Double vision

If you think about it — and like it or not, you probably should—November isn’t that far away. At the general election on Nov. 5, Methow Valley residents may face some tough decisions having to do with local taxes.

Okanogan County Fire District 6 is aiming to place a property tax levy increase on the November ballot to finance a new fire station in Winthrop. The district, which earlier postponed a vote on a levy increase to refine some details, has been working hard to convince residents of the need for a new facility.

Meanwhile, the Methow Valley School District is moving toward also placing some kind of tax measure on the general election ballot: either a levy increase or a bond issue proposal to help pay for much needed improvements to the district’s infrastructure.

An ad hoc facilities task force has been working its way through a long list of necessary repairs, upgrades or replacements for the school district’s physical plant — buildings, grounds, equipment and mechanical needs.

The respective boards of the two districts face tough strategic decisions as well as the challenge of carefully outlining how additional monies would be spent.

Both districts, if they proceed to the November ballot, will be presenting the best possible case to the voters. As tax-supported public entities, they can’t actually campaign — that will be up to citizen groups that choose to support, or perhaps oppose, the tax proposals. The districts can marshal and objectively offer their facts and figures.

It’s likely that attentive Methow Valley residents will learn everything they can about the proposals and judge them on their merits.

That’s a separate consideration from deciding whether to vote for both, one or none of the ballot measures. Even the best possible arguments may not be enough to convince voters to increase their tax burdens — possibly twice on the same day.

One of the issues that worked against the proposed Methow Valley recreation district that was crushed at the ballot box was uncertainty about how much taxes would go up if the district was approved — despite credible assurances from the district’s supporters that they had no intention of levying the full amount that would have been allowable under state law. That wasn’t the only concern that tripped up the park district proposal, but it was a convenient one. It always is, for the “no new taxes” contingent that doesn’t want to hear anything else.

If the school district and fire district leadership haven’t thought about the possible implications, or actual consequences, of simultaneously asking for more money from local taxpayers, they probably will soon. Timely decisions have to be made in order to ensure that any proposal qualifies for the November election — hence, it is indeed not that far off. The fire district has already specified how much it would raise the levy and how the money would be spent; the school district has yet to do that.

The two districts could hardly be called competitive — each provides a vital service. But faced with two worthy proposals to provide things the community needs, what might voters do?

That’s a lot of uncertainty to contemplate, given that any taxing district has to carefully pick its spots when asking for additional taxpayer support. Yet waiting until next year to ask for a tax increase could work against either of the districts, as their facilities will continue to be problematic and incrementally more costly to prop up. Nothing worth fixing gets cheaper to fix. The price of ever-more-prolonged neglect would be steep.

One of the advantages of local tax proposals, particularly in small communities with limited resources, is that they can be defined and limited in scope — and taxpayers can see the tangible results. The spending is (typically) not theoretical or open-ended. There would be a new fire hall. There would be visible repairs at the schools. Sooner or later, those things will need to happen. The question that may be resolved on Nov. 5 may well be, how soon is “soon?”

Don Nelson