Tonasket Council weighs taxes vs. services

Approves ad valorem hike, debates utility tax

TONASKET – The Tonasket City Council, which is still attempting to finalize its 2014 budget, worked at its Tuesday, Nov. 26, meeting to strike the balance between maintaining services that are costing more to provide with the community’s desire not to have taxes raised.

Even with a tax base expanded by the annexation of the Bonaparte Creek/Mill Drive neighborhood and a one time, the 2014 budget looks to be at least as tight as the 2013 version.

“We’re not broke,” said City Clerk Alice Attwood. “But in current expense and city streets we are going paycheck to paycheck. The council will have to decide the level of services you want.”

Playing into the council’s desire to not raise taxes or fees was the recent ballot box failure of a 0.1 percent sales tax hike that would have provided support to law enforcement, even though the vote was closer than it had first appeared.

“I made a mistake at a meeting when I said it failed miserably,” said Mayor Patrick Plumb. “That was a misstatement on my part. … I was pleasantly surprised at the last count that our numbers increased … we only lost that by 15 votes. So, I stand corrected

“I stand what council member Ramsey said about not effectively communicating what we can do with the budget as it stands. I think the public participation in city government is … lacking … because of that, I don’t know that people are not understanding that local government is run a lot different than state and federal. The funds we have are real and tangible. The services we provide are real and tangible also.”

The council discussed at length whether or not to raise the water/sewer utility tax. Water/sewer utility payments can only be used to support those systems, but tax money added on can go into the general budget, which has been squeezed by increasing expenses.

The council also expressed the need to include a cost of living adjustment to city employees’ pay, which lags behind other areas of the county. (City employees include police, city hall workers and public works employees, not council members).

“COLA is not a raise,” said council member Jill Vugteveen. “We have worked hard as long as I’ve been here to at least get our employees up to a better – it’s not even reasonable – pay. We have to understand it’s the cost of doing business. We to be fiscally responsible to the city and its employees as well as those on fixed incomes.”

Plumb discussed what budget shortfalls have done to police coverage in town.

“When law enforcement does a DUI, they have to cut three of their hours off their regularly scheduled shift because they can’t have overtime,” he said. “The police can’t protect and serve during that time.”

In the end, there was no motion made to increase the utility tax.

However, leading off the budget discussion, the council approved a 1 percent increase in the ad valorem tax, which will bring an additional $1,183. The increase was approved 4-1, with council member Jean Ramsey opposing.

“I’d be voting 0 if we weren’t in a bad spot financially,” Vugteveen said. “But we can’t continue to ignore this year after year. We are thinking of the fixed incomes and considering that. But at what point do we put that ahead of doing business for the rest of the people in this town? If we don’t change something financially it’s the city that will go downhill and not be able to provide the services people expect.”

The council could have raised the tax by as much as two percent due to some banked capacity from not having raised it in previous years. It did raise the tax by two percent last year after not having raised it a all the three years previous.

“We are honestly trying to hold it (down) as best we can,” said council member Scott Olson. “If we can hold it, we’ll hold it … (next time) when we need (two percent), we can say we need it.”

Attwood said she would be able to present a final budget at the next council meeting.

New Cop

Preston Ray was welcomed as a full-fledged member of the Tonasket Police force after having completed his academy training over the past few months. Ray is filling the spot vacated when Jim Rice retired last spring.

“We’ll slowly work up to him being in his own car,” said Police Chief Rob Burks. “One of us will be on to shadow him then soon he’ll be by himself.

“There’s no set time. But I have to make sure he’ll be safe out there, showing how he handles the calls and the public right, as well as protecting himself if there are situations.”

Frontier announces it’s online

Steve Sandman, General Manager at Frontier Communications, was on hand to officially announce the availability of its fiberoptic high-speed internet service.

“We’ve been trying to do this for a long time,” Sandman said. “We invested just under $2 million. It’s on our own network. We typically do not lease fiber from other companies. We would have to pass those costs to the end user. We think we can provide higher value and keep our costs down.”

Frontier, which Sandman said is the nation’s largest provider of rural internet, claims local engagement as part of its business model.

“We have employees in this community,” he said. “We are proud to say we live, work and play in the communities we service. There’s a lot of opportunities to participate in events that take place and to be able to support local events that take place in Tonasket. The people I’ve met here have been unbelievably gracious … I’ve been very appreciative.”

Sandman also presented a plaque to Plumb, who was the first city resident to have the service installed at his home.

Actions

Other actions taken by the council included:

  • approved the city’s comprehensive plan land use map;
  • approved a declaration that the 3rd/5th/6th Street project is complete;
  • approved the use of Founders Day Park for Winterfest activities, as well as the purchase of candy as part of the annual celebration;
  • approved resolution for review regarding the possibility of joining other municipalities in forming a mosquito control district;
  • directed Attwood to modify the downtown parking ordinance to eliminate an internal inconsistency;
  • deleted marijuana from city code 9.26 regarding possession of controlled substances so as not to conflict with state law;
  • approved a sidewalks ordinance as discussed at previous council meetings;
  • approved a 0.25 percent increase in real estate excise tax;
  • and approved an internal transfer of funds to cover current expenses through the end of the year, which will be repaid over the first six months of next year.

Also, Attwood reported the the city did receive a $92,000 grant from the Transportation Alternatives Program to put in a sidewalk that would extend from the corner of 6th and Whitcomb (US-97) to the Bonaparte Creek Bridge at the south end of town. This would provide additional infrastructure to support a proposed foot bridge that would allow pedestrians to cross the creek to the U.S. Armed Forces Legacy Park.

The Tonasket City Council next meets on Tuesday, Dec. 10 at 7 p.m.

About Gary DeVon

Gary DeVon is the managing editor of the Okanogan Valley Gazette-Tribune and celebrated his 25th year at the newspaper in August 2012. He graduated from Gonzaga University with a degree in Communications - Print Journalism, with an emphasis in photojournalism. He is a proud alumnus of Oroville High School. His family first settled in Okanogan County in the late 1800s. His parents are the Judy DeVon and the late Larry DeVon and he has two younger brothers - Dante and Michael. Many family members still call Oroville home. He is single with a grown daughter, Segornae Douglas and a young granddaughter, Erin.

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