One commissioner’s recognition of the county’s recuperating finances has led the board to pull the law-and-justice levy from the November ballot.
The Island County commissioners Monday formally removed the proposed property tax increase from the ballot. All three commissioners informally agreed on the decision during a work session last week.
“I’m concerned about going out and asking the taxpayers for more money when we have capacity in our budget,” Commissioner Jill Johnson said.
It’s a turnaround from their decision in July, when the commissioners voted to put the $1.9-million-a-year, property-tax levy on the ballot following a series of community meetings about the issue.
Island County Sheriff Mark Brown and Prosecutor Greg Banks, the primary proponents of the levy, attended the commissioners’ work session Aug. 21 and asked the commissioners to withdraw the levy. They said they reached the decision after a special, unadvertised meeting of the Law and Justice Council Monday; all nine members present agreed to ask the board to delay the ballot measure after speaking with Johnson about the budget.
The issue may not be gone for good. Brown and Banks said the needs are great and a levy still may be necessary in the future, but they’ll have a better picture of the numbers after this year’s budget process, which started last week.
“The need will still outstrip the county’s resources, but not in the first year,” Banks said.
Brown agreed that the levy would be “more palatable to voters” if the county spends its existing surplus to fund law-and-justice needs before asking for more in taxes.
Johnson conceded Wednesday that she didn’t have a complete grasp of the county’s budget when she agreed to the law-and-justice levy.
She said she was focusing on the expenditure side of the equation and found that it was “very, very lean.” The only programs left that can be cut, she said, are valuable and the savings wouldn’t even come close to covering the law-and-justice needs.
Then she looked at the revenue side and realized that things are looking rosy.
The county has had large fund balances for three years, including this year.
Revenues outpaced expenditures by $1.6 million in 2011, $1.9 million in 2012 and this year’s projection is for a minimum of $1.5 million.
The fund balances have been used to replenish the county’s reserve fund, which was depleted during the budget crisis.
Johnson questioned how much should be kept in reserves; she said it would be difficult to ask voters for more money if the county’s “savings account” is excessive. The reserve fund is at $9 million, which is 41 percent of the county’s $22-million operating budget.
Johnson later said she believes a levy will be necessary at some point, but the county should use what it has before asking for more.
“The thing about people is that they fundamentally don’t trust government,” she said. “What we need to do again and again is to show all our cards. If we are completely transparent, then they will see that our words match our actions.”
“Most importantly, when you ask for things that you don’t need you erode your integrity with voters and we need to preserve our integrity ... If the voters hold us accountable throughout the budget process, then they will understand that the need is genuine when we do ask for a levy.”
Commissioner Helen Price Johnson questioned the proposed delay of the ballot measure.
She asked what had changed since they decided to put the levy on the ballot. She said the budget is transparent and the commissioners get monthly budget presentations from the auditor’s office.
Price Johnson pointed out that law-and-justice departments’ requests during just the first day of budget session amounted to more than $1.2 million in extra funding for “basic needs.”
She said the county learned a hard lesson during the recession that it’s not a good idea to rely on unpredictable revenues, such as new construction and sales taxes.
“We will just become a boom-and-bust county again,” she said. “I don’t want to hire six deputies and next year when sales tax revenues are gone, we lay them off.”
Banks agreed with Price Johnson, but said it makes sense to wait until after this budget process to see how much additional funding is needed.