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Spokane County Commissioners approve 1% property tax increase, $6.1 million shift in road levy

UPDATED: Mon., Nov. 30, 2020

Spokane County commissioners are shifting and raising some taxes to help offset a budget deficit.  (JESSE TINSLEY)
Spokane County commissioners are shifting and raising some taxes to help offset a budget deficit. (JESSE TINSLEY)

Spokane County Commissioners approved a $6.1 million shift in road taxes, and a 1% increase in property taxes for Spokane County, saying the money is needed to keep up with increasing expenses and make up for a budget shortfall.

Spokane County Commissioners Mary Kuney and Al French voted for the shift and the 1% increase to property taxes. All that money would go to the general fund, where most services people use are paid from. Spokane County Commissioner Josh Kerns voted against the shift and the property tax increase.

French said moving tax funds from the road fund to the general fund, which pays for many of the county’s basic operations like public safety, could provide more funds for the county to spend on roads overall by having a larger base of property tax payers.

The 1% increase was needed to keep up with unfunded mandates from the Legislature and the increasing cost of living.

State law allows counties several ways to pay for roads, but limited ways to increase general fund revenue year to year without asking voters for a tax increase at the ballot box.

Under normal circumstances, county residents who don’t live within city boundaries are solely responsible for paying the road tax, which would be exclusively used for county roads. When commissioners voted to shift the road tax into the general fund, they expanded that road tax base to everyone in the county, thus raising more money.

French and Kuney, who both voted for shifting road funds, said that people living in cities still use county roads and should help pay for them, and unincorporated county residents help pay for city services when they drive into cities and pay sales taxes at stores.

“They might not be driving on city streets, but they’re clearly paying for city streets, so this is a way to balance that all out,” French said.

French said he planned to discuss how the revenue should be spent when the commissioners meet again this week, but said the $6.1 million from the road shift would be mostly used for capital projects and for road projects, and said it likely would not be used to cover reoccurring expenses and the county’s operating costs.

The road shift will result in a tax increase of about 10 cents per $1,000 in property value across the county, according to county documents.

The 1% percent tax increase is more common, with the 1% usually used to pay for inflation and normally passed with little controversy. Recently those increases have generated about $650,000 each year.

Kuney said she hopes about $3.27 million of the road shift will go to roads and the rest should be used for capital projects, such as courthouse maintenance and other needs. She said the road money should not be used to cover the county’s recurring costs.

Kerns, who voted against the road shift and the 1% tax increase, said the county should be looking for ways outside of tax increases to pay for expenses while people are struggling financially during a pandemic. He said many constituents also live in other taxing districts for schools, libraries or their own city, and may not be able to afford another increase.

“The fact is that people are hurting, and I didn’t feel comfortable increasing taxes at a time like this,” he said.

Though he didn’t vote for the road shift, Kerns said that in future budget discussions, he plans to advocate for the county not relying on road shift funds and plans to advocate only using it for one-time expenses.

French said if Kerns isn’t willing to increase taxes, he should be providing suggestions on where the county should be making cuts. French said the county was already operating with very little waste and due to a budget deficit, is struggling to fund basic programs like pretrial services.

The county was facing a budget deficit of $11.6 million and has lowered expenses by waiting to fill vacant job positions next year, including several Sheriff’s deputy and training positions. Now the deficit is about $6 million said Spokane County Budget Officer Gary Petrovich.

French and Kuney acknowledged that even with the road shift and the 1% property tax increase, the county may have to dip into reserves to balance the budget and preserve essential services.

“This is the time for when you’ve set that money aside for extraordinary circumstances, and COVID certainly has provided that,” Kuney said.

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