Expecting local government to fund mandates ill-conceived

For officials in local government, unfunded mandates can be the bane of their existence.

Whidbey Island officials aren’t immune to this headache.

Island County is contributing $6,100 from its current expense fund to an effort by the Washington State Association of Counties to convince state lawmakers that counties are serious in their opposition to continued unfunded mandates coming down from the state. The organization is raising $400,000 for the effort, which could go as far as a lawsuit if nothing changes.

Year after year, municipalities such as the city of Oak Harbor list the elimination of unfunded mandates as a top legislative priority for the state. The year 2018 is no exception.

So what’s all the fuss about? Unfunded mandates are essentially requirements by the state or the federal government that counties or cities provide a service, but the state neglects to fund — at least fully fund — such a mandate.

Examples abound. The state has many rules regarding public health programs but funding for these programs decreases year after year. The state recently mandated an update to the 911 system and promised reimbursement for the cost but only paid $40,000 of the $250,000 price tag.

There is some argument to be made in favor of such mandates. The idea is that larger policy questions should be made at the state level so that there’s equality statewide when it comes to, say, vaccination programs or emergency dispatch responses. The taxes to support these programs, the argument goes, should be as local as possible so that people can clearly see where their money is being spent. And government services should also be as local as possible to avoid the inefficiency of big-government bureaucracy.

The problem with the argument is that the cost of the mandates add up and local governments simply can’t afford them. Under state law, cities and counties are limited in raising taxes beyond 1 percent each year without a vote of the people. The state has no such cap.

It’s understandable that state lawmakers would want the best possible government services for the residents, but passing on the costs to local government is the wrong answer.

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