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Originally published Sunday, October 31, 2010 at 4:00 PM

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Guest columnist

Recession, not water creates new King County flood crisis

The King County Flood Control District is finding itself in a Catch 22 because of state law and the recession that is affecting property values used to assess taxes. County Councilmembers Julia Patterson and Larry Gossett urge the Legislature to resolve the situation to prevent flooding.

Special to The Times

KING County is a county of rivers, with six major river systems flowing through. Major regional infrastructure such as fiber-optic cables, state highways and a city of Seattle water-supply pipeline are located in the floodplains.

Right now, King County is facing an urgent flood issue, but it's not the result of rising water.

The problem is an archaic state policy that puts local government agencies in a classic Catch 22: One law gives us the authority to levy a tax, but another law prohibits us from doing so. The bottom line: The King County Flood Control District may not be able to collect $35 million next year to fund badly needed flood-risk-reduction projects — many of which are already under way.

The flood district is one of the county's many special-purpose districts that are set up to help pay for and provide valuable public services including fire, roads, hospitals, libraries and parks. Some districts, like the flood district, levy their taxes countywide, while others serve a smaller geographic area. The combined rate collected by all districts cannot exceed the state-imposed limit of $5.90 per $1,000 assessed value (AV).

The recession is dramatically impacting these districts. As property values go down, the rate necessary for districts to maintain their functions increases. This year, funding for the flood district comes from a countywide levy of approximately 10 cents per $1,000 AV, meaning the flood district collected $10 on a house worth $100,000. Next year if that house is worth only $90,000, the flood district will need to raise its levy to approximately 11.11 cents per $1,000 AV to collect the same $10. So as property values go down across King County, all districts need to raise their rates to collect the same amount of revenues.

However, because the state limits the totals districts can collect, a number of small jurisdictions in King County are bumping up against that tax limit as a result of declining property values. Because all other levies take priority over the flood district, it cannot collect the flood tax if the combined tax-levy rate is exceeded in any of the levy areas. This would be a $35 million loss for the flood district.

We are pursuing strategies to resolve the problem and preserve flood-control funding, including negotiating agreements with fire districts to lower their tax levies so the levy in their jurisdictions will be under the $5.90 limit. The flood district, in turn, would then be able to levy its tax and reimburse the fire districts for the revenue they will lose.

Floods affect everyone, posing risks to public safety, and to regionally important employment centers and transportation corridors. The most recent flood in January 2009 threatened public safety and caused more than $25 million in damage. It also caused damage to the Howard Hanson Dam, resulting in reduced flood-storage capacity needed to protect the Green River Valley.

As this recession drags on, this issue is going to cause more challenges for local governments. Our creative fix is temporary. We hope the Legislature will address this matter in the upcoming session in January.

La Niña is coming. It is crucial to continue improving flood protection in King County and to resolve confusing tax laws.

Julia Patterson, left, and Larry Gossett are King County Council members. Patterson represents the Green River Valley and Gossett represents Northeast and Southeast Seattle and part of Skyway. Both serve on the King County Flood Control District Board of Supervisors; Patterson as chair of the board and Gossett as vice chair of the executive committee.

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