Kitsap voters will decide tax levy for veterans, homeless

Kitsap County’s three county commissioners Monday unanimously called for a special election for a property tax increase to fund services for the homeless and at-risk, including provisions inserted after public comment to limit administrative costs and allocate first-year funds to capitol projects.

The levy, which will be listed on the Nov. 8 ballot as proposition one, authorizes a temporary increase of $0.05 per thousand dollars of home value, or about $12.50 per year in additional tax on a $250,000 home.

Money collected from the levy would be divided evenly into two separate funds, one devoted to human services and homelessness reduction efforts in the county, and one devoted to human services for county military veterans.

In documents originally submitted with the levy proposal, the Kitsap Continuum of Care Coalition cited statistics from the Washington State Department of Social and Human Services indicating a 524 percent increase in all “homeless households” in Kitsap between since 2001.

They also showed Salvation Army data showing a 24 percent increase in the average number of free daily meals being served since this time last year, and data from three of Kitsap’s six school districts reporting near-doubling of the number of homeless students since 2006.

“In our meal program we saw a 25 percent increase in the first quarter of this year alone,” Walt Le Couteur of the Bremerton Rescue Mission said in July, “So it’s definitely getting worse. We’ve seen an increase in the need on an ongoing basis since we started back in 2009.”

Concerns raised

The version of the levy sent to the ballot reflected some concerns raised during the extended public comment period preceding Monday’s meeting.

Provisions were added requiring that the majority of funds collected in the first year be used for capitol projects and one-time investments, including expanding available housing facilities, specifying minimum amounts after the first year for housing expansion, and specifying the minimum amount per year to be dedicated to veterans-only services.

“The issues of transparency and how these dollars are spent are really critical ones,” County Commissioner Charlotte Garrido said Monday. “If these monies are approved by voters, these monies go in a lockbox.”

After citizens voiced concerns that administrative costs might eat up much of the new money, a provision was also added to limit the amount spent on those costs, but unlike the other six allocation requirements laid out in the proposition, it was listed as a “goal” rather than a requirement.

Additionally, included in the one-time investments allowed for first year funds were “developing and implementing information sharing protocols and information systems, training and equipment,” according to the document itself.

Leif Bentsen, human services planner for the Veterans Assistance Program, who authored the added provisions, said that listing the five percent limit as a “goal” was a mistake made in the process of trying to quickly incorporate public input before Monday’s meeting, and that he was working with the county commissioners’ office to correct the mistake before the auditor’s office put it on the ballot.

The intention, said Bentsen, was to set a firm limit on administrative spending.

Seven parameters were established for use of the funding (see box).

Richard LeMieux, a nationally recognized advocate for the homeless who resides in Bremerton and was once homeless himself, Monday said the vote was “an easy one,” and said “it should be twice as much.”

“We’re all together. Sometime, some disaster, something that will affect you greatly will come along. When that time comes, you have to be strong enough to ask for help,” LeMieux said. “I’m a firm believer now that if we have a problem, we have to pull together as a village to solve it.”

Behind the levy

The levy was first drafted by two groups, the Kitsap County Veterans Advisory Board, a board composed of veterans created to advise the county commissioners on veterans’ issues, and the Kitsap Continuum of Care Coalition, a working group made up of representatives from major county and private non profit human services agencies.

Currently, services for homeless and at-risk veterans in the county are funded by the county Veteran’s Assistance Fund, which is supplied by an existing property tax of just over $0.01 per thousand dollars of property value. That tax generates about $319,000 per year.

The additional tax, if approved, would generate about $1.6 million per year.

Of that, the share devoted to veterans services in the county – around $800,000 – would go not into the Veterans’ Assistance Fund, but into a separate account also restricted to projects and agencies benefiting veterans.

Some controversy has persisted around the Veterans’ Assistance Fund and a 2010 funding switch, where the county general fund took money generated by the $0.01 per-thousand tax for its general fund.

At the time, the fund was running a surplus which it had been ordered to spend down. Bentsen last month said the switch was legal and didn’t hurt the fund, but only accelerated the process of spending it down.

Comments received by County Commissioner Robert Gelder’s office were varied, with citizens sounding off in roughly equal numbers on both sides of the issue.

One, Steve Colby, wrote in an email to the office, “I am a 20 years retired Navy vet and 100 percent disabled Iraqi Freedom veteran.

I have seen firsthand how our country is cutting back on the services and benefits available to our veterans.

The rest of the government is taking away from our veterans at a time when they need it the most. Don’t let the same thing happen here.”

Others, however, including other veterans, felt the opposite. “I myself am a Vietnam veteran and I have fought for freedom and capitalism the foundations of America,” wrote Ken Collette.

“This proposal takes away my freedom of choice to support or not support causes I think are important and is pure socialism in that it would force me to support others against my will.”

“The service providers of Kitsap are asking for help,” Gelder said. “Ultimately, the voters of Kitsap will have the final say.”


Seven parameters for spending

The seven allocation parameters laid out in the county tax hike proposal include.

• Half the levy funds go to a veterans’ fund.

• The majority of the first year’s collections go to one-time and capitol investments.

• County administrative expenses be limited to 5 percent.

• After the first year up to $250,000 may be set aside per year for housing and capitol projects.

• Of the funds set aside for veterans a maximum of $200,000 be dedicated to current county veteran-only programs.

• A maximum of $100,000 may be made available from the fund each year to early intervention programs.

• Funds from the levy may not be used to fill the county’s general fund or replace existing funding for human services programs.

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