Editorial by John Roskelley (Spokesman Review 2.26.23)
A property tax bill being fast-tracked through the Legislature is a potential nightmare for seniors and other property owners. If HB 1670 (or SB 5618) makes its way to the governor’s desk, forget about that summer vacation or new tires for the car – your property taxes are going to take a jump.
The two bills raise the levy lid cap for cities, counties and special districts from 101 percent to 103 percent. At both public hearings, mayors, city council members, county commissioners and special district representatives from around the state were lined up like there was a free lunch to testify in support of these bills and salivating at the prospect of a $1.3 billion windfall to local taxing districts from an increase in your property taxes.
In 2001, I-747, an initiative to the people to cap annual increases of certain property taxes at 1 percent, was supported by 57 percent of the voters. But the Washington state Supreme Court in 2007 determined the initiative to be unconstitutional. That’s when Gov. Gregoire called a special legislative session and the Senate voted 39 to 9 and the House 86 to 8 in favor of keeping the 1 percent cap on property tax increases.
Local taxing districts still benefit from the yearly revenue increase in the valuation of your home and new construction placed on the tax role, more than enough revenue to balance their budgets. This is where the political system fails. Elected and appointed officials are seldom financial wizards. They have a spending problem, not a revenue problem. For the legislature to raise the levy lid cap rewards incompetence and mismanagement by public officials and punishes the property owner.
With constant price increases in gas and groceries to credit card interest rates, medical insurance and just about everything else, taxpayers are tightening their belts. Cities, counties and district representatives should be expected to do the same. But that takes work – months of line-item budgeting; demanding department heads, judges and other elected officials justify their budget requests; and living within expected revenues. Obviously, too much to expect from those we elect.
As a former Spokane County commissioner, I can attest to the process as balancing the budget is the primary job of an elected official. For years, the other two commissioners and I did not raise property taxes the allotted 1 percent and had the most reserve of any county in the state. It was a bipartisan effort accomplished by making tough choices.
Spokane’s Kendal Yards is a prime example of why this bill to raise the property tax levy limit should fail. In March 2010, the Spokane City Council voted unanimously to exempt the first 279 units from property tax for 12 years. That’s right. With city roads crumbling and services being cut, the City Council threw millions of dollars of future tax revenue away in a heartbeat. Would Kendal Yards have been built without this gifting of public funds? Absolutely. The buyers of those units were not “low income” buyers as presented to the council by the developer. Today, a two-bedroom apartment in Kendal Yards rents for more than $2,000 a month and multi-family condos sell for up to $1 million.
These questionable decisions haven’t stopped with the current City Council. I watched Councilman Breean Beggs testify on Tuesday in support of HB 1670 claiming Spokane is a thriving city but still needs to cut services because of lack of revenue. Three weeks ago, the council was considering another developer tax exemption for building condos on street level parking lots. They can’t balance their budget by making poor choices.
As a Democrat, I’m disappointed that both bill’s sponsors are all Democrats, a party synonymous for fighting for the public taxpayer, not against them. The House bill is being pushed hard by Representative Tim Ormsby, chair of the powerful appropriations committee, as well as Marcus Riccelli, and others. In 2007, Ormsby voted for the 1 percent cap and now has flip-flopped on this issue. Both men represent the 3rd District, an area in downtown Spokane comprised of both the wealth of Kendal Yards and the poverty of West Central. Their constituents will be disappointed to know their two representatives are kowtowing to this effort by elected officials who have mismanaged their budgets to overthrow the will of the voters. Seniors on a fixed income in their district are at risk of losing their homes. This tax issue deserves a vote of the people, not the heavy hand of Olympia.
John Roskelley is a former Spokane County commissioner and Eastern Washington Growth Management Hearings Board member. He has served on numerous state and local committees and non-profit boards.
Ponderosa Republican Women's Club