7/8/2015 11:43:00 AM Tribal land tax issue -
Local lobbying effort
starts to pay off
The La Conner School District is scheduled to receive another $775,000 from the state Capital budget, Rep. Norma Smith, R-Clinton, said on Monday. Still, La Conner area taxpayers, some of whom saw their property tax bills jump by 25 percent this year, probably won’t see immediate relief from the higher school taxes shifted to them when homes in Shelter Bay and on Pull-&-Be-Damned Road were taken off the county tax rolls. Last year, the 931 now tax-exempt parcels, mostly homes built on leased Indian reservation land, generated about $1.8 million in property taxes for nine agencies. About $800,000 of that money went to the schools – which had a small, local tax base left to absorb the loss. This year the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community levied its own property tax on the tribal land homes, which are owned by non-tribal members. The tribe has proposed a contribution of $400,000 for the school district. However, the school district and tribe are still negotiating the conditions attached to the tribe’s contribution. The $775,000 is from the state’s fund for school construction and comes after lobbying efforts begun in March by La Conner Mayor Ramon Hayes with Town Councilman Bill Stokes. Rep. Smith immediately jumped into action when she learned about the plight of the school district and set up an emergency brain-storming meeting with officials from the town, school district and state school chief Randy Dorn. Over the past few months she’s conferred with Gov. Jay Inslee, and talked to U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Everett while she and Rep. Dave Hayes, R-Camano Island work to obtain more money for the schools to help ease the burden on local taxpayers. According to La Conner School District Superintendent Tim Bruce, a re-calculation of the district’s assessed value after the tax-exempt parcels were subtracted entitles the school district to the extra $775,000 for its nearly complete $20 million project to replace the middle school. La Conner taxpayers approved that $20 million bond in February 2013 – five months before the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that all buildings on tribal land, regardless of who owns the buildings, are immune from state and county taxes. About two-thirds of the school district’s population comes from the now tax-exempt land, but the remaining taxpayers are stuck with the bill. Even so, the state $775,000 is earmarked for school construction and won’t replace the lost property tax revenue. Superintendent Bruce said the district actually has to spend the money, and then get reimbursed. “We can’t pay down the bond,” he said. “But we can use it for building enhancements to make the whole campus energy efficient.” Lower energy costs would result in lower operating costs, and could lower school levies for taxpayers. Mayor Hayes said “I’m very pleased that our lobbying efforts have produced $775,000 for our schools. I would be even more pleased if the money were a direct appropriation to the school district to give the taxpayers relief.” Meanwhile, efforts for more direct taxpayer relief are ongoing. Bruce said the school board is working hard to find ways to keep taxpayers from taking another big hit. Rep. Smith said “we’ll continue to work with the Governor’s office.” Also, she said, on the operations side of the school funding, “negotiations will continue to resolve the levy issue.” And the lobbying effort will continue. Superintendent Bruce said Swinomish Tribal Chairman Brian Cladoosby has agreed to help lobby for federal “impact aid” funding to help offset the cost of educating children from tax free lands including military bases and Indian reservations. Lobbying the federal government is nothing new for the school district, however. La Conner school officials have been hounding the feds for years to provide more impact aid.