Skagit County, WA: Voters will decide sales-tax increase


By JAMES GELUSO
Skagit Valley Herald

9/19/03


Skagit County voters will get to vote on a sales-tax increase this fall, the second such increase in a year.

County commissioners voted this morning to place the measure on the Nov. 4 ballot.

The $1.9 million tax increase would be used to cover increases in the county budget, including 19 new employees. About $977,000 would go toward hiring more staff in the sheriff's office, prosecutor's office and courts.

Commissioner Don Munks insisted this morning the increase was not solely about new employees.

But Gretchen Van Pelt, director of the victim-witness unit in the prosecutor's office, said new employees are desperately needed.

"We are in a crisis in our office right now."

Munks blamed the state for a pending shortfall in the county budget, which otherwise would have to drain an $8 million surplus.

"The state is basically sloughing its responsibility as far as I'm concerned."

Skagit County's sales tax is currently 7.8 percent in most areas, but will rise to 7.9 percent on Oct. 1, reflecting the voter-approved tax hike for the county's Consolidated 911 Center. The real beneficiaries of that tax are the county, cities, tribes, ambulance service and fire districts that paid the bulk of the center's costs before the tax increase.

If a majority of voters approve, the sales tax on the Nov. 4 ballot would raise the rate to 8.0 percent. Unlike most property taxes increases, which require a 60 percent supermajority to pass, sales tax increases need only a simple majority of 50 percent.

Officials say the tax hike would cover hiring more staff for an increasing case load as well as pay for salary increases for existing staff. In addition, state subsidies for the county's programs have eroded over the past three years.

Administrator Gary Rowe said this morning some of the money could be earmarked for future expansion of the county jail.

County commissioners said the staff increases are necessary. If the sales tax isn't approved, the staff likely would be hired anyway and other programs would be cut instead.

The proposed staff increases include some new part-time positions, while some part-timers would be changed to full-time. The total is the equivalent of 19 full-time employees, including four for the prosecutor's office and eight for the sheriff's office.

The county commissioners also could have raised property taxes by $800,000 in addition to the annual 1 percent increase by using "banked capacity" saved in past years where they didn't raise taxes to their legal limit.

But the commissioners frowned on that because they feared voters would resent having their property taxes raised. Commissioners said they prefer the sales tax because it doesn't put the entire burden on property owners. Instead, they termed the sales tax a relatively painless tax that also is paid by people who come to shop in the county.

An increase of a tenth of a percent in the sales tax is an additional penny on a $10 purchase, or an extra dime on a $100 purchase.

 

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