Island County property taxes among lowest in state

An Island County Assessor's report issued last week shows county residents pay some of the lowest property taxes in the state, while at the same time maintaining some of the highest property values and personal incomes.

County residents will pay an average rate of $9.84 for every $1,000 of property they own on their 2002 property taxes, up from $9.41 the previous year. This is still the second-lowest rate in the state behind San Juan County, which levies an average of less than $9.

Meanwhile, state Department of Revenue figures for 2002 showed Island County as having the fourth-highest per capita property value among the state's 39 counties, behind San Juan, Jefferson and King counties. The Island County ranking does not include the value of Navy property, which is not taxable.

Personal income also seemed to keep pace: The average income in Island County in 2000 was $25,609, the fifth highest in the state, according to the Washington State University Cooperative Extension Service.

With annual county budget deficits looming in the foreseeable future, the county's taxing capacity could play into measures to raise more money with local taxes. Tom Baenen, Island County's assessor, said this week that the state Legislature is considering a measure that would allow law enforcement agencies to run their own levies, rather than rely on county general funds. During the past two years of budget and staff cutting in Island County, Sheriff Mike Hawley has mentioned such a levy as an option for his agency.

Aside from being a tool to use on future local tax issues, the assessor's report gives insight into how the county keeps its overall levy rate low while still paying for government. The report shows that levy rates from area to area vary from a low of $8.17 per $1,000 to $10.86. Most people living in rural South Whidbey pay at a rate of $9.41; those in Langley pay $9.68, according to the report.

Overall, the value of taxable and non-taxable property in the county is about $7.7 billion. Taxable property is valued closer to $6.8 billion.

Baenen said that value for a county with comparatively little land allows the county and its various taxing districts to get along without high levy rates, such as the state's highest of $15.83 in Garfield County.

"If you have a significant amount of value, it doesn't require as high a rate," he said.

Should it be necessary, there is room for county and city governments, and other taxing districts, to tax more. Discounting excess levies, county residents are still paying well below the state's constitutional limit of $10 per $1,000, Baenen said. Should the need arise, there is still about $2.50 in unused tax levy capacity available in the county.

However, tax increases have not gotten much air in budgeting discussions in Coupeville. Two years ago, the county used reserve funds to make up for a budget deficit. For the current year, commissioners and department heads chose staff and service cuts to make up the difference.

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