9/23/2015 10:46:00 AM Taxes a hot topic at
school board meeting
Taxpayers at Monday’s La Conner School Board meeting took the trustees to task over the local tax disparity. After the so-called Great Wolf decision, the land that generates about two-thirds of the school enrollment in La Conner was taken off the property tax rolls this year. That left the remaining taxpayers shouldering the entire school levy burden — which is the biggest chunk of the local tax bills. The issue came up during a question-and-answer session after La Conner Schools Superintendent Tim Bruce gave his report to the board, which indicated that they should review a recent response from the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community regarding the $400,000 contribution the tribe has offered. That amount is about half what the district stood to loose when 931 parcels in non-native communities built on leased tribal land in Shelter Bay and in the Pull & Be Damned Road neighborhood came off the tax rolls. According to School Board President Rick Thompson, regarding the contribution offer, “there are conditions,” from the tribe. So far the district cannot afford to accept those conditions and is still negotiating with the tribe, which is under no legal obligation to contribute anything. Meanwhile, the remaining taxpayers in the school district saw their property tax bills go up, in some cases by 25 percent — with much of the increase due to the school levies. “So the community is footing the bill while they’re playing their games,” said one man attending the meeting. That fellow, who lives east of the Swinomish Channel, asked twice to have his name left out of the newspaper. La Conner passed a $20 million school construction levy five months before the federal Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit overturned a lower court’s ruling that structures owned by non-natives on leased land held in trust for tribes by the federal government can be taxed. Besides the construction bond, local taxpayers pay into voter-approved operations and technology levies for the schools. Although the Swinomish tribe has begun assessing its own taxes on the non-native owned structures on leased reservation land, the tribe is under no legal obligation to pass that money along to the schools or any other tax-funded non-tribal entity. The school district qualifies for federal “impact aid” to help cover the cost of educating students from land that can’t be taxed, including reservations and military bases. The district also qualifies for state “levy equalization” funding for districts with heavily burdened taxpayers. This year, after intense lobbying efforts by the town of La Conner and the school district with federal and state officials, the school district is in better financial shape now than was initially projected, with the promise of more federal and state aid. Town and school officials have been working together trying to solve the taxing and budget issues. Mayor Ramon Hayes said he believes that the school district can wind up with a $1 million reserve fund for emergencies and still afford to reduce its levy request next year by about $300,000 to give the taxpayers some relief. Each year, generally in December, the tax-funded pub-lic agencies tell the county how much money to assess the taxpayers in their districts. Most agencies have levy caps, but the caps don’t apply to school levies, which are voter-approved. “Are the taxpayers going to get any relief?” said one La Conner woman, who asked not to be named and claims the higher taxes could force her to live on ramen noodles. After fielding a number of questions, board President Thompson said the board will try not to increase the tax burden, and sincerely hopes it will be able to lower it. Besides its levy request this year, which includes the 20-year construction bond, the school district must also seek a new operating levy next winter, because the existing one will expire in 2017. Resident Dorothy Downes brought up an issue that sticks in the craws of many local taxpayers: A large number of the people eligible to vote in the levy election will not be subject to the taxes because they’re on tax-free land. The will of the actual taxpayers, she said, “could be over-ridden by people who will not pay the tax.” She asked if there was a way to separate the district. The answer is no. Downes and resident Kim Rubenstein both asked if the board could find ways to trim the school budget. Rubenstein suggested even more aggressive grant-seeking to fund things like athletics and other programs.