Jefferson County sets sights on sales tax hike

By Charlie Bermant
Peninsula Daily News

PORT TOWNSEND -- Jefferson County commissioners are considering asking voters to approve a sales tax increase in November to help reduce an anticipated $900,000 deficit in 2011.

If it were approved by voters, 40 percent of the revenue would go to the city of Port Townsend.

The measure would raise sales taxes 0.3 percent, or three cents for every $10 purchase, hiking the total Jefferson County sales tax to 8.7 percent. The tax now is 8.4 percent.

The three county commissioners are expected to consider setting the election on Aug. 9, one day before the deadline to place a measure on the Nov. 2 general election ballot.

"We need to cut expenses," said County Administrator Philip Morley this week.

"But we want to give the public a chance to choose what to cut and what to support."

If placed on the ballot and approved, the added sales tax would take effect on April 1, 2011, and collect a projected $506,000 for that year.

In the 2011 budget, Morley predicts $16,164,343 in expenditures against $15,256,321 in revenues, leading to a $908,022 deficit.

The sales tax measure would compensate for about two thirds of that deficit,

Cuts in services still would be required, Morley said.

"We are not asking taxpayers to foot the whole bill," he said.

"We will still have massive cuts and some of them will be permanent."

But the sales tax would save some programs from the ax, he said.

Public safety sales tax

The measure is defined as a "public safety sales tax," although Morley said that is something of a misnomer.

One-third of the revenue collected would, by law, have to be allocated to police and courts. The remaining funds could be used for any government program.

Under the proposal, the county would allocate half of its share to law and justice, Morley said.

The idea grew out of a budget discussion by the County Commissioners on Monday, about partially filling the budget deficit for the next fiscal year.

Discussion continued during a special budget meeting on Wednesday morning.

On Wednesday afternoon, Morley sent a detailed memo to each department outlining exactly how much must be cut.

The nature of the cuts are up to the department head. Responses are due today, and they will be discussed at Monday's commissioners' meeting.

More details

Before the Aug. 9 meeting, Morley plans to develop the ballot measure so voters will know exactly what the proposed tax would support.

The services scheduled to be eliminated would be listed, and voters could decide whether they get funded or cut.

They would be presented in an all-or-nothing format; voters would not get a choice about individual programs.

By law, any county-imposed sales tax increase must be shared with local municipalities. In this case, 40 percent of the collected tax would go to the city of Port Townsend.

On Wednesday afternoon, County Commissioner David Sullivan attended a previously scheduled meeting of the city finance committee and discussed the potential sales tax initiative.

As a result, the committee voted to address the matter at its next meeting on Aug. 9, the same day the commissioners are expected to finalize the ballot initiative.

City plans

City Manager David Timmons said city officials would hope to use half of the city's share to support the Port Townsend Police Department and the remainder to reopen the Port Townsend Community Center and provide maintenance for Memorial Field.

Maintaining those two facilities would help to sell the idea to the voters, said County Assessor Jack Westerman III.

"If you are asking voters to accept less services and pay more money you need to give them something back," Westerman said at the Wednesday meeting with commissioners and department heads,

Morley had offered two alternatives to raise new revenue--a levy lid lift raising property taxes or a sales tax increase.

While several of those present had no preference, the meeting ended with a consensus that the sales tax option was the most favorable.

In particular, Westerman said that property owners would resist the idea of another levy lid lift, in light of recent lifts for the Port Townsend Library, and fire department and emergency medical services by East Jefferson Fire-Rescue.

The preference for a sales tax originates from its application to visitors and that it represents an elective purchase.

Most food is exempt from sales tax.

The first full year the county would receive the tax would be 2012, when a $1.35 million deficit is projected.

Highest on Peninsula

Morley said the implementation of a higher sales tax would raise it above that of neighboring counties, but added "people shop in Silverdale and Sequim because of the choices. They aren't going to travel there to save 30 cents [per $100] in tax."

Both Kitsap County and Clallam County have an 8.4 percent sales tax. Sequim voters added two-tenths of a percent to sales tax within the city limit in 2009 to pay for road and sidewalk improvements, which raises the sales tax there to 8.6 percent.

Morley said the county would strive to educate the public about the services that need to be cut, and would hold several public meetings during the time between the ballot measure's development and Nov. 2.

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Jefferson County Reporter Charlie Bermant can be reached at 360-385-2335 or charlie.bermant@peninsuladailynews.com.

Last modified: July 30. 2010 1:27AM
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