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Skyrocketing property taxes threaten stability

Feb 5, 2016, 3:00am PST

Be prepared. Your property taxes are about to skyrocket.

Armed with that information, now is as good a time as any to seriously consider this region’s growing reliance on property taxes to fund essential services.

Property taxes on a “typical” King County house worth $480,000 will rise a whopping 15 percent this year. The King County Assessor’s Office will mail bills later this month.

The increase is largely driven by voter-approved levies in Seattle that funded transportation and parks, and county levies that upgraded communication systems and funded early-childhood education.

Those are worthy causes, but voters must know upfront what the costs are. So should politicians who advocate for everything from transportation packages to funding for higher education. That they don’t is simply irresponsible.

They should also know that the region’s growing reliance on property taxes to fund essential services is unsustainable.

There are no easy answers, but one bill in Olympia offers a partial solution. Lawmakers should pass the Preservation Tax Exemption proposal that would give cities the right to allow owners of rental properties to receive a property-tax exemption if they reserve 25 percent of a multi-family dwelling for low-income families.

Others involve publicizing under-used programs, including one that offers tax relief to low-income senior citizens. Finally, new King County Assessor John Wilson is right on by advocating for a “community conversation” to discuss funding mechanisms (see column on this page).

That means discussing everything from capital gains and graduated property taxes to homestead exemptions. It means exploring ways to reduce the sales tax and consider adding an income tax - which state voters have overwhelmingly rejected nine times since 1934.

This region must adopt a sense of urgency around its tax structure. If it doesn't, Seattle is in serious danger of becoming nothing but a playground for the affluent.