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Pierce County adding $5 to tax bill for those with land in unincorporated areas

By Jessica Keller, The Courier-Herald

Beginning next year, Plateau residents living in unincorporated Pierce County will be paying at least $5 more on their property taxes to benefit environmental projects.

Last week, the Pierce County Council passed an ordinance levying an amount of $5 per parcel of land to those in unincorporated Pierce County and various municipalities that agreed to partner with the county, in order to benefit the Pierce Conservation District. The levy only affects those living in unincorporated Pierce County and not those in Buckley and Bonney Lake or the other incorporated towns on the Plateau.

The fee, which will be imposed beginning Jan. 1, 2004, is for three years and cannot be increased beyond $5 per parcel, as mandated by Washington state law.

The ordinance passed last week, with a vote of 4-3, and County Executive John Ladenburg is expected to sign it, but the document was still unofficial as of Thursday.

Monty Mahan, manager of the Pierce Conservation District, which is a non-regulatory branch of the state government that helps land owners either facing regulatory enforcement or those who want to conserve their land, said the majority of the projects in unincorporated Pierce County involve farm assistance and salmon recovery.

"We have no power to tell anyone what to do, we only have the power to help those who want our help, and that's the way we like it," Mahan said.

The new tax will add a little more than $1 million a year to the conservation district's budget and allow it to leverage almost triple that in federal and state grants.

Mahan said the money collected from the unincorporated county are will only fund projects in the county. In unincorporated Pierce County, the revenues from the tax will be spent on agricultural development, $60,000; farm planning $480,000; farmland protection $450,000; the Foothills Trail $37,500; South Prairie Creek $269,126, just to name a few projects.

Restoration on the South Prairie Creek, which is considered one of the best spawning grounds for salmon, is one of the projects to be undertaken. Mahan said the conservation district is interested in buying the land where an old dairy closed down and doing restoration for the salmon.

Another Pierce County project involves the Foothills Trail. Mahan said the conservation district received a grant for a salmon recovery agency to replace a culvert underneath an old rail section near the South Prairie Foothills Trail that is considered an excellent rearing section for salmon.

The funding from the new tax will provide the money for the local match.

In fact most of the new tax funds will provide the money for local matches. Mahan said in order to go out for the state and federal grants offered, the county must be able to provide the funds for the local matches, which it has not been able to do without the extra funds. He said it has been really hard in Pierce County to get the local matching funds and that the county has been at a competitive disadvantage for state and federal grants than other counties in the state that already have the fee imposed, and a lot of federal and state tax dollars are going into other counties because of that fact.

"Really it's kind of an equity issue," Mahan said, adding by imposing this fee it will help return some of that money back to Pierce County.

"So as of right now we'll be kind of on an even playing field," Mahan said.

Not all of the council members were in favor of imposing the new tax, however. The county councilman for the Pierce Plateau area, Shawn Bunney (R-Lake Tapps) voted against the proposal.

"I'm not against the preservation of farmland. I'm not against the enhancement of salmon. I'm just against raising taxes all the time," Bunney said.

He believes Pierce County already has the resources to provide all the funding for the projects for the conservation district in its surface water management fund; the funds just need to be prioritized differently.

Bunney said one of the reasons the surface water management fund fees were imposed was to address flooding problems in Pierce County. He said those problems have been sufficiently addressed and that money, which would normally be applied to flooding problems, should now be applied to addressing the issues proposed in the ordinance. He said the Pierce County Council, however, did not do its homework, looking into that possibility before passing the ordinance.

Bunney also said he believes the purpose of the surface water fees would allow the County Council to address most of the programs named in the ordinance, such as restoring fish habitats, educating the public, providing protections to fish.

"All of these functions fall into the function of storm water management fees."

But Mahan said the Pierce Conservation District and the county council members sponsoring the ordinance didn't go after that account for a couple of reasons.

First, the conservation district is a frequent partner with the surface water management committee on projects.

"We didn't want them to think we were raiding their money," Mahan said. "Some counties do it that way, but it turns you into competitors at budget time."

Also the county could have given the Pierce Conservation District money out of the surface water management fund, and those funds could have only been used in unincorporated Pierce County, and could not be used for the projects for the cities because county money can not be spent in cities.

"We see it more as creating a partnership between the cities and the county," Mahan said.

Mahan said he has heard mostly good things from citizens on the new tax.

"It's a mixed bag," he said. "There are people who are just sick and tired of taxes, but there's a lot more people than that who tell us this is a great idea, and if it weren't for that, this thing wouldn't have been passed.

"For every person who took me to task, there were another 15 who said this was a great idea."

Jessica Keller can be reached at jkeller@courierherald.com

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