In Focus: Property tax cap bill essential to long-term funding fix

More than 250,000 people in Benton and Franklin counties depend on the counties to provide essential public services that keep them safe and healthy.

Last year, voters were asked to approve a 0.3 percent public safety sales tax in Benton County to help the county’s criminal justice system keep pace with the increase in population, address the rise in gang activity and better fund prevention and intervention services.

While we are very grateful to the voters for approving this temporary sales tax which enables us to put more patrols on the streets, support the drug task force,and better fund our mental health court programs, counties should not have to go to the voters every time we need to pay for essential public safety programs.

That’s why we fully support the bipartisan bill introduced this week by Rep. Haler and House Appropriations Committee Chair Ross Hunter (D-Medina) which seeks to replace the arbitrary 1 percent property tax cap currently limiting county revenue collection with a property tax cap tied to a factor of inflation plus the rate of population growth — but not to exceed 5 percent. These are the actual factors that drive county costs.

Over the past decade, the cost of providing essential public safety services has grown, but the property tax and sales tax revenue to pay for them has not. While the cost has increased on average 5 percent each year due to inflation and population increases, the county’s revenue collection has remained relatively flat.

Like all counties in Washington, Benton and Franklin are responsible for administering the civil, criminal and juvenile justice system. That means the counties provide law enforcement services, pretrial services, prosecution, public defense, juvenile, district and superior courts, jail, detention and probation. Counties also handle all felony prosecution and trials. And counties are responsible for 100 percent of all 911 calls.

The cost of providing these criminal justice services make up about 75 percent of Benton and Franklin counties’ general budget. And that number continues to grow.

The county receives 33 percent of its general fund revenue from the property tax. That means capping that revenue growth at 1 percent per year makes it virtually impossible for the county to keep up with inflation.

While our counties have fared better than most, many counties across the state have been forced to take extreme measures, including reducing their work force by double-digit percentages, budget furloughs, eliminating and cutting programs and services, tapping cash reserves and eliminating capital expenditures.

These temporary fixes are leaving our community less safe.

Reps. Haler and Hunter’s leadership in Olympia is critical to helping counties find long-term solutions to these growing problems. It’s time to replace the 1 percent property tax cap with a cap that is tied to the true cost drivers of funding county government.

In the Tri-Cities, the impact to individual taxpayers is very small. For example, in our counties, it would mean an maximum increase of about $12 per year for residents who own a $200,000 home.

We can’t afford to wait.