Battle Ground adjusts levy claims

Assessor says school district can’t declare taxes won’t increase

By Katie Gillespie, Columbian Education Reporter

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Battle Ground Public Schools is backing away from claims that approving a maintenance and operations levy will not raise property taxes after the Clark County Assessor’s Office questioned the district’s messaging.

The district will ask voters on Feb. 14 to approve a four-year, $136.54 million levy to replace the district’s expiring levy. The district has projected a levy rate of $3.66 per $1,000 in assessed value for each of those four years. That’s about the same tax rate that property owners are paying now, and means a taxpayer with a home valued at $250,000 would pay $915 per year toward the levy.

But Peter Van Nortwick, the county’s Republican assessor and a resident of the school district, notes that the district ultimately has no control over that rate. Rather, the district can only ask for a total amount of levy funding. In the first year of the proposed levy, the district would collect $31.68 million — 16.2 percent more than the $27.25 million being collected this year.

Van Nortwick notes that levy collection rates change as a parcel’s assessed value, and the total value of all property within the school district, rises or falls. Taxes on an individual property could go up or down.

“It’s all about the messaging,” Van Nortwick said Monday. “Do not say ‘no tax increases’ when it is.”

Van Nortwick raised the alarm after district Superintendent Mark Hottowe told The Columbian the district’s school board wanted to put forth a levy that would not “increase the taxes to our community.”

“We can’t say taxes won’t go up, because it is all based on projection,” district spokeswoman Rita Sanders said Monday.

MaryBeth Lynn, the district’s assistant superintendent of finance and school operations, said it’s typical for districts to provide information about the overall amount of the levy as well as the projected levy rate. While Battle Ground’s website and literature prominently feature the proposed levy rate, other districts do the same, she noted.

Camas School District provides the same information about the maintenance and operations levy it’s running this year on its website, for example. On the Washougal School District’s website, the district details only the projected levy rate for its maintenance and operations levy, not the overall amount, she said.

The Battle Ground levy asks voters to approve year-over-year increases from 2018 through 2021, meaning the district would collect $33.26 million in 2019, $34.93 million in 2020, and $36.37 million in 2021. Lynn said the district is projecting a 5 percent growth in its tax base year over year, which includes increasing property value as well as the value of new construction.

“What we’re saying this time is, we believe growth is going to help us maintain that $3.66 (per $1,000), or possibly even decrease it,” Lynn said.

Lynn, who met with Van Nortwick early Monday to address his concerns, disagreed with his allegation that the district is trying to mislead or hide information from voters.

“Who knows what’s going to happen in four years, but we’re doing our best, and we believe we’re good stewards of the public’s money,” Lynn said.

The levy and levy equalization funds make up about 23 percent of the district’s general fund budget, which, for the 2016-2017 school year, is $155.7 million. Another 68 percent comes from state funding, while grants and other funding make up 9 percent of the budget. District officials say the levy provides necessary services for its students, including staffing, technology support, transportation and extracurricular programs.