Opinion

Fiscal responsibility should be the watchword

This may be an interesting year in South Kitsap for those of us who tend to watch what local government entities do.

At the Port of Bremerton, the new commissioner, Larry Stokes, could make a noticeable difference — and it would be none too soon.

Meanwhile, the city of Port Orchard has at least a couple of items to handle that could keep the new mayor, Lary Coppola, busy as he tries to steer them through the government process.

Finally, the South Kitsap School District will be putting together the next maintenance and operations excess levy proposal, so we can watch to see whether the superintendent, Bev Cheney, can summon up a “finishing kick” before retiring.

At December’s meeting, Stokes (not yet in office) and port district Commissioner Bill Mahan engaged in a brief colloquy that indicated Stokes may have a tough row to hoe.

Rather than acknowledge the obvious fact that the port was increasing its property tax levy, Mahan indicated that he doesn’t understand the difference between the tax rate and the amount of dollars collected at that rate.

As noted before in this column, no one can spend a tax rate. Stokes appears to know this, but Mahan does not.

We pay the port in dollars, and the port spends those dollars, so when the number of dollars we must pay goes up, it is a tax increase.

The “levy lid” is the number of dollars the port may collect — for both its current expenses and debt service.

The port district’s ability to issue bonds and levy taxes to pay the debt without voter approval has steadily diminished as the part of its total levy authority used to pay current expenses has grown.

There is not yet any outward indication that the port commissioners noticed this trend, much less understood how it would eventually affect the port’s ability to proceed with anything resembling economic development.

Maybe Stokes can change at least a little by attempting to focus their efforts on economic development rather than uneconomical development.

The city of Port Orchard will probably be looking at one large annexation issue (the McCormick Woods area) and ought to be looking at another (the Bethel Corridor project).

If the residents of the area in and near McCormick Woods move forward with a petition and then vote to approve annexation, Port Orchard would have done something unusual – annexed residential property and taken on the burden of providing services to the residents.

More typical is the annexation of revenue-producing commercial and retail property, but the Bethel Corridor project is less likely to be done in the way it is planned if Port Orchard doesn’t agree to leave that area outside the city limits for a number of years.

With a binding agreement between the city and county regarding future annexation of the Bethel Corridor, some of the cost of improving Bethel Road to accommodate development might be paid with our existing county road taxes.

Without an agreement, more than half the cost would have to be paid by new voter-approved taxes.

Developing a retail and commercial center along Bethel Road seems like a good way to complement development already occurring on the other side of State Route 16 – and might make the old part of town along Bay Street commercially viable by attracting more people to the vicinity.

For people who like to use the word “vision,” fitting Bethel Road into the picture ought to be considered, and the annexation stumbling block ought to be removed.

The South Kitsap School District will need to put a proposition on the ballot early in 2009 to obtain voter approval of a new maintenance and operations levy, which means the board of directors must decide how much to propose before the end of this year.

Voters approved the first four-year M&O levy in 2001 on the first ballot, and the second in 2005 — again on the first ballot.

In 2009, there will be no need to gain the approval of 60 percent of voters as had been the case in 2001 and 2005. Only a simple majority will be needed.

Considering the recent track record and the new simple majority requirement, it may be easy to get complacent, but that would be a mistake.

Some might be tempted to go for broke and propose the maximum allowable levy amount, but that may also be a mistake.

The amounts voters are asked to approve have to be justified, and it takes a lot of work to project the funding needs of the school district several years into the future and then explain what the money is for.

As the work proceeds, the people who will be voting on the proposition and then paying the levy need to pay attention.

Don’t wait until the ballots arrive in the mail to begin wondering whether the school district really needs the money.

Robert Meadows is a Port Orchard resident.

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