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Ballot Controversy: Levy Measure Reworded Without City's Knowledge

City officials not happy with alteration

A decision by the Klickitat County Prosecutor's Office is roiling the outlook for a city ballot measure in White Salmon.

Prosecuting Attorney Tim O'Neill altered the ballot title of the city's property tax levy lid lift measure, and no one from his office or from the Klickitat County Auditor's Office informed city officials in White Salmon about the change.

White Salmon Mayor Linda Jones did not know of the alteration until Monday morning, and she was not happy about it.

"Apparently what happened is, the Auditor's Office ran it by Tim O'Neill to approve the wording. He thought it needed some explanation, and it didn't cross anyone's mind to run it by us and our city attorney," Jones said. "They went through our resolution and pulled out some additional wording. The way it's worded now, the two ideas don't connect. It doesn't make sense. I would think it would be normal procedure to give us some input, but that didn't happen. They did not check with us."

As a result, there is a discrepancy in what the city has been showing on its informational packet about the property tax levy measure and what will appear on the general election ballot.

In the city's informational material, dated Oct. 15, the city had its measure worded this way: "Shall the city of White Salmon increase its current expense levy by $0.75 per thousand dollars of assessed value for one year to be collected in 2005?"

However, the actual wording of the ballot title that will be before White Salmon voters will be as follows: "Shall the city of White Salmon increase its current expense levy by $0.75 per thousand dollars of assessed value for one year to be collected in 2005 to pay the cost of revenue impacts to the city caused by annexations to occur in 2005?"

White Salmon's city clerk/treasurer, Kelly Ingraham, said the revised wording was not clear.

"If we'd been notified, maybe we could have added a few more words that would say the revenue won't hit until 2006," Ingraham said. "It's confusing like it is."

Klickitat County Auditor Diana Housden said it is common to ask the Prosecutor's Office to review the wording of ballot titles to avoid any legal concerns.

"Tim said it didn't tell what the money was being used for, so he added extra wording," Housden explained. "Normally we get back to them and say, `we've got a problem here, the Prosecuting Attorney is saying this.' We just didn't do it this time. The White Salmon city attorney should have signed off on that."

Contacted on Monday, O'Neill said he had reviewed a number of ballot measures and, without reviewing his records, could not specifically recall why the changes were made to White Salmon's measure.

"I may have done it to make it more clear," said O'Neill. "There were several resolutions that came my way for review. I sent the matter up to the Auditor's Office, and what they did with it from there I have no clue."

Housden noted that it is too late to make any changes.

"The ballots are already printed, and about 5,000 absentee ballots have been mailed out," she said.

Jones said she hoped the mixup wouldn't hurt the measure's chances of gaining passage.

"I hope people seriously look at the fact sheet and consider voting for the lid lift," she said. "It's only for one year, and we're going to have some problems trying to balance our budget. The revenue is not there."

Housden said if the city believes the changes hurt its chances at the ballot box, she would ask the Board of County Commissioners to consider mitigations.

"That would be so the city wouldn't be charged [for the election] if the measure comes up negative. That's all I can do, and all I can offer is an apology," she said. "We make mistakes, and try to find the best solution out of it."

In a related controversy, Klickitat County Assessor Van Vandenberg, questioned the figures the city was using on its two-page fact sheet about the property tax levy measure.

"I can't understand where the city is getting those numbers," Vandenberg said. "The city says `in 2005, an additional $90 will be added to your property tax bill.' There is no way to know. There is no way to tell exactly how much taxes will go up. We don't know the levy rate yet."

Vandenberg explained his concerns in a statement he sent to White Salmon City Hall: "Despite any large increase in White Salmon's total assessed value, the city's collections can only increase by one percent as allowed by law," Vandenberg wrote. "For example, if your property had an assessed value of $100,000 in 2004, your property tax bill was $1,207.71. Due to the recent increase in taxable value, there could be a decrease in the levy rate for 2005 taxes. It could be as much as $1.20 per $1,000. Your property's value increases to $120,000 for 2005. The impact of approving the levy for 2005 would be $12.0771 minus $1.20, plus 75 cents for the lid lift. Your taxes on the new value would be: $120,000 x $12.0771 minus $1.20 plus 75 cents. That equals $1,395, or an increase of $187.00. Your property taxes for 2006 would then go back to whatever amount your bill would have been as if the levy were not approved."

Ingraham said she agreed with Vandenberg's analysis.

"I can't estimate what 2005's property taxes will be, and I've updated the notice and our Web page to reflect that," Ingraham said.

Vandenberg added that the city's tax measure does not require a 60 percent supermajority to gain passage, but simply 50 percent plus.

"Lid lifts do not take a supermajority," Vandenberg said. "Temporary lid lifts require a majority of voters. It's right there in RCW 84.55.050."

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