By Stan Matthews
County Website and Communications Manager
We’ve received a number of questions as a result of a letter that has been circulated and published in some media which compares San Juan County’s government with the government in Pacific County and raises questions about taxes and the cost of services. This comes just as the County has asked voters to approve a Public Safety Sales Tax to help maintain the current level of vital County services in law enforcement and key public safety areas, so we are providing some information in the interest of providing clarity to the discussion.
Because of the nature of the issue, we’ve included both raw data and analysis.
Demographically, the comparison is between a relatively poor and sparsely populated county which has actually lost population over the past decade, and San Juan County, which has experienced rapid development and economic and population growth over the past several decades.
In terms of government services, there are significant differences both in the cost of providing services due to geography, and the voter-mandated services each government provides. Additionally, more than twice the percentage of Pacific County’s citizens receive municipal services from a city or town as in San Juan County.
Though an actual “apples to apples” comparison of individual services and costs between the counties is extremely difficult because of differences in accounting systems as well as differences in services and how they are delivered, when viewing the total cost of government in relation to each county’s economy and demographics, San Juan County compares favorably to Pacific County.
According to the latest available information from the State, the per capita cost of San Juan County’s government was 4.7% of the average resident’s annual income in 2011, compared with 5.4% in Pacific County.* By a broader measure, Pacific County’s budget, as a percentage of its assessed value, is nearly double San Juan County’s percentage.
*Data Source: 2011 Data Book – Washington State Office of Financial Management.
According to the latest figures from the Washington Office of Financial Management:
- The average per capita income in Pacific County is only 53% that of San Juan County.
- Though the dry land area of Pacific County is more than 5 times as large as San Juan County, the assessed value of its property is less than 1/3rd that of San Juan County’s.
- 18% of Pacific County’s population receives food aid through the State compared with less than 6% of San Juan Island’s population.
- San Juan County is more than 4 times as densely populated as Pacific County.
- San Juan County’s population has increased by more than 12,000 since 1970 while Pacific County has added fewer than 6,000 residents.
Cost of Government Services
A program by program comparison of the two county’s budgets is extremely difficult because of the difference in budget systems. For instance: Health Department, and Planning and Permitting functions are part of San Juan County’s general fund budget, but are placed in different parts of the Pacific County budget, and personnel costs are allocated differently.
When viewing the total budgets, San Juan County’s budget includes major programs mandated by voters – such as the Land Bank – which Pacific County does not have. Other programs, such as County Parks – which produces the majority of its own revenue from camping and vendor fees, are maintained at a much higher levels than in Pacific County both because of their success and because residents have voted for specific measures to support them. For instance, San Juan County’s 2012 Parks Budget is $1.6 million, compared with Pacific County’s $35,000.
Finally, more than twice as many Pacific County residents live in incorporated areas than in San Juan County, so San Juan County must provide proportionately more local government services. Because of the added transportation costs of island environment, the cost of obtaining everything from gasoline and paving material to office supplies and maintenance services is higher. Also, costs are higher because some redundancy in personnel and equipment is required to provide both basic and emergency services on multiple islands.
Are there any valid comparisons?
The latest comparable bottom line figures provided by the state – the 2011 budget year – shows Pacific County’s total budget to be $22.6 million while San Juan County’s was $36.5 million. Due to the differences between the counties and their government services, the following comparisons may be more appropriate than the unweighted cost per resident:
- San Juan County’s total Budget (2011) was the equivalent of 4.7% of the average resident’s income, compared to Pacific County’s 5.4%.
- The ratio between the County budget and the County’s assessed property value is 47% lower (better) in San Juan County than in Pacific County.
Data (Source: Washington State Office of Financial Management)
San Juan County
|Growth 1970-2012 (%)||
|Growth 1990-2012 (%)||
91.6 / sq. mi.
|22.5 / sq. mi|
|Pct. of Population Living in Cities or Towns||
|Assessed value of Property||
|Assessed value per capita||
|Pct of Pop. receiving State Food Assistance||
|Cost of Gov’t||San Juan County||Pacific County|
|Total Budget – All services and funds (2011)||$36,515,320||$22,993,512|
|County Budget as% of per capita income||4.7%||5.4%|
|County Budget as % of assessed property value||.0045%||.0085%|
|Budget Per Capita for unincorporated area of County||$2,661||$1,634|