11/25/2015 10:14:00 AM Tribe and schools approve funding pact
Next year’s school levy set
The La Conner School Board again reduced the levy amount voters approved by $250,000 to give taxpayers a break in 2016. Even so, more than $3 million will be collected from about 1,100 individual taxpayers, left after 931 parcels were taken off the tax rolls this year. Voters in 2012 approved a yearly levy of $1,595,000 to pay for operations and maintenance in the school district. On Monday, the board adopted a resolution lowering the amount to be collected next year to $1,345,000 — the same amount collected in 2015. District Superintendent Tim Bruce said that money from the district’s reserves is being used to lower the levy to give some taxpayer relief. He said drawing from the reserves is not something the district can continue in future years. For 2016, the schools will also collect two other voter-approved levies: the bond levy for the new school construction in the amount of $1,383,400 and the tech levy that provides student computers and other technology tools for $345,000. The maintenance and operations and tech levies, which would total about $1.9 million if fully assessed, expire at the end of 2016. The school board has scheduled a special meeting Dec. 7 to plan the terms for a new replacement levy that would take effect in 2017 if approved by voters. With school funding so much in flux in the aftermath of federal and state court decisions having big impacts, school board President Rick Thompson said the district will likely ask voters to approve a smaller levy, for a shorter period — one year as opposed to four.
The La Conner School Board on Monday signed the latest version of a school funding agreement with the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community. The tribe has promised to contribute $400,000 to the schools to help ease a $789,000 shortfall created when 931 parcels were removed from the property tax rolls that feed schools and other public entities this year. For about a year, the terms of the tribal funding have been under negotiation. Last month the school board signed a version of the agreement and forwarded it to the tribe. What came back was a version signed by Swinomish Tribal Senate Vice Chair Brian Porter with a clause added similar to one the school board had taken out calling for the district to recognize the tribe’s right to collect taxes from the non-tribal members whose homes were built on leased tribal land. In all, some $1.8 million in property tax contributed by non-tribal homeowners in Shelter Bay and in the Pull & Be Damned Road neighborhood could no longer be collected for public agencies, after a federal court decision made all structures built on leased tribal land immune from state and county taxes. However, the tribe established its own taxing authority and is now levying property tax on the buildings owned by non-tribal members on leased reservation land. The $400,000 promised to the schools will come from around $2 million the tribe stands to collect in property tax levied on the buildings in 2015. The added clause in the agreement the school board signed on Monday states: “The Parties agree that the Trust Improvement Use and Occupancy Tax Code is a necessary, lawful and valid exercise of the Tribe’s power, authority and jurisdiction.” The school board had been reluctant to take that stand; however, board President Rick Thompson said the school’s attorney has assured them that the clause in the agreement does not create a liability for the district. Four of the five board members signed it. One board member, Kate Szurek, who is an attorney, said, “I am ethically restrained from signing the agreement” with the clause that states the tribe’s tax is lawful. She said that while the agreement contains many things in it she likes and is even excited about, such as having Swinomish culture added to the curriculum, as an attorney, she is not willing to attest to an activity that hasn’t been determined in court to be “lawful.” Szurek was careful to point out that the tribe collecting taxes has not been deemed illegal, there just isn’t a law that specifically allows it and makes it “lawful.” The so-called Great Wolf federal court decision that made structures on the leased tribal land immune from county taxes was not clear on giving the tribe the right to tax, she said. Even so, Szurek said by abstaining from the vote, she was not trying to keep the agreement from passing. Board member John Thulen said the funding situation has been a challenge for the district. With an agreement back before the board, “I just want to sign it and move on,” he said. His family has been here for five generations, he said. “I’m connected here, and I have a great deal at stake... I just want things to get back to normal.” The tribal land tax issue has been traumatic for the com-munity. When the parcels came off the tax rolls, most of the bill was shifted to the remaining taxpayers. Some La Conner homeowners saw their property tax bills jump by more than 20 percent this year. Under the terms of the agreement, the schools should receive half of the tribe’s donation right away, and the remainder later. Tax relief from the tribe’s contribution for local taxpayers wouldn’t come until 2017 — and that hinges on whether the district is successful in passing a new operations and maintenance levy in February. With funding from the tribe, the district would ask voters for a levy smaller than in past years. Recent voter rolls show that the majority of the district’s registered voters — about 52 percent — live on land that would not be subject to the district’s taxes.