Reporting by Margery Hite
Many people who live in cities and towns are confused about whether county government matters to them. After all, city residents have their own city services. What does county government do for them?
There are a variety of answers to this question but one thing is clear: city and town residents pay for County government.1Residents pay property taxes as a way of funding county government. In fact, more than half of the County’s General Fund comes from taxes on property in the “incorporated areas” of the county, which is another way of saying “cities and towns”.2 In addition, every taxpayer pays the same rate of tax to Skagit County for what are called County “General Fund” services.
If you look at your property tax statement, you will see a number of categories of taxes you are required to pay as part of your overall tax bill. Some are for schools; some for port and hospital districts; there is a state levy; and probably (depending on where you live) drainage and fire district taxes. County property taxes that apply to all property in the county (whether in cities or in the rural areas) are categorized as “Skagit County” on your property tax statement and go into the County’s General Fund.
The General Fund pays for, among other things, the budgets of county elected officials – the county commissioners, the sheriff, the assessor, the auditor, the clerk, the treasurer, the judges, and the prosecutor. In 2019, the County will collect $26,313,611 in General Fund taxes.3 Of those, 47.85% will be paid by rural residents. 52.15% are paid by residents of “incorporated areas”, that is “cities and towns”.
City residents pay additional property tax as levied by their city government. This is in addition to what city residents pay to the County for its General Fund. City property taxes pay for city services, such as police, building permits, and social services.
Rural residents pay into the County Road Fund for services provided to the unincorporated areas of Skagit County. The County Road Fund was originally intended to be used for county roads,4 but can also be used for any service provided in the “unincorporated area of the county.”5 In Skagit County, for example, the budget for Planning and Development Services is provided largely from the County Road Fund.6 That is possible because County Planning and Development Services only has authority over property in the county rural areas and therefore only provides service to the unincorporated parts of Skagit county.
However, the taxes levied for Skagit County on your property tax statement are for the County’s General Fund. To see what you are paying for, go to the General Fund Expense Sheet on the County Department of Budget and Finance website: https://www.skagitcounty.net/Departments/BudgetFinance/2019Budget.htm.
Margery Hite, retired lawyer, served as a lawyer to county and city governments. She also served as the attorney member on a state growth management hearings board, and as an executive director for Snohomish County. She is now retired to a small farm in Bow where she raises dairy sheep and makes her own cheese.
- For a comprehensive overview of property taxes in Washington state, see the Municipal Research Service Center (MRSC) web-site
- 2018 Property Tax Assessments and Levies Payable in 2019, Skagit County Office of the Assessor
- RCW 36.82.010.
- RCW 36.33.220. See also RCW 39.89.010 which allows county road funds to be used to promote economic development in areas of high unemployment and stagnant wages.
- 2019 Budget – Non-General Fund Expense Sheet, Skagit County Department of Budget and Finance.