Opinion

Do we even understand the revenue question?

The coming Kitsap County property tax “lid lift” proposition requires a level of participatory democracy we’ve rarely experienced.

Although our county government leaders have not yet indicated when they will put a proposition on the ballot, public statements about budget deficits and limits on revenue increases make it clear it will be soon.

Before the measure appears on the ballot, we first need a straightforward discussion of the revenues available to county government so they can be compared to the necessary expenditures.

Ordinary citizens can — and must — participate, unless they want the outcome to be influenced to an undesirable extent by invalid arguments that may resonate with many voters despite their invalidity.

Essentially, what we need is for voters to pay attention and give a loud “Bronx cheer” to each superficially persuasive but actually bogus argument. If they don’t, we may not get the facts needed to make a rational decision.

Many folks may fear that going up against the statements of our leaders is too hard or too likely to produce personal embarrassment when objections prove to be false.

Never fear. When our leaders are searching for that resonating simplistic explanation, rebutting them is as easy as shooting fish in a barrel — after somebody let all the water out.

Take, for example, the persistent plaint of public officials that Initiative 747 limits annual property tax revenue increases to 1 percent. It simply isn’t true, and it’s easy to demonstrate the truth.

For Kitsap County’s general fund “current expense” levy, the average annual revenue increase since 2001 (the last year before I-747 took effect) has been 4 percent. Anyone can see that 4 is not 1, and that it is a bigger annual increase than 1 percent.

Another favorite dodge is to direct everyone’s attention to the tax rate and never mention the dollar amount of the property tax revenue.

Talking about a declining levy tax rate rather than a rising levy dollar amount makes it seem that the government is in dire financial straits.

Government cannot spend a tax rate. It spends the dollars collected by the levy. This is an indisputable fact you can state as often as needed without fear.

If a public official appears willing to admit the tax rate is irrelevant, immediately say that you know the average annual property tax revenue increase since 2001 would have been 3.5 percent a year had there been no “banked” levy authority from previous years.

Point out that you know this 3.5 percent revenue increase may not be enough over the long run to meet all requirements. This may seem like a dangerous concession to make, but it could move the discussion to the only thing that matters — comparing the available dollars to the needed expenditures.

If the conversation gets to this point, it’s time to consider another major source of revenue for the county’s general fund – the sales tax.

The property tax and the sales tax each constitute roughly a third of the county’s general fund revenues.

Unlike property tax revenues, which increased by an average of 4 percent, sales tax revenues increased by an average of more than 6 percent.

To discuss the sales tax, you may first have to get past another attempt to use a resonating but wrong argument in support of a tax increase.

You may have noticed recent news reports in which it was said that, compared to other counties, our county government doesn’t receive nearly as much property tax revenue in relation to sales tax revenue — as though this is a bad thing.

Fortunately for the Kitsap County government, a much bigger share of the local sales tax revenue goes to the county rather than the cities.

In 2006, our county government received 65 percent of the total local sales tax revenue collected within Kitsap’s borders. King County government received only 19 percent, and in Pierce County the share was 37 percent.

And just imagine — we haven’t yet heard the seemingly good but actually false arguments about the other one-third of the county’s revenue.

This may take a while, depending on how stubbornly our leaders hold onto the idea that a “sound bite” is better than a careful public analysis and discussion prior to an election.

It takes some digging at the Web sites of the state Department of Revenue, Auditor and Office of Financial Management to find the needed information; but in a participatory democracy ordinary citizens have to do it.

If our leaders finally realize that “poor pitiful me” arguments won’t get them anywhere, they may decide they need to provide us the facts and discuss what has to be done based on those facts.

One way or the other, this question of increasing our local property tax will be decided. It would be far better to decide it after voters have had the facts laid out for them to consider.

Robert Meadows is a Port Orchard resident.

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