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Clark County puts tax limitation on agenda

Future councilors will arrive to find hearing already scheduled

The Columbian
Published: September 8, 2015, 8:05pm

Before they’re even elected, the new Clark County councilors already have a proposal to consider.

The Clark County council on Tuesday, after about a month of discussion, officially scheduled a hearing for a proposed charter amendment for March. The amendment, which Councilor David Madore proposed, would prevent the county from raising its tax levy by more than 1 percent in any given year without a public vote.

Councilors Madore and Tom Mielke, both Republicans, voted to schedule a hearing on the amendment. Republican Councilor Jeanne Stewart, who has been a vocal opponent of the amendment, voted no.

“We need to be able to collect revenue, which to the folks on the other side of the microphone, means taxes,” Stewart said. “We spend that money in ways that are prudent and wise.”

“Show me good reason why we wouldn’t want to use some of that banked money in an emergency,” Stewart continued.

The current council cannot amend the county charter. After the new councilors are seated, four of the five must vote to move it to a public vote, and then a majority of voters must support the amendment.

Furthermore, Madore’s amendment could die as soon as the new council convenes in January with two additional councilors. Deputy prosecutor Chris Horne said the five-person council, once seated, could easily vote to cancel the hearing completely.

The chair candidates — Marc Boldt, who has no party preference, and Democrat Mike Dalesandro — and the District 2 candidates — Julie Olson, a a Republican, and Chuck Green, a Democrat — echoed their sentiments from last month, saying it is premature to adequately consider a charter amendment until after they’re in office.

Since the 2001 voter adoption of Initiative 747, pushed by conservative political activist Tim Eyman, counties can raise property tax revenue in individual taxing districts by 1 percent annually. For example, if a county collects $1 million in property taxes one year, it can only levy a 1 percent property tax increase the following year, for $1.01 million in property tax revenue, according to the state Department of Revenue.

Counties can, however, “bank” their ability to raise the tax levy beyond 1 percent. If the county projects a good year, for example, the county can choose not to raise taxes, but to reserve the option. In a later year, then, the county could levy a 2 percent tax using both its annual 1 percent tax levy and the earlier year’s “banked capacity.”

The Clark County council raised its tax levy by 1 percent every year following the initiative until 2011. From 2011 to 2013, the board voted by resolution not to raise taxes for the following years, instead banking those three increases. Last year, the council included no tax increase in its budget, throwing out the capacity entirely.

The county has never used those banked increases, so it could raise its tax levy by 4 percent this year. Such a move, however, would be unprecedented, and there’s no indication that the new councilors would vote to do so. Stewart has called such a move “political suicide,” while Madore at one point suggested that the council might consider lowering taxes this year.

Several speakers accused Madore of using his office to electioneer.

“Mr. Madore, you are corrupt,” Nancy Schultz said. “You are trying to rig the general election.”

Liz Campbell, who brought Stewart a bouquet of flowers to thank her for being an independent voice on the council, said Madore is fearmongering by making people worry that taxes will sharply increase once the new council is seated.

“The people of Clark County won’t buy what you’re selling,” she said. “Let the 2016 board handle their own business.”

Carol Levanen spoke in favor of the resolution, saying it’s to the advantage of the new board members to be aware of this coming issue.

Kaitlin Gillespie: 360-735-4517; kaitlin.gillespie@columbian.com; twitter.com/newsladykatie