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McCleary faces tough questions as property tax hike heads to the ballot

McCLEARY — Voters in McCleary will see two property tax measures on the ballot this August in an aim to stem off future cuts and provide dedicated revenue to fund the city’s police force.

The McCleary City Council conducted a special meeting on May 7 to consider the proposal and ultimately agreed on asking the voters for a levy lid lift that would garner an extra $61,000 a year for the next six years; as well as a dedicated property tax levy of $110,000 that would just be for one year.

About 40 residents attended the meeting, which was billed as both a workshop and a special meeting. The meeting lasted just 20 minutes. Anyone walking in a few minutes late missed half the presentation. Some had wanted to ask questions, but Mayor Gary Dent asked for the questions to be put on hold until potential public forums could be conducted. No dates were set for these forums. The Vidette asked about the meeting’s regular public comment period, which was marked on the agenda, and Dent pointed to a list that didn’t have anyone’s name on it.

The M&O levy for police protection would increase taxes by an additional $1.14 per thousand of a property’s assessed value. That means an extra $114 on a $100,000 home. This measure would need a 60 percent voter approval to pass.

The levy lid lift would raise the city’s property tax levy by an extra 63 cents per thousand that would go to the city. That’s an extra $63 on a $100,000 home.

That would raise an extra $61,000 for the city.

The levy lid lift would just require a simple majority vote to be approved.

To avoid cuts, Mayor Dent says the community would need to approve both measures. Dent already laid off a police officer in January and eliminated the half-time police clerk’s position. However, the employee was also the court clerk and has been able to lend a hand for an hour or two, according to Police Chief George Crumb. The proposed levies are just to stem future cuts. There’s not money available to restore police services. The city now only has two police officers and the chief.

Councilman Brent Schiller asked Dent what the plan was going to be if voters don’t approve the measure.

Dent said he didn’t want to discuss the potential cuts, but he had some ideas. He just didn’t want to share the specifics at this point.

In November, Dent threatened to eliminate just about every aspect of city services, including the local police and fire departments, if voters don’t approve a potential property tax increase.

Dent had originally proposed a $400,000 property tax levy and if voters didn’t approve it then he told the community he would lay off every other police officer, including the chief; close the museum, close the library, stop funding the city cemetery and city parks and turn to Elma to handle fire services. Other employees may also be laid off.

Dent said the financial picture is not as dire as it was last fall, but the city still needs additional revenue next year.

“We just need to hold on,” Dent said, adding that he still is confident a steel pipe manufacturing plant with ties to China would be built as proposed in McCleary. The business purchased property in McCleary, but has not applied for any permits.

Among the cost- cutting measures Dent had proposed to look at this year is merging the city’s courts with Elma and contracting out police services to the Sheriff. But he hasn’t pursued those avenues yet.

However, the McCleary City Council’s Finance Committee has started looking at those options. The Finance Committee arranged a meeting last month with Sheriff Rick Scott to look at the costs involved in contracting our police services.

The committee had also set a meeting to meet with Elma Mayor Dave Osgood on May 7 to discuss consolidating court services and if the cities should potentially work together on contracting services with the sheriff to boost deputy response times.

Dent said he heard about the meeting with Osgood and he canceled it.

“It was entirely inappropriate to meet with Elma at this time,” Dent said. “I also didn’t like that they met with the Sheriff. I, on purpose, did not go. The council does not have the power to sign contracts and the committee should not be doing these things without my direct approval.”

Mayor Osgood said they might have canceled the meeting last week, but Mayor Dent called him back and scheduled it for Monday.

“We talked court consolidation, costs and what it would take to make it happen,” Osgood said.

Some council members also wanted to talk about the potential for contracting out sheriff services during the May 7 workshop, but Dent said he didn’t feel it was appropriate at this point.

Councilman Jeff Catterlin notes that it may just be cheaper to contract services with the Sheriff’s Office than raise everyone’s property taxes.

Catterlin noted in an email after the council meeting:

“Considering that the population of McCleary is approx. 1600, that means that the cost to provide law enforcement, by the McCleary Police Dept., would average out to $400 each, for every man, woman, and child in McCleary, for the year 2015. In comparison, If McCleary were to contract law enforcement with the GHC Sheriffs Dept., which gave us an estimate of $150k-$200k per year for services, the cost would be $93.75-$125 ea. for every resident of McCleary. One of the questions that concern voters is “response time” by the County. If McCleary contracts with GHC, Deputies with be designated in East County to insure quick response times. If Elma and/or McCleary decide to contract, the county will hire additional Deputies to cover this area. To me, this negates the response time argument.

“Residents in Elma and McCleary both need to realize that the Grays Harbor County Sheriff’s Dept. has vastly more resources than a small town police department such as the criminal division with five detectives, the drug task force, K-9 units, a special emergency response team, a marine safety program, and currently 23 deputies who have a higher level of training than most city police.

“This topic is a very emotionally charged one. But what it really boils down to is economics. People are struggling just to make ends meet now. Small towns are all struggling with budgets, too. In tough times, tough decisions have to be made.”

Councilman Brent Schiller questioned moving forward with any kind of property tax proposal without having a specific plan in place so that voters will know what could happen if the measures fail.

The city turned the approved resolutions into the Auditor’s Office on Thursday, just one day shy of the deadline needed to get the measure on the August ballot.