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County Executive proposal would put sales tax burden on residents

Enumclaw-area residents would pay more in sales tax under terms of a proposal floated Friday by County Executive Kurt Triplett.

As the national recession and cuts in state and federal funding to counties continue to erode King County’s revenues, Triplett has suggested a one-tenth of a cent sales tax increase that would be dedicated to help fund public health, criminal justice and human services.

The executive believes the “Healthy, Safe and Strong Communities” tax will give residents an alternative to the deep cuts he will make to balance the county’s 2010 budget. He said the move is needed due to the international economic crisis, a cap on property taxes at less than the rate of inflation, state limits on county revenue sources and the cost of serving urban areas of unincorporated King County. Those factors, he said, have created a structural deficit so that the county cannot support existing services.

Despite $93.4 million in cuts, efficiencies, unpaid employee furloughs and benefit reductions in the 2009 budget, King County estimates revenues will be at least $50 million less than needed to continue current services in 2010. The deficit is projected at another estimated $60 million in 2011, meaning the only way to balance the budget will be major cuts to human services, public health clinics and local parks.

“After three years of major cuts, I have no options other than devastating cuts that will profoundly change services to the people of this county,” Triplett said. “My budget will be what the county can afford. The question to the council and voters will be, ‘Is this the county you want?’”

Facing deep cuts are health services that prevent the spread of disease, clinics for people without insurance, the safety net of services for the region’s most vulnerable residents, programs that reduce crime and criminal justice costs, local parks and animal care and control.

“I know that a tax increase will be a difficult choice for voters who are struggling during these tough economic times,” Triplett said, “but we need to offer residents a choice and a chance to keep services that help keep us healthy, safe and strong.

“I believe residents and county council members will agree that the cuts I am forced to propose in my budget are too harmful to the region’s quality of life. But I’m not asking council to support a tax. I’m asking the council to let the voters decide.”

Unlike wastewater and solid waste services that are funded by customer fees, public health, human services and criminal justice agencies must compete for the same general fund tax dollars. If approved, the “Healthy, Safe and Strong Communities” initiative would dedicate specific taxes to these services and make them less dependent on the general fund.

Sending the tax measure to the council before Triplett proposes his 2010 budget allows time for the council to meet a mid-August deadline to put a measure on the Nov. 3 ballot. Triplett will deliver his proposed 2010 budget to the council by Sept. 27. The council will vote on a final budget at the end of November.

If approved by voters, state law requires that 40 percent of the amount collected be distributed to the 39 cities in King County. The proposed one-tenth of a percent sales tax would generate an estimated $17.8 million for the county in 2010 and $11.8 million for cities in King County. That amount would grow to more than $32 million by 2016 for King County and $21.8 million for cities.

It is figured the money would be enough for King County to sufficiently fund human services at today’s level, operate three to five public health clinics, support pandemic flu preparedness and response and fund the Sheriff’s Department helicopter, marine unit, bomb squad and other criminal justice programs.

Even if voters approve the new dedicated tax, cuts will still have to be made to some health, human and criminal justice services.

A December 2007 state report to the governor and legislature said that state laws have created deficits in counties across the state and recommends changes to give counties more flexible and reliable funding options, including a utility tax and reimbursement for unfunded state mandates. State law limits the types of taxes counties can levy, limits how it spends existing taxes, and a voter-approved initiative caps growth in the property tax at 1 percent per year, which is less than the rate of inflation.

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