Spokane County commissioners raised property taxes by 1 percent as they approved a 2014 budget that preserves the county’s existing level of services as well as its workforce.
The $142 million general fund budget is a slight increase from the $140 million budget for 2013.
The $14.9 million reserve account could be depleted under binding-contract arbitration scheduled for jailers next month and sheriff’s deputies in May.
Other county employees have gone three years without any cost-of-living salary increases, commissioners said.
The total county spending plan is $441 million, which includes grant funding, utility charges, the conservation futures program and intergovernmental contracts.
The commissioners voted unanimously on both the budget and a 1 percent property tax increase, which is allowed under state law. They also unanimously approved a 1 percent property tax increase for the county road fund that appears on tax statements of people living in the unincorporated county.
Marshall Farnell, the county’s chief executive officer, said he expects sales tax collections to increase 3.75 percent.
Yet the cost of operating criminal justice programs continues to absorb most county tax revenue with 74 percent of the general fund going to the sheriff’s office, jail, prosecutor, public defender, courts and probation services.
The number of people jailed is expected to rise in the coming months.
Officials are talking about building a new jail that might require voter approval for a tax increase.
Commissioners said annexations in past years reduced county tax collections and forced budget cuts.
Commissioner Al French said the general tax fund was $160 million in 2008 and is now down to $142 million.
“We are leaner and much more efficient,” he said.
Commissioner Todd Mielke said, “We do not spend more than we take in.”
The county has sought to hold down costs within its workforce and overhead expenses, including savings in energy consumption. Employees are picking up a greater share of health coverage costs. The 2014 budget is benefiting from a slower rate of inflation in health care premiums, officials said.
Discussions among the county and its largest cities could lead to revenue sharing that would stabilize county revenue in the future, French said.
State officials are putting pressure on the county budget by requiring greater contributions for workers’ compensation coverage and pensions, Mielke said. At the same time, the state limits property taxes to a 1 percent annual increase.
Smaller cost-of-living increases in binding arbitration with jailers and sheriff’s deputies may let the county provide cost-of-living increases to non-uniformed workers as well, Mielke said.
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