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Clean Water Utility hits new snag
Administrators of the controversial Clean Water Utility program discovered that more than 1,400 additional parcels will need to be assessed in 2014.
Island County Treasurer Ana Maria Nuñez, who has been out of the state for three months recently due to a family illness, told commissioners Wednesday a computer glitch was to blame for the error. Properties that should have been taxed were designated as tax-exempt and were not charged the utility fee.
The new parcels primarily comprise those in water districts and homeowners associations, according to Public Works Director Bill Oaks. Nonprofits will also begin to be charged the fee. This includes churches, parks, tribal lands, fire and emergency medical service properties, hospitals, senior centers, Island Transit locations, universities and veterans organizations.
“We do apologize for the error,” Nuñez said.
While the commissioners considered going back and assessing those parcels for more than $56,000 in additional revenue, they agreed instead to begin charging those parcels in 2014.
“I want people to know that we thought about it, but it makes no financial sense to go back to collect that now,” said Commissioner Jill Johnson.
Johnson said the new fee may be a hardship on organizations who have already created their 2014 budgets.
“This can be a game changer for those on small budgets,” Johnson said.
The utility fee, adopted in late 2010 by the Island County Board of Commissioners, was created to address water quantity and quality concerns by generating revenue for surface and groundwater programs.
The program collected $1.46 million in 2012 and is estimated to collect roughly $1.5 million each year moving forward. Critics have said that the roughly $40 that appears on property tax statements is a fee that was not approved by the citizens.
“I have never agreed with this utility,” said Commissioner Kelly Emerson. “This unfortunately will not gain support to eliminate the utility. I have tried that before.”
Emerson suggested that, at minimum, the board should consider exempting agricultural land from the fee.
Commissioner Helen Price Johnson pointed out those who are not assessed the fee by law cannot benefit from the fee, which pays for assistance with rural drainage systems and other water projects. She added the board may need to revisit what types of parcels can be exempt from the fee.
“When we created it, it was to create designated programs that are, in my opinion, essential for the community,” Price Johnson said. “We also knew it wouldn’t be perfect so it may need to be modified.”
Despite her support for the utility, Price Johnson said the error was “unfortunate.”
“I guess people can be happy they had a two-year break,” Price Johnson said.
Johnson said that the computer program used to assess taxes and fees may not be the only issue. Those with tax- exempt status who should have been charged the utility must be entered manually, she said.
“It’s true to say it’s a software error,” Johnson said. “But you have to tell it what to do. This is definitely on the county’s side.”
This is not the only problem discovered recently in the Island County Treasurer’s office.
In October, the Washington State Auditor’s Office found that the office had been consistently behind in processing property tax supplements. Nunez said last month that the backlog was created due to lack of staffing and that they plan to be caught up by mid-2014.