Sunday, September 27, 2020
Sept. 27, 2020

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In Our View: County must ensure we get what we pay for

The Columbian

One of life’s axioms is that you get what you pay for. Well, hopefully.

Ideally, that extends to government, as well. Residents expect and deserve efficient services and accountability in exchange for their tax dollars, a fact that comes to mind with the Clark County Council approving a $545 million budget for next year. That marks a $27 million increase (5.2 percent) from the approved 2019 budget.

Next year’s spending passed by a 3-2 vote, with Democratic Councilor Temple Lentz joining Republicans Julie Olson and John Blom in support. Lentz said: “I think that this is, as presented, a very fiscally conservative budget and (I) really appreciate that. We are now racing to catch up, and the structural deficit is exactly that. It’s that we’re always going to be behind.”

Republicans Eileen Quiring, the council chair, and Gary Medvigy voted against the proposal. Medvigy said: “As we develop in the county, that tax base should be covering our costs in a more efficient manner. I’m against raising any additional taxes because we are so healthy right now, our economy is so healthy right now.”

There are reasonable arguments on both sides, and therein lies the debate. Although the economy is healthy, municipal governments throughout Washington are falling behind in their ability to serve constituents. State law limits property-tax levy increases for cities and counties to 1 percent per year, which is not enough to keep up with inflation.

Governments are allowed to bank that increase. For example, if county councilors choose to not take it one year, they can increase property taxes by 2 percent the following year, up to a maximum of 5 percent. The Columbian has argued editorially that the 1 percent limitation should be abolished because of its negative impact on public services.

Cities and counties throughout the state have labored for years under funding that has decreasing purchasing power. Some say that can be made up through improved efficiency or by trimming services, but you can only tighten the belt so much before you suffocate.

The council has approved a 1 percent increase in the property-tax levy for next year, along with taking .979 percent of a banked increase. It has declined to use the permissible 1 percent increase in five of the previous eight years.

Next year’s increase does not mean the tax on each property will increase nearly 2 percent; some will go up more, some less. But the county’s overall collection on property taxes will increase about 2 percent. Officials estimate the taxes on a $350,000 home will increase about $6.90 a year. A boost to the road fund will add another $4.75.

Overall, the county is projecting $505 million in revenue, continuing a string of budgets driven by deficit spending with the difference made up from the existing general fund balance. That creates a problem and brings us back to the notion that you get what you pay for. Next year’s budget includes money for a study of buildings, including the Clark County Jail, which soon will have to be replaced or renovated. It also includes, for example, an additional $100,000 for the removal of abandoned recreational vehicles.

While nobody likes higher taxes, they also don’t like having a bone-jarring pothole that takes months to fix. Or an overcrowded jail that is dangerous for corrections officers. Or an abandoned RV across the street.

That puts pressure on the county councilors. Having increased the property-tax levy, now they need to work to ensure the public gets what it is paying for.