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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

County approves $790 million budget without raising taxes

The Spokane County Courthouse. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

Spokane County commissioners unanimously approved a $790 million balanced budget for next year that largely avoids cuts to county departments while maintaining funding for public safety, infrastructure, parks and capital projects.

The county’s 2019 budget priorities include road improvements, additional amenities for Bidwell Park in north Spokane, expansion of hours in the Courthouse, and construction of Geiger Boulevard infrastructure in the West Plains, as well as a new facility for the county medical examiner.

The budget also reduces the county’s annual property tax levy.

“There’s actually a decrease in overall property tax,” said Tonya Wallace, chief budget officer for the county. “Another great thing was an investment in the assessor’s office to make sure all new construction got on the rolls. This not only benefited the county, it benefited all the taxing districts.”

Last year, Spokane County faced a shortfall of about $9.4 million. In response, commissioners voted to transfer $4.5 million in banked capacity from the road fund toward balancing the 2018 budget.

Banked capacity is the difference between the amount the county could levy under state law and the amount it actually does levy in a year. State law allows the county to “bank” taxing authority for future use.

Spokane County Commissioner Mary Kuney said the county avoided such a shift in road funds for next year because of a gain in sales tax and new construction revenue.

“That’s $4.5 million less than we’re levying, and, with the 1 percent (property tax increase), which is only about $500,000, we’ve reduced the levy amount on our citizens by $4 million this year,” she said. “That was a big concern of mine and of my fellow commissioners, so we’re very excited to have that reduction to our citizens.”

Spokane County Commissioner Al French echoed that reducing the county’s reliance on the road shift was an accomplishment.

“Approximately 60 percent of all the counties in the state rely on the road shift,” he said. “So, the fact that we were able to get that out of our equation is a major achievement.”

The county’s 2019 budget – a 7 percent increase over last year – contains $184 million in general fund expenses for public safety, courts, detention services, employee wages and parks.

The general fund includes a $13.9 million increase in expenses over last year – partly because of several “one-time investments” such as new vehicles for the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office.

The budget contains more than $133 million in expenses for roads, the Conservation Futures program, veterans’ services, mental health and the 911 emergency communications system.

The county is also allocating more than $213 million in funds toward the Spokane County Interstate Fair, SCRAPS, the Spokane County Regional Water Reclamation Facility as well as maintaining golf courses and sewer operations.

Spokane County Commissioner Josh Kerns said he appreciated the transparency of this year’s budget process, which included three budget roundtables and several public hearings.

“We’ve encouraged folks two years in a row now to share your ideas and share your thoughts,” he said. “That’s been extended to not only the citizens, but the employees here at the county. I’m very proud of the transparency measures we’ve enacted with our budget, and we’re going to continue on with that.”

Kerns also praised the West Plains Public Development Authority’s economic development efforts, and highlighted efficiencies in the budget that allowed hiring of two new appraisers in the assessor’s office to keep up with rapid construction growth.

“It’s a good thing when we see new houses coming online and more folks moving to this great community,” he said. “I think it’s a testament to the work we’re doing here that shows why so many folks are continuing to move to Spokane County.”