BY HARRY ANDERSON
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.
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