Vancouver will increase property tax rate

City Council votes to take maximum possible hike

By Stephanie Rice, Columbian Vancouver city government reporter

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The Vancouver City Council approved a 2013-14 biennial budget Monday that includes a 1 percent property tax levy increase and utility rate increases.

The $752.4 million budget includes money for 18 fire and police grant-funded positions that had been set to expire.

The 1 percent levy increase will bring in an additional $409,573 in 2013, based on last year's city property tax levy of $40,957,344.

In addition to property taxes, the city receives revenue from sources including sales, business and excise taxes; fees; and grants.

The owner of a typical home assessed at $200,000 will pay between $620 and $630 in city property taxes in 2013, up from $592 in 2012. (That's just the city portion of a property tax bill, which also includes property taxes for schools, libraries and other services.)

The 2012 levy rate was $2.98 per $1,000 of assessed value. The 2013 levy rate will fall between $3.10 and $3.15 per $1,000, said Lloyd Tyler, the city's chief financial officer. The levy rate has increased because of a decline in assessed values.

The statutory cap for the city's levy rate is $3.32 per $1,000 of assessed value.

Annual property tax increases were capped at 1 percent or the rate of inflation -- whichever is less -- under 2001's Initiative 747. Since then, the city has approved the 1 percent increase every year except 2009.

"Voters put us on a property tax diet, and we're still on that diet," said Mayor Tim Leavitt.

City in deficit

Leavitt and councilors pointed out that increasing taxes at a rate lower than the cost of inflation has contributed to the city's structural deficit.

Prior to Initiative 747, property tax levies could be increased by as much as 6 percent.

Three people testified Monday against the tax increase. None of them, Councilor Jack Burkman noted, live within city limits. Burkman said he wished more city residents would be engaged in the budget process and learn what Councilor Bill Turlay shared on Monday.

Turlay was elected last year after promising to cut wasteful city spending. The people testified during the public hearing that the city needs to live within its means and not raise taxes, and Turlay told them that as a councilor he has a new perspective on the reality of the budget.

"I want to tell you that on this side of the table, it looks different," Turlay said. While the city has cut its budget and does seek efficiencies, the 1 percent increase doesn't even cover the cost of inflation.

"We need money to provide police and fire," Turlay said.

He said this budget session was rough, but the budget will be in worse shape in coming years because of the structural deficit.

That's why he's supporting the tax increase, he said.

"I'm dead set against it, but I've got no other choice," Turlay said.

Councilor Jeanne Stewart said the city will continue prioritizing and streamlining services. Councilors have an obligation to provide those services, even though they don't like raising taxes.

"We pay taxes, too," she said.

Clark County commissioners, in contrast, did not increase the countywide general property tax levy or the road fund levy (assessed only on residents in unincorporated areas) last year. The county's proposed 2013-14 budget was built with the assumption commissioners will not raise taxes.

Also Monday, the city council voted to approve a contractually required 1.5 percent inflation rate for garbage, yard debris and recycling collection. Ratepayers will see monthly bills increase by 38 cents, or 28 cents without yard debris service. Tanya Gray, the city's solid waste supervisor, said money was taken from a solid waste reserve fund to cover part of the increase, so the entire cost didn't get passed on to ratepayers.

Councilors also approved 5 percent increases each on water and surface water rates in 2013 and 2014, as well as a smaller increase in sewer rates, in line with an earlier council decision to take a pay-as-you-go approach for utility maintenance, instead of incurring debt by taking out loans or bonds.

Monthly utility bills will increase by $2.07 in 2013, and by another $2.18 in 2014.

As for the 18 grant-funded public safety positions, the city was helped by Clark County Fire District 5 and Vancouver Public Schools. Fire District commissioners on Nov. 9 approved giving the city a one-time payment of $1.3 million to pay for 13 firefighters, as the district contracts with the city for fire services.

The school district agreed to keep paying for a school resource officer who splits time between Fort Vancouver and Hudson's Bay high schools. The four remaining positions are in the police department, and the department was able to save those, Tyler said.

Stephanie Rice: 360-735-4508 or stephanie.rice@columbian.com.