Put new taxes before the public, Emerson urges

Island County’s lone Republican commissioner made a surprise proposal to her Democratic colleagues Monday that would require new property taxes or fees being considered by the board to first pass the test of public opinion.

Commissioner Kelly Emerson unveiled a draft ordinance that, if adopted, would force the board to put new assessments or fees on a non-binding “citizens advisory ballot.” The idea is to “obtain an understanding of the sentiment of the public on an issue” before action is taken.

The draft ordinance included language that addressed how “the board realizes the dire impact any new tax increases have on the people, a large portion of which are on a fixed income,” how “the board understands that wage earners in the county cannot simply absorb tax increases without diminishing their quality of life,” and how “the board is acutely aware of the need for certainty in order to pique the interest of private investment and thereby improve our economy.”

Emerson, a member of the Tea Party, acknowledged that several steps must still be taken before the ordinance could be formally adopted but expressed optimism over the proposal’s future.

“It hasn’t been before ‘legal’ yet, but I don’t think it needs much work,” Emerson said.

Several Whidbey and Camano Island residents were in attendance and criticized local taxes. Many addressed the Clean Water Utility, a per parcel fee adopted in 2010 to fund county surface water and ground water programs. The basic $40 fee showed up on property tax statements for the first time this month.

“I’m here to really complain about taxes,” said Edward Drum, an Oak Harbor resident.

“In my view that’s like being taxed in the state of Washington for a rain tax,” he said, referring specifically to the clean water utility.

But while Emerson will find support for her proposal among people like Drum, it’s unclear whether that will extend to her fellow board members, Island County Commissioners Helen Price Johnson and Angie Homola.

Price Johnson said she was caught off guard by Emerson’s idea and wished she’d had time to think and talk about it during their informal Wednesday meetings.

“I would prefer that we have these sorts of measures come to work session so we have a chance to read it ahead of time and actually talk about it with each other so that we could work on things collaboratively and not just trot them out on a Monday meeting,” Price Johnson said.

“If this is of importance to you, I think it should be scheduled for work session and we can talk about it,” she said.

Price Johnson said she would also like to have a “full accounting” of what Emerson’s proposal would cost.

Homola also urged caution, saying that Emerson’s proposal requires additional consideration.

She also asked that the board be supplied with the county’s history of adopted tax increases before Tim Eyman’s 2001 state initiative, which limited non-voter approved increases to just 1 percent per year.

“Prior to that, it was as high as 6 percent and there is a history of this board many times using the full 6 percent; never have they not at least opted for the 1 percent, as far as I know,” Homola said.

She also said the county has lost millions in revenue in recent years and has been forced to make hefty cuts. That can’t be done without some consequence, she said.


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