Officials begin to measure I-695 fallout

"Well, now what?That’s the question facing Bainbridge Island public officials after voter approval of Initiative 695 Tuesday.“It adds some question marks for the future,” said Ken Guy, executive director of the Bainbridge Island Fire Department.It’s a sentiment shared by Guy’s peers around the island’s other taxing jurisdictions, as they consider the imminent loss of state funds, or how and when to seek voter support for public services."

  • Wednesday, November 10, 1999 1:00pm
  • News

“Well, now what?That’s the question facing Bainbridge Island public officials after voter approval of Initiative 695 Tuesday.“It adds some question marks for the future,” said Ken Guy, executive director of the Bainbridge Island Fire Department.It’s a sentiment shared by Guy’s peers around the island’s other taxing jurisdictions, as they consider the imminent loss of state funds, or how and when to seek voter support for public services.The cityOf the island’s four taxing districts, the city is perhaps best prepared to meet the challenges posed by I-695. The city council last month approved a series of tax and fee increases, to offset the projected $3 million-plus that will be lost over the next three years with elimination of the state Motor Vehicle Excise Tax.The goal expressed by council members was to buy time to look at the budget and decide which city programs will be cut in the future – and the move also headed off I-695’s mandate that all tax and fee increases go to a public vote.“We have armed ourselves as best we can, to deal with it for the short run,” Mayor Dwight Sutton said Friday.Next year’s city property tax rate will be set at about $1.75 per $1,000 assessed valuation, up from $1.40 this year. That will add about $70 to the taxes paid on a $200,000 home.Parking fees in city lots will go up by about 25 cents per day, and a tax hike on local commercial lots will probably result in higher rates there as well. A 6 percent excise tax also will go into effect on cable television service.Sutton’s office is late getting a proposed budget out this year, and the document probably won’t be released until just before a planned Dec. 2 public hearing.The budget may include immediate cuts in discretionary spending – with the likely victims being social services and support for the arts and humanities. And planning for 2000 is the easy part – the shortfall from lost state funds will continue to grow, and more cuts to services are expected.“We have to be as realistic as we can about the year after this one,” Sutton said. “It’s disappointing to me, but someone’s going to have to work on it.”Bainbridge Police Chief Bill Cooper said I-695’s true impact will be a gradual one over the next several years.“Will it dramatically affect us right now? I don’t think so,” Cooper said. “But as the population grows and we stay with the same number of officers, we’re going to be playing catch-up with our calls for a long time.”Cooper’s fear is that drastic cuts predicted in regional ferry and bus service could result in the clogging of Highway 305 and byways such as Miller Road by Bremerton and Kingston area commuters.“The traffic increase,” he said, “will be enormous.”That’s the opposite of what will happen with his requests for the department’s 2000 budget, which include two new officers and a $65,000-a-year deputy chief. He won’t get those, now that city officials have told him he’ll get only a 2.5 percent boost, he said. Money for remodeling areas of the city hall building that the police department will take over after the other city departments move into their new Madison Avenue quarters is expected to be saved, however.Fire districtThe fire district operates on a 10-year capital plan, and hasn’t asked voters for a levy “lid lift” since 1992. Instead, the district has taken advantage of its statutory authority to increase its levy by up to 6 percent each year, and the rate now sits at $1.23 per $1,000 assessed valuation.But with I-695’s provision for voter approval of taxes hikes, the automatic 6 percent jump is out the window. That means the district will have to go the voters as early as 2001 with a new levy request, or scale back planned purchases of facilities and equipment.“Now that the revenue stream’s in jeopardy, how does that affect our services?” Guy said. “That’s what we need to start talking about.”With the island seeing unparalleled growth over the past couple of years, the demand for emergency services is increasing. Guy said the district could move to a two- or three-year capital planning cycle, and go to the voters for funding every second or third year.Park districtInitiative 695 should have the least impact on the park district, among local taxing jurisdictions.The district raises maintenance and operations funds via two-year levies, which already go before the voters.What’s unclear, though, is whether park officials will have to hold a public ballot to establish or raise fees for the hundreds of classes offered through the district each year. For example, what if materials costs for a pottery class go up? “I can’t see having a vote of the people to determine what we can charge for a blues concert at Island Center Hall,” park district Director David Lewis said. “Rational-ness and reasonableness somehow need to find their way into this.” And what about user fees when the new pool opens? Will there be a vote to determine user fees? That question will face park commissioners in the near future.Lewis says he expect the district to continue with business as usual for setting class fees – determine how much it will cost for instruction and materials, estimate how many people will sign up, and divide it out to establish the cost of enrollment. No vote.The intent isn’t to flout the law, Lewis said, but to keep the process manageable. He notes that such fees are voluntary, in that nobody is forced to take a park district class.“We will comply as best we can with what we understand the law to be,” Lewis said. “Our intent is to be fair and reasonable to the public.” School districtAlthough Bainbridge Island schools will not feel an immediate impact from I-695, educational reform and state funding will be victims, district officials believe.“I-695 only hurts kids in the long run,” Superintendent Steve Rowley said Wednesday. “It is a sad state, when the public is crying for better education, to further erode what the state can provide. This is a regressive situation.”Rowley speculated that the statewide financial crisis generated by I-695 would ultimately challenge the very way the state funds education.“Education is more than half the state’s budget,” Rowley said. “We simply don’t get enough money now. We are in the lowest quartile (nationally) for teacher’s salaries, and get no funding for facilities or technology…This pushes (schools) toward challenging the state’s funding system on behalf the kids.“This is very debilitating.”As with the park board, all school funding packages, including operation levies and construction bonds, already go before the voters for approval.But the impact of I-695, school board president Bruce Weiland said, again is the tangle of legal complexities the new law creates. Is the Associated Student Body a “governmental agency,” and must its fees go before voters for approval? Can the district raise driver education fees or impose a parking permit charge for students who drive to school, without holding a public ballot? “The legal questions become absurd,” Weiland said.”

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