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Opinion >  Editorial

Editorial: Tax limit continues to erode services

As long as low taxes are prioritized over public safety, the kind of painful cuts faced by Spokane County law enforcement officials will keep on coming. The only question is when local citizens will cry “uncle” and demand a long-term solution to structural budget deficits.

County commissioners, who are well aware of the ramifications caused by the state-imposed cap on property tax collections, have asked departments to come up with budget-cut solutions to cover a looming $10 million shortfall.

If forced to cut his budget by 7 percent, Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich said he would have to lay off 12 deputies, leaving the department with 100. It had 142 just before the 2008 recession hit.

Spokane County Prosecutor Larry Haskell said his department would lose 8 ½ full-time positions. The office would cease to prosecute most felony drug-possession cases and ignore many low-level charges for driving with a suspended license. The office might also have to drop out of the relicensing program, which keeps many of those cases out of District Court. This is a program that saves money in the long run.

But the county needs to balance the budget now, and so it will have to decide which of many bad options it will have to choose.

The genesis of this chronic revenue shortfall is Initiative 722, which imposed a 2 percent cap on annual property tax collections. The courts ruled it was unconstitutional. I-747 lowered it to 1 percent, and it passed in 2001. The state Supreme Court tossed it in 2007. Then-Gov. Chris Gregoire called for the Legislature to adopt the limit, and it did.

Many county officials are rueing the day they supported this, because revenue hasn’t kept pace with expenses. Inflation and population gains don’t come with caps. In the last legislative session, two bipartisan bills – SB 5772 and HB 1764 – would’ve ended the 1 percent cap and allowed local governments to factor in inflation and population, with a cap of 5 percent growth per year.

As is the case now, county commissioners would’ve had to take an annual vote on whether to take an increase, so voters would be able to hold them accountable. Given the political climate, we doubt many counties would try for the full 5 percent.

Those bills didn’t pass. As a result many counties, especially rural ones, will continue to struggle. In some small counties, there are times when no deputies are on patrol. Service from Spokane County deputies will decline, too.

The 1 percent limit came from the voters, so elected officials are spooked when it comes to raising taxes. State legislators, who lifted this cap to impose their property tax increase to fund education, won’t allow counties to have similar flexibility. A county plan to ask voters to approve a tax increase this November was scuttled.

So it’s ultimately up to citizens to decide how many service cuts they will put up with. If you feel these proposed public safety cuts, on top of previous ones, go too far, you should let your elected officials on the county and state level know.

In the meantime, we’ll get what we pay for.

To respond to this editorial online, go to www.spokesman.com and click on “Opinion.”

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