County levy shift puts greater burden on property owners in cities

MONTESANO — Residents in the incorporated cities of Grays Harbor County will be asked to pay more in property taxes to help sustain county services, under a “levy shift” proposal by the Grays Harbor County commissioners. It’s identical to the proposal the commissioners put into place this year, drawing the ire of city councils, mayors and constituents across the Harbor.

The levy shift also became a campaign issue and Commissioner Mike Wilson cited it earlier this week as an overwhelming reason he thinks he didn’t win re-election. Although many other counties implement the shift annually, the commissioners have pointed out, it’s the first time the levy shift has been done on Grays Harbor in recent memory.

But unless the county commissioners want to come up with more cuts to their $24.1 million operating budget next year, a levy shift is a way to account for $750,000 in the county’s revenue.

The commissioners host a public hearing and vote on their budget at 2 p.m., Monday in the commissioner chambers at the County Administration Building in Montesano.

Here’s the way a “levy shift” would work: The county issues two separate property tax levies. One is a levy on roads, typically used to fund street maintenance and road crews. It generates about $5 million. The other is a levy that benefits the general fund, used to fund day-to-day activities. That one generates about $9.6 million. All property owners in the county pay property tax into the general fund, but only those who live in unincorporated areas pay the property tax toward the road fund.

By reducing the property tax for roads to about $4.25 million and raising the property tax in the general fund to about $10.4 million, the process would, in effect, make those who live in cities pay more than they do today in property taxes.

And the way it worked out this year, those who live within the unincorporated areas actually ended up paying $15.70 less on a $100,000 home compared to those who live in cities, specifically because of the levy shift, according to numbers from the Assessor’s Office.

Aberdeen Finance Director Kathryn Skolrood said that next year’s levy shift works out to an extra $12 a year on a $100,000 house for those in the Aberdeen city limits. It could be higher or lower, depending on assessed values for other cities.

Cosmopolis Mayor Vickie Raines and Hoquiam Mayor Jack Durney have both been rather outspoken against the proposal.

Raines notes that her citizens have been asked to pay more county taxes without seeing any increased service.

“For me, it’s kind of like Ronald Reagan and his 1980 presidential debate with Jimmy Carter,” Durney added. “There you go again.”

Durney said the tax shift has prompted him to craft a work group with other mayors and interested parties to force some kind of change on county government and the county charter. It’s an issue he’s talked about for years. “Every other month there’s another financial crisis at the county and a lot of that has to do with the organizational structure, not the people who work there,” Durney said. “I really think we need to go to the voters and get a charter change. I’m going to ask our new batch of commissioners to put it on the ballot so we can elect freeholders to meet and investigate how other counties do business and bring it back to the ballot for a full proposal. If the commissioners don’t go along with it, then we need to start an initiative process and collect signatures to force the issue.”