Principles and pragmatism took center stage nearly three hours into the Centralia City Council meeting on Tuesday.
The council voted 4-3 to exercise its right to raise its property tax levy by 1 percent — a total increase of $7,072 or about 61 cents per $100,000 of assessed property value. Councilors Rebecca Staebler and Joyce Barnes voted along with Mayor Lee Coumbs and Mayor Pro-tem Max Vogt in favor of the move. Peter Abbarno, Rebecca Staebler and Susan Luond voted in opposition.
Abbarno initially made a motion to add the $7,072 to the city’s cache of banked property tax increases that totals nearly $1.4 million. Following comments in favor of the increase from Vogt and Barnes, Coumbs stated in part that “I know it’s a great political move (to decide not to raise the levy). ‘Hey guys, we never raise property taxes.’ Well, whoopee. Six cents on $1,000…inflation is higher than that.”
Abbarno responded to Coumbs by saying he took offense to the idea his motion was politically motivated and that there was no reason to raise taxes with a balanced 2019-2020 biennial budget already on the table.
“My big thing is that cities shouldn’t raise taxes because they can,” Abbarno said Thursday. “They should if they have to, if there’s no other option, but we didn’t need to in this case. It’s not about politics, it’s about principle, and I think we as a council set a tone for the city.”
Governments that choose not to raise the amount of their property tax levy by the maximum 1 percent allowed each year by state law “bank” that dollar figure and can add some or all of the total amount deferred to a future property tax levy. Chehalis city councilors voted this week to add 25 percent of its banked capacity as well as a 1 percent increase to its property tax levy next year.
Centralia only receives about 6 percent of a person’s total property tax bill. Chehalis claims about 22 percent. Other entities, such as schools, counties and the state also get a portion of the revenue. Tuesday marked the first time since 2015 that Centralia voted to exercise an increase of at least 1 percent.
Chehalis councilors have voiced some regret during recent meetings that they didn’t start raising their levy sooner to avoid having a larger increase on the table like the one this year that would add $14.22 per $100,000 assessed value to a person’s property tax bill.
Vogt spoke during Centralia’s council meeting Tuesday about how if the city doesn’t take its increase every year, it will have to catch up sooner or later.
“If you’re not voting to raise taxes now, you’re sort of voting to increase them later in a bigger amount,” Vogt said. “… It goes into a general fund we could use for projects. ($7,000) doesn’t go a long way, but it would repair some things people want repaired.”
The 2019-20 Centralia city budget is the first time the city has used the biennial model for its largest financial document.
With a two-year total of $127.5 million of projected expenditures, it represents an increase of about $5.4 million over the 2017 and 2018 annual budgets combined. No general fund reserves are included in the balanced budget, as revenues from sales and utility taxes are projected to continue increasing.
Staffing will increase by two positions: one police records technician and one light warehouseman in the City Light department.
“We have a budget that meets our need, increases our reserves and is balanced,” Abbarno said. “There’s no indication we would need to raise taxes. The reserves are what we have and build in good economic times to protect ourselves.”