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Spokane County Cancels November Ballot Measure

Doug Nadvornick/SPR

This week the Spokane County Commissioners announced they’re taking a measure off of the November ballot. That would have asked taxpayers for permission to raise county property taxes by more than one percent next year. State law allows counties to increase property taxes up to one percent without a vote of the people; anything more must be approved at the polls.

Commissioner Al French says the board acted in response to the legislature’s decision to increase state property taxes to raise significantly more money for public schools and satisfy a state Supreme Court ruling.

“If you’re already looking at having a several hundred dollar increase in your property taxes next year, are you going to be voting your wallet or are you going to be voting your desires? If people end up saying, you know what, next year I’m already going to be taxed to death, I don’t want to pay more taxes for any good reason. I get that,” he said.

French says the county surveyed the seven largest school districts in the county to learn how much the state tax increase would impact homeowners next year. He says it found homeowners will pay between 150 and 170 dollars more on average.

So the county decided to go with plan B, keep local taxes as is this year and reduce spending instead.

“We know that we have about $9.5 million to cut out of our budget for next year. With the criminal justice system being 75% of our budget and with a lot of the other services that we provide being statutorily required, there’s not a whole lot of wiggle room," French said. "So you’re probably looking at quality of life programs like parks and conservation futures and some of those others that a lot of people, including myself, have really come to value. The question is how much does the community value them.”

For that reason, French says the county’s annual budgeting process will become much open this year so that people can see the spending cuts the commissioners are proposing.

“Typically our budget adoption process involves a single public hearing and nobody shows up and we pass it and we move on. That’s not going to be the case this year," French said. "There’s a lot of education that has to go on. We want to make sure the public fully understands and appreciates what we’re doing to be good stewards of their taxpayer dollars and that means transparency, transparency, transparency, not only in how we got here, but how we’re going to work our way out and how we’re going to chart a course forward.”

That course forward will include negotiations with the city about how to make more efficient some of those services the two provide and share.

“When they arrest somebody, they come to our jail and so we have a mutual responsibility in making sure we keep the public safe," he said.

Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich worries about that too. At a news conference held after the commissioners decision to pull the ballot measure, Knezovich told reporters he’s already at that point where service has been affected. He says there aren’t many more efficiencies he can find.

“Right now I purchase used cars for our patrolmen. We’ve been underfunded one-point-six million dollars for the last five years. I told the Board of County Commissioners this January that if there is not a dynamic change in the way that we are doing things, we will lose control of crime in this area in five years," Knezovich said.

"From 2008-to-2010 we lost 34 deputy positions; those positions have never come back. With the one-point-three million dollar cut that we’re facing right now, it’s another eight-to-15 deputies that could be lost during this next go round. The commissioner said that you’re going to have some public meetings," he said. "Ladies and gentlemen, it’s time for your voice to be heard.”

Next year, French says the initial wave of state property tax increases will subside and the county intends to go back to the ballot to raise the county taxes beyond the limit allowed without a public vote. Meanwhile, county leaders around the state who in similar situations say they’ll go back to Olympia to try to convince legislators to give local taxing districts more revenue options. French says it could be a matter of life or death.

“There are counties that are in the state today that do not have 24/7 sheriff deputy coverage on their streets," French said. "If you’re going to call the sheriff’s office and get a deputy to show up, more than likely you’re going to pull him out of bed because they can’t afford to keep a deputy on the street 24/7. Now we’re not at that state, yet, but if something doesn’t happen in terms of changing the economic paradigm that we’re currently in, we could be at that stage.”

The county commissioners will hold the first two of at least six public budget workshops during their next two regularly scheduled Tuesday evening meetings.