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City Council discusses property tax adjustment

Arlington Mayor Barbara Tolbert explains the need for a property tax adjustment to maintain city services on Jan. 27. - Kirk Boxleitner
Arlington Mayor Barbara Tolbert explains the need for a property tax adjustment to maintain city services on Jan. 27.
— image credit: Kirk Boxleitner

ARLINGTON — The Arlington City Council discussed on Monday, Jan. 27, how they would make the case to the city’s citizens for a proposed adjustment to the property tax rate.

Arlington Mayor Barbara Tolbert reiterated that the city has been made more dependent upon property taxes over the years, even as those revenues have been curtailed. In 2001, Initiative 747 limited the amount of property tax that could be collected without a vote of the people, and it was capped below the rate of inflation. In 2008, the state’s streamlining of sales taxes shifted the collection of sales taxes to their points of product delivery.

“We have an amazing amount of assets in Arlington, but it’s been a financial challenge to maintain them in this economy,” Tolbert said. “We’ve cut 19 staff members and reduced our payroll by $2 million, but we have the lowest property tax rate of 20 cities in Snohomish County and we’re not getting ahead. We’ve reduced the budgets for all our departments and eliminated all contributions to the equipment replacement fund, but we’re still looking at gaps in our general fund and a lot of red ink going out in the years to come.”

If Arlington voters to agree to an increase in the regular property tax levy of 58 cents — bringing it up to a rate of $1.955 per $1,000 of assessed valuation, which would amount to an increase of $8.40 per month for a medium-sized homeowner — Tolbert asserted that the city could not only maintain its “curb appeal” and its public safety services, but also move into eventual compliance with a reserve fund balance of one month of operating income and 8 percent of the city’s income from taxes, which comes out to about $1.8 million.

“And we’d still have the sixth lowest property tax rate in Snohomish County,” Tolbert said.

City staff and Council members at the Monday workshop meeting agreed that proper messaging was important, since several parts of this issue could prove complicated to explain.

“We need to let people know that 58 cents is not how much it’s going to go up every year,” Council member Chris Raezer said. “That’s a one-time increase.”

“We have to be careful how we phrase that,” Assistant City Administrator Kristin Banfield said. “The 58 cent increase will stay in place. It’s not going to go back down from that.”

At the same time, Tolbert pointed out that, as the assessed value of property in Arlington increases, the rates per taxpayer will go down, since the amount collected will itself be capped.

“Building maintenance has been off the table for us for so long that we almost forgot that the city is supposed to be funding it,” Tolbert said.

“I’ve heard some concerns expressed that businesses won’t want to come into Arlington if our tax rates are too high,” Council member Debora Nelson said. “What’s really not going to make them want to come here is if Arlington can no longer afford to be a full-service city.”

“For the same reasons that people aren’t rushing to move to Detroit,” Tolbert agreed. “Many of our neighboring cities are more than a dollar higher in property tax rates.”

Banfield expected that fully legally vetted FAQ sheets on the proposed property tax adjustment would be available at the City Council’s next regular session meeting on Monday, Feb. 3, at 7 p.m.

The Arlington City Council has set a date of March 3, 2014, to pass a resolution which would allow Arlington voters to approve Revenue Option 1 by April 22.

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