Cencom takes novel funding approach

CenCom officials are fretting over the current anti-tax mood among voters.

“I’m a little bit worried about our prognosis for success in the spring, but what we’re going to do is unprecedented,” said CenCom Director Ron McAffee. “We are going to be giving something back to the voters.”

CenCom’s policy board agreed on Sept.10 to recommend placing a one-tenth of 1 percent sales tax measure on a spring, 2003 ballot.

The sales tax would provide a long-term, funding source for emergency communication services (911) in Kitsap County.

Currently, CenCom depends heavily on its user agencies such as the county for funding.

The recommendation to the Kitsap County Commissioners, who have the authority to place measures on the ballot, could be made within the next month, once it’s drawn up.

In exchange for the sales tax, CenCom would remove from the tax rolls $7.5 to $8 million of the $10.5 million property-tax lid-lift Kitsap voters overwhelmingly approved in the fall of 2001. This in the wake of the 2001 Nisqually earthquake and Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

If the sales tax measure passes next spring, the lid lift, which equates to an additional 16 cents for every $1,000 of assessed property value, would be taken off property tax rolls for 2004, 2005 and 2006.

The difference has already been spent on the CenCom building project.

“There is no known legislative mechanism to literally reimburse people property tax money that has already been spent,” McAffee said. “But we’re going to give them back their property tax and do what we believe (the voters) told us to do back in 1996.”

Six years ago, voters rejected an $18.5 million bond levy measure for a new headquarters, as well as a new radio system.

“The message from property owners then was that everyone uses 911, not just property owners,” McAffee has said. “So we went back to the drawing board to come up with another plan.”

For five years, CenCom officials lobbied the Legislature for the ability to ask voters for a local option sales tax. By the time the Ash Wednesday earthquake hit last year, the Legislature had still not approved the option, and CenCom officials felt they had to do something about the aging emergency services building.

This year — right after the lid lift was approved — the Legislature approved the local-option taxing authority.

“During the campaign for the property tax lid lift, officials had said if they get that sales-tax authority, it would be used to pay for the 911 center instead,” McAffee said.

If approved, the additional sales tax would raise roughly $2.8 million in 2004 and about half that in 2003.

Proceeds would be used to replace the property-tax lid-lift, and pay off the debt service on the new 911 headquarters.

In the long term, it would also provide a stable funding source, officials say, relieving user agencies from the financial burden.

McAffee said the burden among agencies could be reduced by as much as 15 percent in 2004 and by as much as 80 percent by 2009, if the tax is approved next spring.

“We really do need a stable funding source for emergency services in Kitsap County to reduce the financial burden of user jurisdictions, thereby freeing that money up for them to use on other critical government services,” McAffee said.

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