Liberty Lake won’t raise property taxes

Rate will drop to $1.51 per thousand in assessed home value

The Liberty Lake City Council voted unanimously not to increase property taxes by the allowed 1 percent in 2009 before a full house of citizens who came to observe the meeting Tuesday.

Citizens were taxed $1.58 per $1,000 in assessed home value in 2008, and that will drop to $1.51 per thousand after the council’s vote. Mayor Wendy Van Orman had included the 1 percent increase, which would have collected $16,000, in her proposed 2009 budget. If the council had approved the increase the 2009 tax rate would have been $1.53 per thousand, still less than the rate in 2008 due to increased property values.

“Our levy rate will be going down next year, no matter what we do tonight,” Van Orman said before the vote.

“I would rather see us streamline and be more effective than pass the tax increase on,” said Councilwoman Susan Schuler.

The city received two letters in opposition of the new tax. “They’re not understanding they’re going to see a 5 cent decrease anyway,” Van Orman said.

No one in the sizable crowd got up to address the council during a public hearing on the tax, which caught council members off guard. “We are talking about a tax increase,” said Councilman Patrick Jenkins. “Is everybody OK with that?”

In the end the five council members present voted against the tax, with Brian Sayrs and Judi Owens absent. “It looks like we’ve got an extra 2 cent property tax decrease,” Van Orman said.

Councilman David Crump cautioned against making the budget so lean that maintenance was deferred, pointing to the condition of the city of Spokane’s streets as an example of regular maintenance delayed too long. “Operations and maintenance is extremely important,” he said.

Jenkins said he thought there was plenty of room in the budget to absorb the $16,000 lost by not increasing the tax rate. “The budget is not all that lean. It can be leaned more. I don’t see anyone suffering here.”

“We’re going to be tightening our belts and our residents will be doing the same,” Van Orman said.

The mayor said she would be looking for ways to trim the $16,000 from her proposed budget. “We will definitely find a way,” she said. “I guarantee you, essential services will not be cut.”

Van Orman plans to introduce an ordinance at the next meeting on Dec. 2 to “bank” the 1 percent increase the council did not approve. It would allow the city to consider a 1 percent tax increase for 2010 based on the city’s current assessed valuation.

If the assessed valuation were to go down next year, the amount the city collects would also be reduced and even adding a 1 percent increase would make the tax rate lower than it is currently. The ordinance would basically allow the city to lock in the current assessed valuation even if values were to go down.

In other business, the council spent a lot of time on the proposed 2009 budget. It calls for a total budget of $12.6 million and a general fund budget of $6.5 million. It includes some additions of seasonal and part-time staff, but no new full-time positions. It also includes four capital projects – the arboretum, phase two of Rocky Hill Park, a skate park and baseball fields. Two of the projects, Rocky Hill and the skate park, are expected to be funded largely by grants.

Flat growth is expected and the city will be keeping an eye on the economy, said administrative services manager Jessica Platt. “Expenditures will be expanded or contracted based on revenues,” she said.

City staff spent more than an hour responding to a lengthy list of questions Jenkins had submitted before the meeting on specific line items. In response to several of Jenkins’ questions, Platt said some line items such as insurance and janitorial service have gone up because the amount budgeted in 2008 wasn’t enough. “The budget estimate in ’08 didn’t match actual expenditures,” she said.

“We just overspent,” Jenkins said.

Councilmembers asked questions about the necessity of some items, including a large aerator for the golf course and an HD television for the new library building.

Jenkins also pointed out an error in the salary schedules included with the budget, which listed a pay scale for reserve police officers. “We actually don’t pay our reserve officers anything,” he said. “It’s in violation of our union contract.”

“In the original history of the city, we did pay our reserve officers,” said community development director Doug Smith. That policy ended when the police union formed, but the pay scale was never deleted. The oversight will be corrected, Smith said.

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