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Officials in no rush to boost levies

Cities, counties and other government entities that rely on property taxes could raise their levies by 6 percent in the wake of a state Supreme Court ruling striking down a voter imposed lid of 1 percent. But that doesn’t mean they will, government officials throughout Eastern Washington said.

Spokane Chief Operating Officer Gavin Cooley said the city’s proposed 2008 budget will maintain a 1 percent increase. But administrators plan to ask the City Council to pass an ordinance that would reserve the right to take the full increase in the future, he said.

Cooley agrees that 6 percent annual increases is excessive.

“It just seemed more logical that it would be tied to CPI (consumer price index) or other measure of inflation,” Cooley said. “All costs in the economy go up higher than 1 percent.”

Local elected officials were turning to their assessors for answers, and assessors were waiting for information from the state Department of Revenue.

“I think it’s safe to say that things are going to be on hold for a while, while we figure things out and look to the state Legislature,” Spokane County Commissioner Bonnie Mager said. “I don’t see us rushing into anything.”

That goes for Whitman County, which was a leader in challenging the 1 percent lid. Whitman County Commission Chairman Greg Partch Sr. said he was pleased and “cautiously optimistic” about the decision, but predicted he and fellow commissioners won’t try to exceed the 1 percent lid even though their budget is still $400,000 out of balance.

“We’re not going to balance this on the back of the people, I believe,” Partch said.

In Stevens County, Commissioner Merrill Ott said officials also were looking for answers but not a tax increase – even though the county has struggled to maintain services since an earlier initiative led to a major decrease in motor vehicle excise tax collections.

“It’s been difficult,” Ott said. “It should always be difficult.”

Among those hardest hit by the 1 percent lid are fire districts, say local fire chiefs. While cities and counties have other taxes they can collect, fire districts rely solely on the property tax.

The 1 percent levy lid has never kept up with the inflation, fire officials from several districts said. But some things that the districts buy, like fuel and equipment that uses new technology, increase much faster than inflation.

Still, the full 6 percent increase that would be allowed under the old law seems excessive, said Nick Scharff, chief for Fire District 10 that serves the West Plains.

“We want to be conservative,” Scharff said. “We will evaluate it on an annual basis.”

Spokane County Fire District 1, which provides fire services throughout the Spokane Valley, may already have its voters’ approval to do what Thursday’s court ruling seems to allow. It had a proposal to collect as much as 6 percent extra for its property tax levies for the next six years on Tuesday’s ballot, and the proposal is leading by about 860 votes.

The money would be used to upgrade existing fire stations or build new ones – a way to avoid paying for those capital costs with a long-term bond issue, Chief Mike Thompson said. If a shift in the vote count were to result in the proposition failing, the district would have to “figure out something else,” but that doesn’t necessarily mean raising the levy by the full 6 percent the court’s ruling seems to allow.

“We’re not sure what the process will be,” Thompson said.

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