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Lonesome Emerson pushes for Island County tax cuts

Kelly Emerson - File photo
Kelly Emerson
— image credit: File photo

While most Island County officials hope to begin climbing out of a budget hole this year, Island County Commissioner Kelly Emerson has other plans.

During the commissioners’ first budget-related meeting this year, Emerson proposed cutting taxes. Specifically, she said her goals for this year’s budget process are to suspend the usual 1 percent annual property tax increase, sunset some sales taxes, stop “chasing” grant opportunities, reduce the Conservation Futures tax and possibly sell some county property.

“The citizens are not seeing their pay increase, so I don’t think it’s right that we see any increases,” she said in an interview. “I think property owners could use a little more money in their pockets.”

Emerson, a Tea Party-Republican, made it clear during Wednesday’s staff meeting that the political divide between her and the two Democratic commissioners won’t be easily closed and that may make the budget process even more of a challenge this year.

Already, discussions between the commissioners have been spirited and even ill-tempered.

“Please stop yelling and we don’t need to campaign anymore,” Commissioner Helen Price Johnson told Emerson at the height of the arguing Wednesday, adding that pontificating isn’t necessary. Afterward, Emerson admitted she was impatient with the other commissioners, but was tired of them “making the same points over and over again.”

Budget Director Elaine Marlow said her goal is to start budget discussions early this year and to create a budget document that is easy for the public to understand. She doesn’t yet know whether more budget cuts are in store, but is waiting for sales tax information from the state and the resolution of the state budget.

So far, the news isn’t great, though the deep cuts of previous years seem unlikely. Marlow said sales tax revenues will likely be flat or down a little from last year, while costs for things like pensions and health care may be up. The good news is that home construction seems to be increasing and the county didn’t lose liquor sales profits as anticipated.

Since 2008, the commissioners have cut more than 20 percent of the current expense funds and about 85 jobs.

Still, Emerson said she believes there’s even more room for cuts, though she said she won’t know any specifics yet.

“I do have an idea we are definitely not tapped out. There is room,” she said in an interview afterward.

Emerson told the commissioners that she wants county department heads to answer a series of questions similar to those Gov. Chris Gregoire presented to state agencies ahead of the budget process; the questions focused on identifying essential government service. Also, Emerson proposed the county to start a “You Cut” website modeled after the U.S. House Republican project, which allows people to vote on proposed cuts.

Price Johnson pointed out that she already proposed using the government’s questions as a template. In addition, she and Commissioner Angie Homola said they were interested in the “You Cut” idea or another kind of online poll, but they were concerned about how programs would be chosen to be offered up for cuts, the context of how the programs would be presented and whether a poll would really represent the community.

While she has a lot of ideas, Emerson admitted in an interview that her proposals for tax cuts are unlikely to go anywhere due to her minority position on the board.

“I’ll give the best pitch I can give and hope for the best,” she said.

As for her budget goals, Emerson said she wants to end the annual 1 percent increase in the amount of property tax that the county collects. The 1 percent increase is the maximum allowed by law, without a vote of the people, and is routinely passed by county, city, town, fire district and other local officials. Officials commonly complain that the limit on the tax increase doesn’t keep up with inflation or cost increases. A vote by the commissioners to adopt the 1 percent increase would bring in about an extra $73,000 in current expense funds next year.

Emerson also proposed “sunsetting” some sales taxes, though she was vague on the details. She suggested decreasing the one-tenth of 1 percent sales tax for mental health programs, which a Republican-dominated board of commissioners passed in 2007. She said she would like to see the Island Transit sales tax reduced, though the agency isn’t a part of county government.

“If some of these things were on the ballot now, I don’t think they would go through,” she said, adding that the county’s high sales tax rate puts businesses at a competitive disadvantage.

Next, Emerson said the county should “stop chasing down grants.” While she said she understands the county is mandated to perform certain functions that are funded by grants, she said the county should stop applying for new grant opportunities. She said the grants come with strings attached that ultimately cost the county.

“The past board went after grants like it was free money,” she said. “There’s no such thing as free money.”

Emerson said she wants to reduce the amount of property tax that is collected through the Conservation Futures program, which was enacted by Republican commissioners. The tax of 6.25 cents per $1,000 in assessed value is used to purchase and protect open space land. She pointed out that the property the county purchases is taken off the tax rolls.

“It doesn’t look good in the economic state we are in for the county to be purchasing land,” she said.

Finally, Emerson proposed that the commissioners look at the property the county owns. Specifically, she said members of the Island County Fair Board are interested in purchasing the county’s fair property in Langley and she agrees that’s a good idea. It will make the county some money, she said, and allow the fair board to do a better job of running the fair without county hindrances.

Likewise, she said the county “should get out of the management” of the Camano Animal Shelter Association building.

The other commissioners spoke more philosophically about their own goals for the budget process, but unlike Emerson, didn’t offer any big surprises or blockbusters. Price Johnson said she wants a goal-driven budget and hopes to find ways to improve the quality of services the county provides.

Homola stressed the importance of communicating with the public so they understand the multitude of services the county provides and the consequences of budget cuts. She asked whether the residents would really want to stop feeding impoverished seniors citizens and children in order to save a few dollars in taxes.

“Do we want to be that kind of community?” she asked.

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