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Budget could forestall cuts

"No matter how the House and Senate resolve their fight over the state budget, islanders should be sitting pretty - at least in the short term. Ferry service will be maintained, and city taxes could actually decrease, local officials say.Those assessments are based on the information trickling out of Olympia this week. The special session of the Washington State Legislature was expected to adjourn Friday afternoon with no budget agreement, and reportedly was not slated to reconvene until House and Senate negotiators agree on a budget.According to Rep. Phil Rockefeller, D-Bainbridge Island, the budget plans from both House and Senate would give the ferry system the same amount of money for the upcoming fiscal year, and Bainbridge ferry service wouldn't be affected at that funding level.There won't be any fare increases, Rockefeller said Friday. We didn't think it was reasonable to ask riders to pay more money for less service. And it now appears that there won't be any less service, at least on the Bainbridge run.While island taxpayers could conceivably see rollbacks of existing taxes, it is far more likely that scheduled future increases will not take effect.State tax-equalization funds, which provided the city of Bainbridge Island with some 11 percent of its budget, disappeared with the passage of I-695. Anticipating the initiative's passage, the city council last fall imposed a number of revenue-replacement measures, including a general property tax rate increase. Both House and Senate budget plans would partially restore the lost money.If the Legislature restores any of the funds, then it is likely that what the city has put into place will be more than we need for 2001, city finance Director Ralph Eells said Friday. There should be room to cut something.My own reading of the tea leaves is that a rollback of the property tax increase scheduled to take effect in 2001 is the most likely outcome, Eells said. I think we will need the increase that the council approved for 2000, but if some of the equalization funds are restored, we likely will not need to go ahead with the 2001 increase.Eells said there are other candidates for a cut. The city might also look at a rollback in the general utility tax increase, which went up from 4 percent to 6 percent, Eells said.And, he said, maybe the increase in the storm and surface water management utility charges doesn't make sense.Islanders hoping for maximum tax relief will be cheering for the Senate budget.While the Senate and House budgets provide the same number of tax-equalization dollars, the distribution formulas are quite different. According to information from the Senate Ways and Means Committee, the Senate version would give the city roughly $814,000, or about two-thirds of the amount received before I-695, while the House version would give only about half that much. Rockefeller stressed that the legislative responses to the $1.2-billion budget hole blasted by repeal of the Motor Vehicle Excise Tax are temporary.We are using our reserves to backfill service, he said. But once those funds are gone, they are gone.Rockefeller said the differences between the House and Senate budget proposals involve property-tax relief and sources of money to replace the MVET. The Senate proposal started with across-the-board property tax relief, he said. The House said, let's look at that I-695 has done, take care of the services we need, then see where we are on property taxes.Rockefeller believes that a budget deal is in sight, and that the formal adjournment won't make any difference. A small team from each chamber is conducting the negotiations.To a large extent, I'm a bystander, he said, adding that he has not been in Olympia for over a week. I'm waiting for a call to go back down and approve what has been agreed to. "

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