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Published: Tuesday, November 19, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Property taxes could rise to pay for courthouse

EVERETT -- Snohomish County leaders next week will consider passing a sharp increase in property taxes to help pay for a new courthouse building.
At the low end, they would bump up the county's general property levy by the same 3 percent as last year. At the high end, the general levy could rise more than twice that amount.
A decision is expected Monday as part the 2014 budget process.
The extra revenue would go toward the courthouse project.
"There are no (general fund) property tax increases, none, in either our budget or the (county council) chair's amended budget, that are for anything other than the potential courthouse," Deputy County Executive Mark Ericks said.
The amount of the increase hinges on decisions about where to build the future courthouse, and what features it should include. The council hopes to resolve those questions before Monday's budget hearing.
Beyond the courthouse, the latest version of the 2014 budget devotes significant attention to fixing staffing and health care problems at the county jail.
County Council Chairwoman Stephanie Wright released the new proposals Monday. Even with Wright's changes, the budget remains in line with the plan County Executive John Lovick outlined in September.
"Unless there are amendments we don't know about, the chair's budget pretty much takes the budget the executive recommended and adjusts for some changes between then and now," Ericks said.
Lovick's proposed 2014 operating budget called for about $225 million in spending and more than 2,700 budgeted positions. That's about 5.4 percent higher than the $213 million budget for 2013.
The amended plan is scheduled for a vote at 10:30 a.m. Monday in County Council chambers on the eighth floor of the Robert Drewel Building, 3000 Rockefeller Ave., Everett.
After receiving the council's budget, Lovick has 10 working days to sign it, veto it or allow it to take effect without a signature.
The council also has scheduled a meeting at 9 a.m. Monday to try to reach decisions about the courthouse building, namely where to put it and how to pay for it.
The council must choose between two possible locations. One is in the plaza at Wetmore Avenue and Wall Street next to the existing courthouse. The other is at what is now a county parking lot across Oakes Avenue from Comcast Arena. The base price for building at those locations starts at $110 million to $150 million, respectively. Safety, security and energy conservation features could add to the cost.
County leaders raised $75 million in bonds for the project this spring, when they believed the cost would be much lower. A review after Lovick took office in June determined the original estimate would not pay for the type of building the county needs.
The increase in the county's general property tax levy is one way to pay off any additional debt to make up for the difference in price.
For every 1 percent rise in the general levy, the county would get an additional $750,000 per year to pay off debt.
The county's general levy supports core operations. Without an increase, it's set at $74.8 million for next year. Separate levies generate county money for road work and conservation futures.
The bulk of individual property taxes come from separate levies to support school and fire districts.
A 3 percent increase in the general levy would cost the owner of a house assessed at the county average of $223,000 an extra $6.89 per year in property tax. A 7 percent increase would add $16.08 to the same homeowner's tax bill.
Public safety, law and justice programs account for nearly 74 percent of the projected costs in the 2014 budget.
Other priorities in next year's county budget include pushing reforms in the jail and the court system.
Medical problems have been an ongoing concern at the jail, which requested a National Institute of Corrections review this year. The review followed the death of two jail inmates in their 20s in 2011 and 2012.
Wright's amended budget recommends:
  • Reconvening a committee to look into ways to reduce the jail's average daily inmate population to 1,025 from the current maximum of 1,200. County law and justice agencies met regularly to discuss the same issue between 2008 and 2010.
  • Initiating a pilot project to increase the number of candidates the sheriff's office can consider hiring for law enforcement and corrections vacancies. Civil service rules now in place limit the number of people who can be considered for open slots, putting the agency in a bind when potential hires take offers with other employers. Difficulty hiring staff is helping to fuel the jail's multimillion- dollar reliance on overtime.
  • Convening a committee to recommend improvements to jail medical services. Human services, finance, legal and executive staff would provide recommendations to the council and Lovick by March 31, including how best to use $225,000 earmarked for an electronic medical records system at the jail.
  • Looking into the consolidation of Snohomish County District Court's four divisions into one location. The current divisions are in Arlington, Everett, Lynnwood and Monroe. A stakeholders report is due by March 31.
Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465; nhaglund@heraldnet.com.
Budget hearing
When: 10:30 a.m. Monday
Where: County Council Chambers, Robert Drewel Building, eighth floor, 3000 Rockefeller Ave., Everett

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