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Divided Spokane County commission opts to forego property tax hike in 2024

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(The Center Square) – The conservative majority of Spokane County commissioners this week voted to forego a state-allowed 1% property tax increase that would have taken hundreds of thousands of additional dollars from residents in 2024.

In the 3-2 decision, commissioners Mary Kuney and Al French supported the motion by commissioner Josh Kerns for a 0% tax hike instead.

Commissioners Chris Jordan and Amber Waldref dissented.

In a statement Friday, Kerns said he was pleased the majority “held the line on taxes and has budgeted in a fiscally responsible way. We must continue to live within our means just like Spokane families and businesses do.”

“Due to forward-thinking investments in economic development that have grown the local economy, our revenues remain strong,” said French, adding, “Rather than a quick fix, property taxes should always be the last resort.”

Many cities and counties in Washington typically utilize the allowable 1% annual property tax increase for their general funds. The projected revenue can also be “banked” for future use, commissioners were told Tuesday.

In unincorporated Spokane County, the increase would have added about $3 per year in property taxes and provided an additional $638,000 in revenue to the county in 2024.

Waldref and Jordan – both new to the commission this year – supported the tax hike, saying it was a modest and reasonable increase. Jordan noted that prior commissions had utilized the 1% hike in eight of the past 10 years.

Waldref said the county currently has about 160 unfilled staff positions and has a need to both recruit and retain employees. She proposed dedicating 75% of the projected revenue, about $478,500, to address workforce shortages in public safety and criminal justice positions, including the sheriff’s office, corrections, prosecutor and public defense offices, juvenile detention, and more. The remaining 25% could allocated to other departments or agencies for salaries, staffing and retention, she said.

Jordan said the county’s number of vacancies “is not normal” and that a lot is being asked of current employees “to pick up the slack.”

Kerns, in turn, said the county “has never been 100-percent staffed. There have always been vacancies.”

Said French: “You don’t solve problems like this by throwing more money at it.” He contended that a shortage of law enforcement personnel did not result from a lack of pay, but because “the state has demoralized and (discouraged) people to go into law enforcement.” French also said prior property tax increases had been a factor in building a growing economy in the county so that an additional increase was not needed at this time.

Kuney said strong opposition on the Nov. 7 ballot to Measure 1 – a proposed 0.2% increase in the countywide sales tax over 30 years – showed that citizens “said no to public safety and tax increases.”

Jordan did not believe that measure was comparable to the one-year, 1% tax hike under consideration by the commission.

Both French and Kerns said the county is forecasting sufficient revenues next year without the increase to still adopt a balanced $918 million operations budget for 2024. A vote is scheduled next week.

This week’s vote on the property tax hike was also bundled with two other levy proposals – conservation futures and county roads – that French, Kerns, and Kuney opted to keep at current rates.

They voted down a request by Jordan and Waldref to consider the levies individually. The proposed increases were nominal: about 1 cent a month for conservation futures – a program to preserve open spaces and natural resources in the county – and about $1 a month for county roads.

The five commissioners did unanimously approve a $5 annual increase in property assessments that will raise an additional $400,000 for stormwater management services in several rural areas including Glenrose, North Spokane and West Plains. The charges have not gone up since 2007, but a rate study due later next year is expected to recommend an additional increase.

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