Commentary: TransAlta Land Transfer Would Be Bad for County, State

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As Lewis County assessor, I have concerns about the gift of approximately 9,600 acres of TransAlta land to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, and I am opposed to the acquisition by WDFW.

The tax shift from the shutdown of power plant No. 1 will be felt by the taxpayers of the Centralia School District, Port of Centralia and Riverside Fire Authority in the 2022 tax year without the donation of the land.  

The second half of the closure will follow by 2025, which will be another devastating blow to those districts. We have not totally economically recovered from the shutdown of the mine in 2001. That was 19 years ago, and one of the taxing districts, Riverside Fire Authority, is just now seeing recovery from that closure. Their tax base has been limited by the $5.90 levy limitation for many years.  

This is the first year they have been able to have their levy limit expand in many years without the cost of running special levies. TransAlta’s value was close to $1 billion at one time. Since the negotiation with the state of Washington to shut down the mine and the coal plants, it has steadily decreased at an alarming rate.  

The coal plants were a huge benefit to the taxpayers of Lewis County. Since the shutdowns have begun, the value is less than half that value today. It will be less as time goes on.  

What has the state of Washington done to give us economic relief from that?

Part of the land that is mentioned to be donated was set aside for industrial development to offset the loss of value due to the shutdown of the mine and the power plants. That was a law passed specifically to offset the loss of the mine and plants.

If the land is donated, it will be exempt and taken off the tax rolls permanently. This creates a tax shift to already strapped taxpayers due to the pandemic and the economic losses that are already being suffered.  

The land will be left fallow. An example of that already exists in Lewis County, where the state of Washington purchased hundreds of acres to mitigate the widening of Interstate 5 not only in Lewis County, but up and down the corridor, far outreaching this county. 

That land used to produce agricultural crops, cattle and other benefits, such as paying taxes and jobs. Making land exempt just makes others in the county pay more.  

Another example is Tacoma Power. 

Tacoma Power has purchased hundreds of acres of forestland in East Lewis County that will never produce a dime of timber income again. They have used this land to mitigate not only dam ownership in Lewis County, but to mitigate projects in other areas.

The taxpayers of Lewis County get virtually little benefit from the power or the dams, but they get to pay the taxes Tacoma Power does not for the “right” to have the dams located in Lewis County.  All of these exemptions result in a loss of employment and a loss of income from the land itself.

Part of TransAlta’s responsibility of owning the land was to reclaim the property back to its original state, which mostly was forestland.  

They knew that at the time of purchase in 2000.  

Even though the value of forestland is low, it is a rotational crop that will, in time, produce income for schools, ports the county and the fire districts that the property is located upon.  Harvest tax is a huge offset to the taxing districts, and when the land is replanted after harvest, it promises income in the future. Exempt property typically provides little to no income.

I strongly urge TransAlta to finish its reclamation project, which by the way, produces employment in the local area for those that were laid off or retired. If those folks aren’t interested, they are jobs for local folks that might not have that opportunity otherwise. Family wage jobs are critical for us.

If not used for future industrial development in the near future, at least if it is planted in forest land it will provide for shelter for animals and jobs in the future in the forest industry. The land will be held until it is practical to do industrial development sometime down the road. Once it becomes exempt, that opportunity is lost forever, especially if it is for the protection of endangered species.  

Haven’t we suffered enough through the spotted owl protection of timber and loss of wages and employment from that enactment?

Making this land exempt is a very bad choice for all of the citizens in the state of Washington.  We need jobs, and we need places to create those jobs. Lewis County’s land mass is already 60% exempt with full or partial exemptions from taxation. We don’t need more exempt property to shift taxes to already strapped taxpayers.  

School levies and fire levies will fail continually as folks cannot afford to pay them. Industry and commercial developments pay the same tax rates, but typically use 20% of the services.  Residential taxpayers typically use 80% of the services and pay 20% of the taxes.

If you have further questions, please do not hesitate to contact me.

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Dianne Dorey is the elected Lewis County assessor. Her office can be reached at 360-740-1101.

 

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