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Walla Walla County commissioners decide to increase current expense levy by 1%

Walla Walla Union-Bulletin - 12/2/2023

Dec. 1—The Walla Walla County Board of County Commissioners approved increases to property tax revenues for current expense, county roads and emergency medical services and maintained a levy for veteran, developmental disability and mental health services at a special meeting Wednesday, Nov. 29.

Levy decisions at a glance

Current expense: A 1% levy revenue increase was approved by the Board of County Commissioners in a 2-1 vote. Todd Kimball and Gunner Fulmer voted to approve, while Jenny Mayberry voted to reject.

County road: A 2% levy revenue increase was approved by a 2-1 vote. Kimball and Fulmer voted to approve the increase, while Mayberry voted to reject.

EMS: A 1% levy revenue increase was approved by commissioners unanimously.

Veterans' assistance, developmental disabilities and mental health: The levies were maintained by a unanimous 3-0 vote.

The commissioners heard from residents at a public hearing Monday, Nov. 27, and kept the hearing open through Wednesday, Nov. 29, to allow lingering questions to be answered by the staff.

The board ultimately decided to take a 1% increase in revenue for the county's current expense fund.

The amount the county could levy is limited because of a significant refund to the county that increased revenue in 2023, Assessor Byron Burres said at the special meeting Wednesday.

That refund limits the amount of banked capacity the county could take this year, he said. The 2% increase proposed previously by the commissioners would have surpassed the amount the county is authorized to take.

"In general, as far as you guys being the county legislative authority, you can request whatever you like," Burres said at the meeting. But the county will not actually receive requested funds beyond the statutory limit.

Burres recommended the board take an approximate 1% increase, as well as a $10,594 refund, to reach the 2024 statutory limit of about $10,655,279.

"It works on both sides," he said.

The county doesn't lose what it's allowed to take, and the step increase is minimal for taxpayers, he said, estimating the difference to be about $7 for a property valued at $300,000.

"If you do the 1%, it's minimal increases instead of hitting somebody much harder in the following year (with banked capacity)," he said.

County residents voice budget challenges, program support

Kathleen Small, a wheat farmer in Walla Walla County, and other speakers talked about the strain that property taxes put on county taxpayers at the public hearing Monday.

Small said she has to tighten the budgetary belt when costs go up, and suggested the county do the same.

"My fuel is going up. My inputs have gone up. I don't get to just go out and get money from somebody else," she said.

The county commissioners were discussing an increase to the amount of revenue the county collects — between 0 and 2% — not the rate property owners pay.

As the tax base, or assessed value in the county, grows, the tax rate decreases. But those who see an increased assessed value on their property may still end up paying more.

"I'm happy to pay taxes. I'm happy for our veterans to be taken care of. I'm happy for (services for) families with disabilities, all those types of things," Small said, "But when at one point in the game when I look at my budget, I have to go back and I have to decide if I don't have enough because fertilizer just went up three times what it was last year, I have to cut something from another place."

Gary Stratton of Burbank agreed, and said he knows some residents who are just about taxed out of their homes.

"When stuff gets tight, I have to tighten my belt," he echoed.

County resident Ron Wade spoke in support of the developmental disability services the county offers.

"I know people who utilize those programs, and what they've done since they (were) founded. That has been just phenomenal for our area in helping out the parents and helping mainstream those children and adults that are affected and raise awareness," Wade said.

The discussion at the Monday meeting lasted for about two hours, but the commissioners were quick to take the issue to a vote after hearing from staff on Wednesday.

Commissioners Todd Kimball and Gunner Fulmer voted to approve the 1% increase, while Jenny Mayberry voted to reject.

The increase affects the total amount of taxes collected by the district, not the tax rate for taxpayers.

Kimball said Wednesday it was appropriate to take the statutory maximum. He said Monday that additional funding was required to pay for new expenses passed by the board throughout the year, namely pay increases for sheriff's deputies and pay bumps for other employees.

"I voted 'no' on things knowing that there's no way to balance this budget without increasing taxes, and I didn't want to do that," he said. "At this point, I am being forced to based on what was passed by this board."

Fulmer said Wednesday that the money is needed to cover those expenses, and he supports increasing in small steps to minimize impact to taxpayers.

"We did have a lot of expenditures this year, even though it is not going to fix our problems and we have to go back to the drawing board and see where else we can probably make some more cuts," he said.

Mayberry said she appreciated the additional information provided by Burres but said she still does not support the increase because of its effect on taxpayers.

"I am going to still stand where I stood two days ago," she said Wednesday.

The property tax base in Walla Walla County will increase from $9.187 billion to $9.967 billion in 2024, a jump of $780 million or 8.5%.

Because of that increase, the levy rate will decrease from $1.12 per $1,000 of assessed value to $1.06 per $1,000 of assessed value.

The commissioners also voted Wednesday to increase the revenue for two other levy-supported funds and maintain the revenue for two others.

County road

The commissioners approved a 2% increase to the revenue collected by the county road fund.

Public Works Director Tony Garcia requested the funds, which would give the department an additional $135,000 to cover rising operating costs like oil, materials and equipment.

Kimball and Fulmer voted to approve the increase, while Mayberry voted to reject it.

EMS

The commissioners unanimously approved a 1% levy revenue increase for the Emergency Medical Services fund.

EMS Director Heather Lee said Monday that the funds are routed back to the 10 EMS agencies — fire districts, Walla Walla and College Place — operating in the county, with a percentage reserved for her office's operating budget.

The 1% increase would give the department an additional $37,487.

Veterans' assistance, developmental disabilities and mental health

The commissioners unanimously voted to maintain levies that fund veterans' assistance in the county, as well as services for people with developmental disabilities and mental health issues.

Nancy Wenzel with the Department of Community Health said funds in the veterans' assistance fund go toward helping veterans with car repairs and occupational or educational expenses.

The disability services and mental health fund supports programming activities for young adults with developmental disabilities and parent support groups.

The veterans' assistance rate will stay at the current level of about $0.015 per $1,000 of value, and the disabilities and mental health rate will stay at the current level of about $0.025 per $1,000 of value.

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