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City Approves '07 Property Tax Hikes, Bond Levy

Vote was 3-1

Yes, there will be an increase in property taxes for those living within the White Salmon city limits in 2007. The good news, however, is that the White Salmon City Council opted to make the boost only half of what it could have been.

In a 3-1 vote at a special meeting on the evening of Nov. 29, members of the City Council agreed to hike the tax on property owners by one percent. One percent is the maximum allowed by law without a vote of the citizenry, but since White Salmon did not increase its property tax rate for 2006, the city would have been within its rights to OK a two percent tax hike for next year.

According to Eric Greene, the city's clerk-treasurer, the one percent increase pencils out to about another $2.79 per year based on a $200,000 parcel.

"We could have raised it to two percent, but because the GO (general obligation) bonds were going to hit this year, we lightened the load and cut it in half -- to one percent -- for this coming year," explained council member John Mayo after the meeting.

The "general obligation" bonds Mayo referred to are a voter-approved bond in which local property taxes go to pay for White Salmon's new fire hall. In a mixup last year, city officials neglected to advise the Klickitat County Auditor to levy that money for 2006. As a result, it was not collected this year, forcing the city to borrow from itself to make up the shortfall and cover the twice-yearly bond payments.

Before the vote, there was a sharp discussion over the merits of raising the property tax rate.

During a public comment session, Shirley Cox, a White Salmon citizen who chairs the city's budget committee, recommended that the council raise the tax rate to the maximum allowable.

"We're not even keeping up with inflation," Cox pointed out. "Our millage rate per $1,000 continues to decline. For years, we've had to budget by crisis. This would be the first opportunity to get past that. We have an obligation, and the citizens are looking for us to provide services."

However, council member Timi Keene responded that the council could not consider a two percent increase.

"We're not at liberty to discuss approving more than a one percent increase," Keene explained, "because we voted at the last meeting to consider only a one percent increase, and we publicly noticed it for one percent."

When the motion to increase the property tax rate by one percent was made, Keene requested that the council not approve it.

"Given the error with the GO bonds and our need to collect double payments on that next year from people, I suggest that the council not consider that this year, and that next year we consider not only one percent, but the banked amount [three percent] for 2008."

Council member Mayo said he did not believe that would be a wise approach.

"Philosophically, that makes things easy, but eventually you have to pay," Mayo said. "The city has put things off for political purposes for quite some time, and that's why we're in the situation we're in. Putting it off just puts the problems out there further."

Keene said she was concerned about those with fixed incomes.

"That's really going to be tough for them," she said. "That extra few dollars is a considerable amount to some. There's no question the city can use the money, but we need to be fair, given our mistakes."

Council member Brad Roberts said he had to put the needs of the city first.

"I can't make it political," Roberts explained. "What's best for White Salmon is the only decision I can come to."

Councilor Susan Benedict said she believed the city needed the money, and that all residents would benefit in that way.

"There are a lot of safety issues to address. Our streets are in bad shape," Benedict said.

When the vote on the motion to raise White Salmon's property taxes by one percent was called, Mayo, Roberts, and Benedict voted in favor, with Keene opposed.

After the property tax vote, the council voted 4-0 to reinstate the GO bond levy for 2007 and also for 2006.

"We're picking up the one we missed in '06," Greene explained. "There's no other way to fund that bond legally except through property taxes. The bond is based on property taxes."

Greene said the move did not represent a "doubling" of the property tax rate for the bonds.

"Last year, the property owners didn't pay, so they got a free ride," Greene pointed out.

According to Greene, the two combined years of the bond payments would translate to approximately $190 in property taxes paid for 2007 on a parcel worth $200,000. However, Greene added that the actual price could be less than that. He explained that the Klickitat County Assessor will set the valuations for 2007 in late December. At that point, local tax rates will be able to be determined more precisely.

The day after the special meeting, council member Richard Marx blasted the city's administrators for putting itself in the position where it had to impose a bond levy for two years at once.

"That's just idiotic," Marx said. "It's clearly an administrative failure. There is a lack of fiscal responsibility."

Marx pointed out that the city's previous clerk-treasurer, Kelly Ingraham, was still under contract to the city when the GO bond notification process was supposed to be made late in 2005.

"It's a simple process," Marx said. "Kelly prepared the reports. To forget the GO bonds? I just can't believe it. Someone should have caught this. The ball was dropped by everybody, and no one notified the City Council until November at a budget meeting."

While agreeing that the failure to levy the GO fire station bonds for 2006 was a mistake that had to be corrected for 2007, Marx said he would not have voted to raise the city's overall property taxes by the agreed-to one percent, given the record of the city.

"When I see fiscal responsibility, I will be inclined to raise that tax," he explained.

Marx said his disappointment in the way the city is being run is why he did not attend the special council session on Nov. 29.

"Quite frankly, I'm tired of arguing with them," Marx said. "Why just go and have the same argument with them, when there is nothing I can do or say that was going to change their minds."

The new tax rates go into effect as of Jan. 1, 2007.

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