Bakke promises: No new county taxes

Island County Commissioner Phil Bakke is promising he won’t raise taxes if voters keep him on the Island County board of commissioners this November.

Bakke’s vow is the centerpiece of his statement to voters that will soon appear in the Island County

voters’ guide. The District 1 commissioner said Monday the “no new taxes” pledge is partly in response to the gloomy fiscal situation facing the county.

“It’s a new pitch,” Bakke said.

“It’s something I’ve thought a lot about in the last couple of months,” he added. “All too often, government’s response to a declining economy is to raise taxes. In my opinion, we have to make do with what we have.”

Bakke said many people have talked to him about taxes in recent days. A “sort of pick-and-choose mentality” is developing, he said, and people are reluctant to vote for property tax increases on projects they deem aren’t essential.

“I’m getting a feeling from people that they are reaching their limit on property taxes,” he said.

Helen Price Johnson, the Democratic challenger for the District 1 commissioner’s seat, said she can’t predict what’s needed on the county level given uncertain budget times. In the past, she has declined to say if she thinks raising taxes should be on the table.

But she said fiscal responsibility is important.

“We will need to do all we can to stay within our means and continue to provide the necessary services,” she said. “The best thing we can do is shore up our county economy and ride out what’s going on in the rest of the country.”

Bakke’s “no new taxes” promise comes with a hitch, however.

Bakke said he was still planning to vote for a 1-percent increase on property taxes that the county commissioners will consider when they adopt their 2009 budget. He said he didn’t consider the increase a “new” tax because it’s a change to an existing tax.

The 1-percent increase is expected to raise roughly $55,000 countywide.

“Beyond that, I firmly believe we can make do with what we have. It’s not going to be easy, but that’s what we need to do.”

“People are struggling. I’m struggling after today’s stock market,” Bakke said with a laugh.

Bakke also said he wouldn’t vow to keep his “no new taxes” pledge through his entire four-year term.

“I can’t make the pledge for four years, but it depends on how the economy goes.”

One thing is for certain — tax talk will increase as the campaigns continue through November. Five measures are on the ballot that will lead to increased property taxes: The South Whidbey Parks & Recreation District’s

$15.4 million pool-and-rec center; the Port of South Whidbey’s $8.2 million makeover of Langley Marina; the creation of a Whidbey-based public utility district; a property tax increase to cover the costs of Greenbank Farm; and a levy lift for North Whidbey Fire and Rescue.

According to statements submitted to the Island County voters’ guide — expected to be mailed in the second week of October — every ballot measure is being opposed by organized campaigns or residents worried about higher taxes.

The consensus among those proposing the tax measures is that there are too many entities that are asking for a piece of an ever-shrinking pie.

Kit Maret and Michal Cann have formed the Advocacy Committee Against PUD, hoping to convince voters to reject the measure to form a public utilities district on the island to take over Puget Sound Energy’s territory on Whidbey.

According to the group’s counter-statement, the committee takes issue with the impact a public utilities district would have on property taxes and electric rates. It also points to high start-up costs and the PUD’s unregulated operation.

Maret, an engineer for Puget Sound Energy, said Monday that the proposal by the PUD proponents is deeply flawed and the cost estimates are unrealistic.

“I work for Puget Sound Energy. I’m also a resident of the island and a homeowner. I’m also an engineer and

I know the issue so thoroughly,” she said.

“My heart is in it as a resident. I have nothing against public power, but it’s about what’s better for us,” Maret explained. “It just doesn’t pencil out.”

Basically, she said, PUD proponents are asking residents to pay again for something they already have.

“In my view there is no need for a property tax for something we already have. We could be paying for

20 years, especially if they decide not to pursue it further after the study,” she said.

“It’s not a good time for Island County residents to take on up to $200 million in debt,” Maret added.

In the pro-PUD statement that will be published in the voters’ guide, PUD supporters stress the potential savings that ratepayers may see in the years ahead.

Dan Schlangen and David Metheny of “People For Yes On Whidbey PUD” claim there will be $4 million in savings to ratepayers within five years after the PUD is established. Within 10 years, they say, the savings will total $100 million.

Other public projects that also rely on higher taxes have also found critics.

Langley resident Bob Dalton has submitted a counter-statement to the public pool proposal by the South Whidbey Parks & Recreation District. The district is proposing a 17.4 cents per assessed $1,000 property value over 20 years to build a pool and recreation center on South Whidbey.

“A public pool on South Whidbey would be a wonderful community asset — if it made sense financially,” Dalton wrote. “This proposal is much too expensive to build and would require huge ongoing taxpayer subsidies to stay in operation.”

The group that advocates for a no vote also says the financial projections are “vastly inflated,” assumptions are based on data from pools in metropolitan areas, there is not enough money set aside for maintenance and operation and not enough money is budgeted for increases in supplies or energy.

The group also claims that the consultants who worked on the proposal project a loss of $750,000 for the first five years of operation, but the figure is closer to $2 million.

Dalton said Monday that he is a fan of the district and its programs, but it’s the combination of a serious economic downturn and a flawed proposal that has him fighting the measure.

“It’s going to be tough times,” he said.

“How does this fit in if they want a new mower or something else for their other programs — the things that they do now and do well?” Dalton asked.

In addition, he pointed to the sheer number of various bonds and levies on the ballot this time and in the future. Whidbey General Hospital is expected to put a measure on the ballot next year to expand the hospital; Fire District 3 will seek a property tax increase for a new facility on Bayview Road; and the South Whidbey School District has talked of putting a multi-million-dollar ballot measure before voters, perhaps in 2010.

“The marina project, the pool, the new fire building — suddenly that’s a lot of money for this little community,” Dalton said.

Similar themes emerge from the statements of other groups taking a stance against proposed tax measures.

The Port of Coupeville is asking for assistance to pay for the bonds used to purchase Greenbank Farm, which has depleted the port’s reserves in recent years.

Thomas Strang of Coupeville submitted a counter-statement saying that the port has failed to fulfill its promise that Greenbank Farm would be able to pay for itself.

“Economic difficulties facing taxpayers today require fiscal restraint. Increased taxation for anything other than health and welfare issues during this difficult economic times is not fiscal restraint,” he wrote.

To remedy the shortage in cash, Strang suggests that the port sell parts of the Greenbank Farm land to satisfy the remaining debt.

The Committee Against No Gas Marina is speaking out against the Port of South Whidbey’s proposed levy increase, which is a hike of

9 cents per $1,000 if assessed property value.

While a group, mostly consisting of downtown Langley merchants, says that a new and improved marina will aid local economic development, opponents say that all taxpayers will pay for an improvement that will only serve a few and the privileged.

The proposal would virtually double taxpayers’ obligation, the anti-marina committee wrote in its statement. “This is a bad idea during good times and bad.”

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