Council rejects property tax increase, approves CV field
By Craig Howard
Homeowners in Liberty Lake received their first gift of the holiday season on Tuesday night as the City Council voted down a proposed property tax increase of 1 percent for 2013.
The nominal levy lift lid was included in Mayor Steve Peterson's preliminary budget for next year and would have raised $19,000 with funds earmarked for a speed monitor trailer and two surveillance cameras. The hike would have only affected Liberty Lake's portion of property tax, accounting for an average of $3 yearly on a home valued at $300,000.
While members of the governing board like Mayor Pro Tem Odin Langford acknowledged the value of the capital purchases on behalf of public safety, questions were raised about the idea of raising property taxes to cover the corresponding costs.
"I think we could find those funds from other places," Langford said.
Finance Director R.J. Stevenson said the property tax lift had been identified as "one of the ways we can keep up with the increasing cost of public safety in the long term." He noted that the city had until Nov. 30 to inform Spokane County officials of its property tax rate for 2013.
Police Chief Brian Asmus noted that capital investments such as those included in the 2013 budget "increase the efficiency of our department."
In opposing the tax increase, though not the capital requests, Council Member Josh Beckett said the 3-percent utility tax had already created a burdensome situation for residents and businesses, one that should not be aggravated by another levy shift. Meanwhile, Council Member Keith Kopelson speculated that the addition of public safety accoutrements might be intended to clear up more time for police to address animal protection.
Ultimately, council voted 6-0 (Council Member Dan Dunne was away with an excused absence) to bypass the 1-percent hike. The city can now set aside or "bank" the adjustment of 1 percent as an option for next year.
Toward the close of the nearly three-hour meeting, Beckett raised concerns over another revenue-generating component of the mayor's budget, namely the embattled utility tax. Emphasizing that it was still having an onerous effect on local business, Beckett said he would be supporting elimination of the tax prior to the passage of the 2013 budget.
"We're still hearing feedback that it is hurting businesses," Beckett said.
Beckett – who faced off against Peterson in an often contentious battle for mayor last fall – issued a reminder that Wayne Frost of Greenstone and Peterson had both argued against the tax in the past, saying it would have a negative impact on the business climate, including companies interested in relocating to Liberty Lake.
Peterson countered on Tuesday, saying he "wasn't sure where the city would get the money" to address issues like municipal streets if the utility tax went away. The mayor's budget dedicates a projected $662,000 from the tax in 2013 toward road maintenance and street capital projects.
Another unanimous vote took place on Tuesday in support of purchasing a field owned by the Central Valley School District. On Nov. 13, the CVSD board approved the sale of the space – identified by the district as the future site of a middle school – to the city of Liberty Lake for a symbolic $10 with the understanding that the district could buy back the land for the same amount within a 99-year period. The buyback would include CVSD reimbursing the city for any costs associated with improvements of the property.
Liberty Lake resident Jennifer Tomlinson, who spoke at the school board meeting in support of the acquisition and has championed the project since 2007, told council on Tuesday the community would rally around renovation of the lot.
"We're going to do some really great work," Tomlinson said. "We just need your help to make it happen."
In addition to approving the purchase, council agreed to increase the amount allotted for field improvements in 2013 from $200,000 to $500,000 based on a recommendation by Council Member Lori Olander. The city has set aside $1 million from the capital facilities plan for field upgrades over the next five years, beginning in 2013. Funds for the project are being accessed through the real estate excise tax.
City Administrator Katy Allen acknowledged that there is "a great expectation" from residents to move swiftly on the field design and work, but recommended the city take a thorough look at the logistics and expenditures first. Allen proposed forming a committee that would include citizen feedback on the project.
Olander lobbied successfully on behalf of another line item change to the capital facilities plan on Tuesday – a large, multi-sport venue that, as of now, will include no specific expenditure. Neal Olander, Lori's husband, had campaigned for a similar 20-acre project while he served on the governing board.
After a short public hearing, council approved the 2013 to 2018 capital facilities plan with a unanimous vote. Langford was the only dissenting vote in resolutions that adjusted 2013 funding for the CV field and added the line item on the multi-sport venue.
Along with his squabbles over tax policy at the Nov. 20 meeting, Beckett said the city faced "communication and transparency issues" regarding discussions within municipal committees that oversee finance, public safety and community development. Beckett said the community development committee would begin emailing meeting agendas to other council representatives starting in December as a way to improve communication.
Peterson brought up the idea of someone from city staff taking minutes at each committee meeting while Allen said it would be possible to include minutes from each meeting in council packets.
"Overall, the goal is to make sure every council member knows what's going on in each committee," Allen said.
Tuesday's meeting also included two workshop discussions, the first addressing public use of tobacco in municipal parks. On Oct. 2, council had asked city staff to draw up options for implementing a policy during large-scale events at sites like Pavillion Park.
On Tuesday, Parks and Recreation Coordinator Michelle Griffin outlined three proposals, beginning with the implementation of "Temporary Special Event Zones" that would include "no tobacco" signage on park grounds. The second option would involve a $25 fine for those who used tobacco at parks during events with the final alternative emphasizing voluntary compliance in tobacco-free zones.
Council opted for the final proposal, but not before Langford referenced a study by the National Institutes of Health which states that "there is no acceptable level of second-hand smoke."
"It's all toxic," Langford said.
The second workshop included a presentation by representatives of the Washington State Department of Transportation on a proposed roundabout at the convergence of Harvard, Mission and the Interstate-90 westbound off-ramp. Council members learned that the intersection – currently controlled by stop signs – has not seen the necessary increase in traffic to qualify for traffic signals under something known as the Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices.
A roundabout generally carries 30 to 50 percent more traffic than similarly sized signaled intersections, according to WSDOT officials. Historically, the approach has reduced fatal accidents by 90 percent while decreasing injury accidents by 70 percent.
Veteran landscape architect Mike Terrell, who has worked on a number of Liberty Lake projects, including Pavillion Park and Rocky Hill Park, provided an overview of roundabout design options on Tuesday. Along with improved pedestrian amenities, Terrell said the site would provide an opportunity for a gateway entrance to Liberty Lake while "establishing a sense of place and identity."
WSDOT and the city will host an open house on the roundabout project on Dec. 13 at City Hall, from 6 to 8 p.m.