Although the legislature is already well into its first special session, lobbyists for counties around the state are still pushing for a property tax cap increase that they argue would allow counties to maintain public safety services.
House Bill 1764 (and its Senate companion, SB 5772) seek to lift a cap — approved by voters in 2001 — that limits county-collected property tax increases to one percent per year. The proposal would instead change the cap to a “floating” number driven by inflation and population growth, and approved by local governments.
Counties have been hindered for a decade since Initiative 747 — the Tim Eyman-driven one-percent cap — went into effect, said Josh Weiss, a lobbyist for the Washington State Association of Counties.
Weiss said that county governments have had revenue growth of about two to four percent since the recession, as opposed to the eight to 12 percent growth the state has seen.
“As efficient and as lean as we’ve gotten, particularly through the recession, our costs are still growing dramatically faster than our revenues are growing,” Weiss said Tuesday.
About 75 percent of counties’ general funds go to public safety, Weiss said, which includes sheriff’s offices, jails and local prosecuting attorney. To respond to the decrease in revenue, cities and counties have tapped into road funds, cut employees and used reserve funds in order to pay for public safety.
Cowlitz County Sheriff Mark Nelson said that between 2015 and 2016, he saw an 11 percent increase in calls for service. But in 2016, he had the same amount of deputies that his father, Sheriff Les Nelson, had 40 years ago.
Thankfully, Nelson said, he’s been able to hire two more positions this year, but it’s still not enough.
Wahkiakum County Commissioner Blair Brady, who supports the bill, said the Wahkiakum sheriff’s office can no longer provide 24-hour coverage, and the county can’t afford its full commitment to the Cowlitz-Wahkiakum Drug Task Force.
The one percent cap was first enacted after a landslide “yes” vote on Initiative 747 in 2001. It was ruled unconstitutional six years later by the State Supreme Court, but public outcry led to its reinstatement shortly afterward.
Mukilteo conservative activist Tim Eyman, who led the charge for I-747, defended the cap in an opinion piece for The Herald of Everett on April 16. Eyman criticized the proposed legislation because property tax increases would not be voter approved (they would be approved by local officials, as they have been in previous years).
“If powerful governments and special interest groups are successful this year and take away the current property tax limit, it’ll be bad for taxpayers,” Eyman wrote. “Property taxes continue to be a huge burden for struggling working families. Take away the current limit and property taxes will skyrocket like they used to.”
While Sheriff Nelson said he thinks a change to the property tax cap wasn’t the final answer, “it’s part of a solution.”
Brady said that if voters don’t like the tax increases that commissioners or council members approve under the new tax cap, “they’ll vote them out.”
While legislators are still negotiating how to comply with the McCleary decision and fully fund education, Weiss, from the Association of Counties, said he’s hopeful the proposal will make it in this biennium’s budget.
Sen. Dean Takko of Longview said he thinks “its going to be a hard push,” though he supports the change.
“It’s not realistic when you consider inflation has been at more than one percent a year and there’s population increases,” Takko said. But he admitted that what the property tax cap still could be stalled by debate.
So, does the property tax cap has any chance of surviving this session?
“You’ve got two sides that are quite a ways apart... it’s kind of at the point that anything could happen,” Takko said.