Council OKs tax hike

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WALLA WALLA — The City Council tackled the 2013-2014 budget on Wednesday night, and along with it approved a highly contested increase in property taxes.

“We cut everything down to bones, knuckles maybe. And again I see significant challenges facing this city that neither gives us nor preserves the strengths and integrity of what Walla Walla has to offer. I don’t want to see that lost simply because we were afraid to raise a few more dollars,” Council member Chris Plucker said shortly before votes were cast after well over an hour of discussion and debate.

The “few dollars” that City Council narrowly approved last night will cost the owner of a $160,000 home — the stated average for the city — an additional $18 a year in taxes and raise an additional $257,000 next year.

What that means is that property taxes paid to the city next year — not including fire and police bonds — will go up slightly from $2.39 per $1,000 of assessed value to $2.50.

Using the city’s $18 average increase per household, the two smallest and uncontested portions of the increase deal with new construction and annexations; they amount for $1.70 of that $18.

The two largest portions of the increase, and the most argued over, are from the annual 1 percent levy increased allowed by state law and the use of the banked levy capacity, which are reserved property-tax increases from previous years in which Council members voted against taking a 1 percent increase.

The 1 percent increase approved Tuesday night will make up roughly $3.34 of the $18 average.

As for the banked levy capacity, it makes up almost three-quarters, or nearly $13 of the $18 increase.

Council members Mayor Jim Barrow, Barbara Clark, Jerry Cummins and Plucker voted in favor of the banked levy and 1 percent increase, and Conrado Cavazos, Mary Lou Jenkins and Shane Laib voted against it.

“The cuts need to be deeper. I am sorry. This is not the time to try and tax our citizens and turn this city into prosperity. It doesn’t work. You can’t tax something into prosperity,” Laib said. Then he suggested the city should back down its reserve goal of 11.8 percent, noting the state only requires the city to maintain a 5 percent reserve.

“Even if we dropped it back to 8 or 9 percent we will still have enough,” Laib said.

As for the review of the preliminary maintenance-and-operation budget — which is funded primarily from property and sales taxes — there were only a few comments from the public and no discussion from Council, as most of the debate was centered on the levy increases.

The proposed budget is expected to result in across-the-board department cuts, the loss of one police officer and one fire prevention officer, library staff and operation-hours cuts and the complete closure of the Pioneer Park Aviary.

The next public hearing on the proposed budget will be at the Nov. 28 Council meeting at City Hall, 15 N. Third Ave., at 7 p.m.

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