PORT ANGELES — In a rare string of four 2-1 votes, the normally unified Clallam County board of commissioners last week authorized imposing two 1 percent tax increases on the county’s property owners in the 2021 budget they could vote on today.
Democrat Mark Ozias of Sequim and independent Randy Johnson of Port Angeles favored the hikes in board action Nov. 24 for the separate general and road funds.
They also voted for separate resolutions declaring the requisite “substantial need” to raise taxes to that level to fund the 2021 budget.
Republican Port Angeles-West End Commissioner Bill Peach of Forks opposed to all four measures.
A final 2021 general fund budget of $44 million — 7.8 percent higher than the 2020 projected spending plan — will be presented at the commissioners’ regular online meeting today at clallam.net, with public hearings at 10:30 a.m. and 6 p.m.
The board could approve the budget after the second hearing. State law requires a 2021 spending plan to be approved by Dec. 8.
The property tax increases will generate a combined $189,179, almost two-thirds of it paying for general operating expenses made up mostly of salary and benefits.
Ozias said the spending agenda set by all three commissioners warranted the increase. Johnson cited the pressure of unfunded state mandates.
Peach called it “ironic” that the county has received millions of dollars in federal and state COVID-19 relief funds, lamenting that “we cannot pause and also assist members of this community” by not increasing taxes.
“This is not an easy vote to take any year, and it’s particularly not an easy one this year,” Ozias responded, adding the tax increases were mandatory measures for fulfilling the board’s priorities.
The general fund levy increase will bolster a 2020 levy that generated $11.3 million.
The road fund levy increase will fuel a 2020 levy that generated $7.6 million.
Commissioners had to declare a substantial need to raise the levy by 1 percent because the levy increases exceed the implicit price deflator 0.6 percent, a measure of inflation.
Governments cannot increase the tax rate by more than 1 percent without a vote of the people, but they can increase it from 0.6 percent to 1 percent with a two-thirds vote of the board.
The Port Angeles City Council and the Port of Port Angeles board of commissioners have recently voted to increase their levy rates. The City Council voted 6-1 for the increase to 1 percent, with Brendan Meyer opposed, and the port commissioners approved a 0.6 percent increase 2-1, with Connie Beauvais opposed.
The substantial-need difference — the revenue gap between 0.6 percent and 1 percent — is $30,000 for the county general fund levy and $14,000 for the road levy, Chief Financial Officer Mark Lane told the commissioners.
Peach joined Ozias and Johnson in approving a conservation futures levy that will not change in 2021.
Peach acknowledged last Wednesday that he voted to fund the projects that Ozias said made the 1 percent tax increase necessary.
“It’s just that I am very comfortable balancing the budget if we do it through costs, do it through cost control,” Peach said.
Adding he had no rebuttal to Johnson’s argument, Peach said he’s taken the same stance on discussions over a septic system-related tax by the board of health, on which the three commissioners sit.
“My position has been that we should not be taxing individuals,” he said.
Ozias said the commissioners have not discussed how they could fund the expenditures they have prioritized without imposing the 1 percent increase.
“When I look at all of the goals that we have jointly adopted, all the things which we as a group of three commissioners generally almost always voted to advance, I don’t now how we can accomplish all of those goals without taking a step like this,” he said at the meeting Tuesday, addressing Peach.
“That’s not a conversation we’ve had, and I don’t know how we can do it.
“I appreciate the concern you show for our taxpayers, and I share that, but I also feel committed to the work that we have jointly agreed to accomplish.”
COVID-19-related costs are budgeted at $685,000, most of which will be spent on the COVID-19 social distancing center.
Payroll and benefits represent 72 percent of the spending plan. Employees received a 1 percent cost-of-living increase in July and will receive one in January.
The 2021 budget is fueled by $3.5 million in general fund reserves.
The proposed budget is outlined on the county website at clallam.net/BOCC/documents/ProposedBudget_002.pdf.
Senior Staff Writer Paul Gottlieb can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 55650, or at [email protected].