Joy among Children’s Initiative campaigners over their narrow victory in last month’s election has turned quickly into concern they will not raise as much money as they expected.
The ballot measure known as Proposition 5, which passed by a mere 20 votes out of 108,560 cast, was meant to raise 19 cents for every $1,000 of assessed property value in the county, to pay for additional child care, and services for homeless and vulnerable children in the county.
County Executive Satpal Sidhu is recommending the council adopt the new tax next year at a rate of about 16 cents per $1,000. The rationale for the change, Executive's Office spokesperson Jed Holmes explained, is that the ballot measure mentions two key dollar amounts: a levy rate of 19 cents and a total annual tax collection of “approximately $8.2 million.”
The $8.2 million figure was based on what 19 cents per $1,000 would collect from 2022 property values. After the ballot language was written, property values were reassessed. Now, 19 cents per $1,000 amounts to about $9.6 million in 2023, levy committee member Ray Deck III said.
Property owners would only need to be taxed about 16 cents per $1,000 to collect the $8.2 million mentioned in the ballot measure.
“The executive says, ‘Well, it’s a tough choice, but maybe we shouldn’t assume the voters wanted the higher of the two,’” Holmes said.
The levy committee, Yes for Whatcom Kids, delivered a legal memo on Friday to Executive Sidhu and members of the Whatcom County Council, which will hold a public hearing Tuesday night to determine the levy rate for the Children’s Initiative.
“Once the voters have approved a specific levy rate increase, like they did in approving Prop 5, the County Council has no authority to reconsider the rate,” the memo stated.
“We hope that the council will understand that passage of the draft ordinance in its current form will lead to legal risks,” the memo added.
The levy committee sent an email on Monday warning supporters the county executive wanted to deposit levy funds into the county's general fund, rather than a separate "Healthy Children's Fund." This would make the money harder to track, Deck said.
In an interview, Holmes tried to dispel that concern. He said the council may vote to create that separate fund at a future meeting, and in any case the county is bound by state law to spend the money according to the ballot measure's intent.
"There’s zero question about whether that money could be mixed and get lost," Holmes said.
The public hearing on the Children’s Initiative levy rate is last on a list of 12 hearings the County Council will hold at 6 p.m. Tuesday. Those interested in participating in the hearing may attend in person at 311 Grand Ave. Instructions for joining the meeting remotely are available at whatcomcounty.us/joinvirtualcouncil.
This story was updated at 9:01 p.m. Dec. 5 to include additional information.