Unfunded state mandates a burden to counties

  • Saturday, December 29, 2018 1:30am
  • Opinion

By Nate Nehring

Snohomish County, along with the other 38 counties in Washington state, provides local and regional services to residents. Many decisions about the county are made by the County Council and other elected officials. However, other decisions are forced on the county from the state, often increasing costs without adequate associated funding – called unfunded mandates.

An unfunded mandate is when the state legislature or agencies create regulations requiring local governments to change or increase services, or the cost of providing service, without appropriating money to implement said change.

This is a common occurrence and has a significant impact on our finances at county government.

One example is the Growth Management Act. The GMA was passed in 1990 and requires counties to plan for the coming population and job growth that we have seen recently. The requirement to plan for growth is not necessarily a negative prospect. Where the state and GMA have gone too far is the comprehensive plans and reports (such as the buildable lands report) that are far reaching, cover just about every aspect of county operations and services, and very expensive. The state requires these plans from counties but has not made any significant contribution in recent years toward the cost of developing the plans. Another area of county government where the state has overstepped is in the realm of elections. In our state, the counties are the primary service provider for running elections. One unfunded mandate in elections, which recently passed the legislature, is the new ballot drop box requirement. This regulation requires the county auditor to significantly increase the number of permanent ballot drop boxes throughout the county. While increased voter accessibility is a worthwhile goal, this law increases costs for elections departments without any funding increase from the state. Another example is every two years when state-level elections are run. Every local municipality from cities to school districts pays their share of election costs when they have positions (city council, school board, etc.) on the ballot. But the state, with the lion’s share of races on the ballot, does not contribute toward the costs to print, send, receive and process election ballots. This includes the elections of state representatives, state senators, the governor, the rest of the statewide elected officials, and initiatives. These are just a few examples of unfunded mandates that local taxpayers end up paying for.

In addition, this leaves local governments with less money to provide core functions such as public safety and road maintenance. This is an even bigger issue considering that the vast majority of property and sales taxes go to other entities to fund other government activities. It is time to have a serious conversation about the state paying its share and funding the requirements they force upon local governments.

Nate Nehring is a member of the Snohomish County Council and represents District 1, which includes Arlington and Marysville. His column runs monthly.

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