tunheim’s deputies also face growing caseloads.
The mental health and addiction problems that feed into this clogged criminal justice system require prevention and family wellness programs that the county just can’t pay for today, says Bud Blake, chairman of the Thurston County Board of Commissioners.
The state’s property tax cap is one reason counties such as Thurston aren’t keeping up. The 1 percent cap limits a jurisdiction’s total increase in tax collections to 1 percent a year, plus an allowance for new construction.
Though we’re not big fans of property taxes, we think the cap imposed by Initiative 747 in 2001 is too tight. On average, property taxes account for two-thirds of a county’s revenue and costs for services are growing 3 to 5 percent, including personnel expenses, according to Johnson. Cities face similar constraints but are less than half as dependent on property taxes as counties or fire districts.
Two bills introduced in the House and Senate would ease the counties’ pressure, while still keeping a brake on property tax increases that did get out of hand in the 1990s.
Practically speaking this would result in a new cap of about 2.4 percent a year, under current conditions in Thurston County, Johnson of the WSAC says. The resulting tax increase for a typical or average home would amount to about $6.48 a year — or just $3.78 more than the 1 percent increase — for the county’s share.
All three Thurston County commissioners support the legislation, according to Commissioner Blake, a political independent.
HB 1764 is co-sponsored by Democratic Rep. Kristine Lytton of Anacortes and Republican Rep. John Koster of Arlington.
Tax rebel Tim Eyman opposes any change in the tax lid. He steered Initiative 747 to victory only to see the Supreme Court strike it down in 2007.
The Legislature quickly re-enacted the 1 percent cap, fearing a public backlash. And Eyman insists the cap is still needed. He notes that local governments have options — such as asking voters to approve the tax increases, up to 6 percent a year.
That is true. But as Johnson of WSAC notes, some counties would actually receive less new revenue from such a “levy lift” than they would pay for the election needed to approve it.
In Thurston County, Blake said he is not ready to raise property taxes much higher than the 1 percent limit — “1.1, 1.2 or 1.3 percent, but not 2 percent.’’ If the tax collections were raised by more than 1 percent, he said commissioners might still ask voters to approve it.
As legislators dwell on the larger issue of school financing, they should keep counties and cities in mind. If lawmakers restructure the state’s funding system for schools in a way that is less dependent on property taxes overall, the impact of a higher tax lid for local governments would be fully offset.
In the end, it costs money to run government. Those who complain of slower police response times in rural areas or the lack of a foot patrol on Olympia’s downtown streets must realize these services don’t come free.
When politicians ask for too much, voters can always hold them accountable. That is how the system should work.