Rock Bottom Line || Taxed by Taxes: Who Pays How Much on Whidbey?

Posted in Blogs

March 29, 2017

I’m not one to complain about the cost of our county government here on the Rock. In fact, I think it’s just short of amazing how much our government does for the relatively small amount of tax dollars it receives.

Island County is the second-smallest county in the state of Washington. Latest population estimate: about 80,500. Approved county budget for 2017: $85.7 million. Do the math. That’s about $1,065 for every person who lives here, and it has to cover public safety and law enforcement, roads and bridges, county courts, public health, parks and recreation, and a host of other services we all take for granted.

Compare that with our Lilliputian neighbor to the north, San Juan County — the state’s smallest county — with current population of about 16,250 and an annual budget this year of $23.3 million, or about $1,400 per resident. Or look at King County — the state’s largest county — with a current population of about 2.2 million and an annual budget this year of $1.6 billion, or $728 per resident. (Urgent plea to King County residents: Please don’t move here just to cash in on that $338 per person in county spending you don’t get. Come visit us and spend your tourist dollars; we’ll show you a really good time.)

The main sources of general income for our county government are property and sales taxes. Having lived in California and Texas and paid much more than I do here, I have been pleasantly surprised by how reasonable our local taxes are. I know others might disagree, but I’d suggest you do a little research before you whine about how “high” or unfair our local taxes are.

I also was surprised recently by a kerfuffle over whether some communities on Whidbey contribute more to the county budget — and, by implication, whether others get a free ride or at least an undeserved bargain. A couple of our esteemed county commissioners recently cast aspersions on Coupeville for not supporting “the economic driver” of the island, which to them, of course, has to be Oak Harbor with its huge naval air station pumping big defense dollars into the economy. Those impolite sentiments from Commissioners Jill Johnson and Rick Hannold came in the context of the smoldering debate over jet noise, so I’ll chalk them up to Johnson and Hannold’s own smoldering.

To be sure, Oak Harbor does have about 27 percent of the county’s population and it’s growing faster than other areas, thanks to the Navy. But, leaving aside the jet noise hot potato, the supposition that it’s our “economic driver” made me want to understand better where the collected sales and property tax revenues come from on our island. To find out, I did a little digging into arcane databases and spreadsheets.

Let’s start with sales tax for the third quarter of 2016, the latest available. Countywide, $273.1 million was collected — a healthy increase of almost 16 percent from the year before. Praise the Lord, our economy is growing! But where did that tax revenue come from? Langley, $13.4 million; Coupeville, $18.1 million; Oak Harbor, $105.5 million; and — drum roll, please — all the unincorporated areas of the county, $136.1 million. No question that Oak Harbor is a rock star in sales tax but the biggest sales tax star on the rock is actually “unincorporated.” Who knew?

Property tax is a bit more complicated but the broader picture is clear. Again, “unincorporated” generates the most revenue, almost twice what Oak Harbor generates. But to see if some get soaked while others skate, I decided to look at it in a different way to see where the burden falls. I divided the reported property tax revenue collected in each county area by that area’s estimated population.

Here’s what I learned: Oak Harbor pays about $79 per person in property taxes. What a bargain! That’s the lowest rate in the county by far, and it’s undoubtedly because Oak Harbor has many more children and more people living under one roof than most other areas. Meanwhile, “unincorporated” pays about $106 per person. Coupeville pays about $148 per person.

And — another drum roll, please — Langley pays a whopping $248 per person in annual property tax. That’s more than three times the per-person rate in Oak Harbor. Why? It’s simple. Homes in Langley tend to be much more valuable than those in Oak Harbor and, because the South End population tends to be older, there are fewer people living under each roof there.

I realize that numbers can be made to say just about anything you want. Arguments over who pays too much and who doesn’t pay enough are endless. And the numbers I cited don’t include taxes for schools, libraries, and hospitals, which is a whole separate column.

But my bottom line is this: Every one of us gets a lot for what we pay to our county government on Whidbey Island, no matter where we live.

Remember that on your next trip to America, while stuck in traffic on I-5 next to all those King County folks who get less from their county than you do.

Once upon a time, Harry Anderson made an honest living as a reporter, editor, and columnist at the Los Angeles Times. He now lives in central Whidbey where he spends his time gardening and ruminating on things that interest him.


The views, opinions, and positions expressed by Whidbey Life Magazine bloggers, as well as those of the people who comment on their blog posts, are theirs alone and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of Whidbey Life Magazine. 


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  1. Thank you for your analysis of the costs and benefits of Whidbey Island taxes.
    I see how easily this info could be used to support one side or another, and
    appreciate your efforts to be fair and even-handed. I’ll bet you were a very
    good reporter.

  2. You need to write a article on how expensive it is to live there. Actually dont, our house is going on the market. Groceries 400 a cart. Home maintenance Deck Maintenance Tree Maintenance??
    All the costs of living are 50 percent more… Those costs need to come down. Finding a electrician or remodeling is a financial nightmare not to mention very hard to do in the rain.
    Bought a tiny home in AZ and am there now and dont want to go back… In the mountains here and my groceries are about 200 a cart. Active every day…. Sick of all the Rain Coats I need on Whidbey. I love visiting but forget living there as a one home family. You need 2 homes which I have met many…. They come to Whidney 4 months a year back to sunny states 8 months.. Costs of homes escalating and not enough apartments for a average workers at all.’ My son lives in a motel… The navy gets priority on housing. We have been turned away because, We rent to navy only. So my son is in a motel for 1000 a month. He cannot survive on Whidbey… Its a false and fickle economy… Again visiting is great during the summer. During the winter it shuts down. Why no new reataurants in Oak Harbor.?? How about a Couple of Steak Houses like OutBack or Chilis . Or In and Out Burger … Or others …. Even some restaurants are seasonal…. No thank you. 4 years of a growing Ferry line and a rising cost of living, been on a electrician list 2 months. Workers are moving off the island for any housing if they can find. Im done… But Ill visit Langley my favorite place once a year. Again Housing and Internet needs huge improvements to survive.
    Good Luck.. V

    • Thanks for these comments, Vivien. I understand what you are saying. I am very interested in the growing problem of affordability on Whidbey Island. Our “Rock” used to be an attractive place for people with modest means to live relatively well in a beautiful place. But that has been changing in the past few years. I am well aware of the problem of soaring rents and other rising costs of living on Whidbey. That is what is driving some people, apparently including yourself, to move away and find a cheaper place to live. In more drastic cases, others are finding themselves homeless and living in cars or tents. Please know that I and many other people on Whidbey are concerned about this. And rest assured that I will be researching and writing more about these issues in the future.
      –Harry Anderson

    • It’s wonderful that you have found a place to live that suits you more. Your home should sell quickly, and you’ll be free to enjoy all of the superior aspects of Arizona all year round.

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