December 6, 2011 in City

County budget won’t increase property taxes

2012 blueprint reflects reduced revenues
By The Spokesman-Review

A 1 percent increase in property tax levies, which commissioners declined Monday, would have added $454,936 to the general fund.

Spokane County commissioners decided Monday to decline the 1 percent increases in property tax levies that state law allows.

Today they expect to adopt a $136.8 million 2012 general fund budget that is about $2.5 million lower than this year’s.

The reduction is caused in part by the expected loss of $1.2 million in sales tax revenue when the city of Spokane annexes 10 square miles of the unincorporated West Plains in January.

“We’re not doing what everybody else is doing,” Commissioner Todd Mielke said. “These are different times, and people are saying, ‘Live within your means.’ ”

Chairman Al French said he hoped “taxpayers understand that at least this board held the line,” but Mielke feared the county would be tarred along with jurisdictions that take all the money available to them.

A 1 percent increase would have added $454,936 to the general fund.

The road fund could have gained $173,363 and the Conservation Futures fund might have added $16,822, but commissioners unanimously passed over those increases as well.

They also decided not to use “banked capacity” in the road fund to free up about $1.3 million in real estate excise tax revenue for capital projects in the general fund. The road fund has about $8.9 million in unused property tax authority because of previously declined levy increases.

Commissioners said the general and special-fund budgets they expect to adopt today are possible because employees agreed to accept wage freezes and reductions in health benefits.

“I hope that the public gives our employees the credit they deserve for that,” Commissioner Mark Richard said.

He said employees’ sacrifice allowed commissioners “to send a crystal clear message” to financially stressed taxpayers that “we are empathetic.”

No one but Skip Chilberg, business operations director for the Sheriff’s Office, testified during public hearings Monday on the budgets and levies.

“There are critical needs that can’t be met,” Chilberg said, citing about $600,000 worth of work needed to make the county jail comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The improvements will get more expensive if they are delayed, and a court eventually may intervene, Chilberg said.

However, Richard said next year’s budget “takes a good step toward it” with a $200,000 allocation.

Chief Executive Marshall Farnell said the budget also was stretched to prevent cuts in the prosecutor’s and Superior Court clerk’s offices from undermining the new “early case resolution” program.

The initiative seeks to reduce the county jail population by quickly diverting offenders to programs designed to monitor and rehabilitate them.

“I call it a continuation budget,” Farnell said.

It preserves the current level of service, but Farnell noted the budget doesn’t reflect pending cuts in the state budget.

French said it is “quite likely the state will balance its budget on the backs of local governments … so we are preparing for a rough road ahead.”

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