Tuesday, March 28, 2023

MLIRD funding bill faces glitch

Staff Writer | March 9, 2023 1:30 AM

MOSES LAKE — A bill sponsored by Sen. Judy Warnick (R-Moses Lake) and intended to fix the Moses Lake Irrigation and Rehabilitation District’s current inability to assess, recently passed the state Senate but may have hit a snag as it goes on the state House of Representatives.

“We may not have gotten it right,” said Warnick during a phone call early Wednesday from Olympia, where the state legislature is currently in session.

Warnick, who authored Senate Bill 5460, said Grant County Treasurer Darryl Pheasant contacted both her and Rep. Tom Dent, R-Moses Lake, about the bill, expressing concerns that the bill doesn’t truly fix the MLIRD’s problems. Warnick said she and Dent were planning on talking with Pheasant about his concerns with the bill before the House version moves forward.

“It looks like we have some work to do,” Warnick said.

Warnick’s measure amends the current legislation, authored in 1963, allowing for the creation of rehabilitation districts, that gave districts the ability to assess up to $1 per $1,000 in assessed aggregate value on property in the district — 75 cents for the irrigation portion, and 25 cents for the rehabilitation portion — in order to care for the lake.

The change is needed because Moses Lake area landowner — and former MLIRD board member — Mick Hansen challenged the MLIRD’s assessment of his property in Grant County Superior Court, claiming the district could not levy under state law governing irrigation districts because the MLIRD did not deliver significant water to district property owners for irrigation.

In a ruling later upheld by the Washington State Court of Appeals, then-Superior Court Judge David Estudillo found in Hansen’s favor. As a result, the MLIRD’s ability to levy assessments on residents and fund its operations was limited to 25 cents per $1,000 of assessed value in the rehabilitation portion of the statute.

However, Pheasant — who joined the original suit against the MLIRD — said the proposed changes still treat the assessment as a tax, something irrigation districts are not allowed under state law to do.

“There is no law in place for people to vote on a tax,” Pheasant said. “And there are a lot of problems with a tax. Some seniors will be exempt, but an irrigation district has no way to calculate that effectively.”

A key issue at stake is the distinction in Washington state law between a tax and an assessment. According to Pheasant, a tax is a general levy that does not necessarily confer a benefit to the taxpayer. For example, all Grant County property owners pay a portion of their property tax to cover school operations even if they have no children in the public schools.

An assessment, however, is levied on those who receive a direct benefit from the district or government in question. For example, many Grant County property tax bills contain direct assessments for weed control and mosquito control districts and the county conservation district. Dedicated irrigation districts like the East Columbia Basin Irrigation District levy their own assessments and conduct their own elections, restricted solely to property owners who receive water from the district, under state law.

MLIRD Board President Bill Bailey said the Warnick bill does not give the district the ability to tax, and that the MLIRD is looking at ways to assess property fairly so that the benefits of living near the lake and maintaining the lake for recreation are assessed properly on landowners within the district. The MLIRD has rights to use 50,000 acre-feet of water from Moses Lake every year for irrigation purposes.

“It gives us the ability to assess rather than tax, primarily under the rehabilitation aspect of the law,” Bailey said. “The courts have determined that we need to establish benefits.”

Bailey said the MLIRD is currently looking at ways to deliver lake water for irrigation, primarily to the city of Moses Lake, which might also end up paying an assessment to the district.

“This is a benefit to the city of Moses Lake,” he said.

Pheasant said he originally proposed a formula for rehabilitation districts similar to the one created under the law for mosquito control districts. While listed on tax bills as an assessment, Washington law calls the levy on property within a mosquito control district a tax, limits it to 25 cents per $1,000 of assessed value, and gives mosquito control district boards the ability to classify property within districts based on the benefits derived to the property owner from mosquito control.

“I will never support a tax unless it goes to the voters first,” Pheasant said.

The MLIRD is the only irrigation and rehabilitation district in Washington state.

Charles H. Featherstone can be reached at cfeatherstone@columbiabasinherald.com.

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