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March 3, 2024

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Cowlitz County says no to raising taxes, yes to department cuts

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LONGVIEW — Cowlitz County commissioners Tuesday declined raising property taxes next year as a way to increase general fund revenue.

Instead, they asked county staff to review how to cut hundreds of thousands of dollars in the draft 2024-25 budget.

Commissioners have until Dec. 15 to OK the general fund and road levies — both supported by property taxes — for the two-year budget. They asked staff to draft a resolution for no property tax increase for either levy to present next week, and voted against raising property taxes for the general fund on Tuesday.

Revenue stands at $59 million and expenditures at $71 million in the draft 2024-25 budget. Despite the $12 million deficit, Finance Director Kathy Funk-Baxter said the county can maintain one month’s operating balance in the draft budget — an amount she called “the bare minimum” at the Nov. 21 meeting.

“It’s tighter than I would like this to be and that’s why I was recommending, if at all possible, that for our levy that we choose an option that brings in a little bit more revenue …,” she said.

Funk-Baxter told The Daily News the largest expenses in the upcoming budget are increases to staff salaries and inflationary increases in contracts for ongoing projects.

However, at Tuesday’s meeting Commissioner Rick Dahl said he couldn’t request cash-strapped citizens to give more, as food and gas prices continue to climb.

“I’m just sitting here saying I just can’t ask for more money out of people’s pockets when they’re going to stores and they are wondering if they can buy hamburger this week, they can put gas in their car and stuff,” he said.

The county needs to find a way to cut roughly $400,000 from the general fund’s $71 million budget, he added.

Commissioner Dennis Weber said Tuesday about 70 percent of the general fund pays for law and justice, including the courts, jails and Cowlitz County Sheriff’s Office.

The general fund is mostly comprised of revenue from property taxes and sales tax, as well as smaller streams like traffic violations.

Commissioners have also requested not to increase property taxes to go into the county’s road fund, but since both the road and general fund levies were in the same resolution, neither were OK’d Tuesday.

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Commissioners previously requested staff draft a resolution for a roughly 2 percent property tax increase, or $404,076 addition to the general fund, but they turned down the option Tuesday.

The 2 percent included the maximum 1 percent levy increase for property taxes allowed in the state, as well as a roughly 1 percent increase the county had banked from not raising taxes in previous years, Funk-Baxter said.

At the Nov. 21 meeting, Commissioner Arne Mortensen said he feared that if taxes weren’t raised now, they could be raised much more in the upcoming years, particularly as the state increases mandates, and questioned whether it’s be better to “hit them with the small bill along the way.” However, at Tuesday’s meeting, all three commissioners voted against the increase.

Funk-Baxter said commissioners previously OK’d a 5 percent cost-of-living adjustment increase for county employees not represented in unions, while most of the unions are negotiating their contracts now.

A budget presentation is scheduled for Dec. 19.

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