2007 Campaign Promise on Taxes Has Port Orchard Councilman in “Bind”

What passes in most governments as a matter of housekeeping became the topic of prolonged discussion Tuesday, as the Port Orchard City Council voted 5 to 2 to take the annual 1 percent property tax increase to which it is entitled by law. The vote put Councilman Jim Colebank, who ran in 2007 on a platform of “no new taxes without a vote of the people,” in a tight spot.

To put the vote in perspective, the increase will cost the owner of a $240,000 home about $5 a year.

The city’s 2011 levy, with the 1 percent increase plus revenue from recent annexations and new construction, is $2,626,207. The 1 percent increase over last year’s levy represents $23,044 of that amount.

Last year, the council, after much debate, refrained from taking the 1 percent increase. They elected to make do with 2009 revenue levels out of consideration for residents struggling with the economy. The budget was balanced through cuts and use of reserve funds.

Recent history seemed to play into this year’s levy setting discussion, as the council again spent considerable time dissecting the effects of taking or not taking the 1 percent.

The pre-vote discussion kicked off with Councilman Fred Chang asking what the additional $23,044 would be used for. Chang questioned whether the increase was truly needed and said he’d be voting against the ordinance.

The city has deferred many projects and drawn down its reserve accounts to maintain a balanced budget, said Treasurer Allan Martin. Although the ordinance does not designate the 1 percent increase to any specific purpose, one of the expenses it might be used for is to replace one of the Port Orchard Police Department’s aging patrol cars, Martin said. (The city hopes to replace three patrol cars in the upcoming year.) Martin added that not taking the increase over a period of years would surely lead to layoffs, which the city has avoided so far.

One of the city’s known expenses for 2011 is a 2 percent cost of living increase for staff members. The increase is overdue and well deserved, said Mayor Lary Coppola, who noted Port Orchard operates with a staff of 68, much smaller than most cities its size. “Everyone works their butt off,” Coppola said. “If you had any clue what they do, you’d be shaking your head and, saying, God they need some help.”

Carolyn Powers added that one of the reason Port Orchard is in better shape financially that other local governments is the efficiency of its staff. “We’ve been very proud to say we’ve been holding our own. A big majority is because our staff has been doing a lot more more work and not getting more money,” she said.

Several council members commented on the prolonged effects of deferring projects and putting off replacement of aging equipment. Since inflation typically runs higher than 1 percent, the city’s cost to do business has been rising faster than its increase in revenue. Councilman Jerry Childs likened it to a slow leak in the budget. Although the 1 percent increase would not address all the city’s needs, it would help slow the leak, he said.

Childs too ran on a platform of no new taxes. But, he said, he also made a commitment to “protect and improve” city residents’ quality of life. Failing to properly maintain the city’s infrastructure and facilities would be irresponsible, he said. Child’s comments were echoed by other council members, including Powers, Rob Putaansuu and John Clauson, who speculated, “Most people would be willing to give $5 (the annual increase on a home of $240,000). I don’t think it’s exorbitant by any means.”

Colebank acknowledged the amount individual homeowners will pay as a result of the increase may not seem like much, but he is sensitive to seniors on fixed incomes and other citizens who might still be feeling the effects of the recession. Colebank said his campaign promise presented a “dilemma.” “It puts me in a real bind, because I really care about the people who are having a hard time. I can see this is going to pass anyway, so I might vote ‘no.'”

“I don’t think there is anyone at this table who wants to raise taxes, but we do have an obligation to provide the best service we can” said Powers. “I appreciate what you’re saying, Jim, but sometimes that’s a danger we’re taking when we say were never going to raise taxes.”

The Port Orchard City Council will hold a work study meeting on 2011 budget expenditures at 7 p.m. Tuesday at city hall, 216 Prospect St.

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