A more than $2 million settlement of a class-action lawsuit against taxing districts in Pierce and King counties means property owners will receive credits on their bills for the next five years. Some will also see their tax rate go down.
But the returns for affected taxpayers in the Pierce Conservation District and King Conservation District will amount to pocket change.
Pierce County property owners are expected to receive an annual 20- to 25-cent credit per tax parcel as a condition of the settlement, said Ryan Mello, executive director of the Pierce Conservation District.
The costs will be covered by the districts customer base, which is made up of unincorporated Pierce County and 11 participating cities or towns: Buckley, DuPont, Fircrest, Gig Harbor, Lakewood, Milton, Puyallup, Steilacoom, Sumner, Tacoma and University Place.
In the wake of the lawsuit and the settlement reached this summer, most members of the Pierce County Council support a new tiered rate structure to continue the work of the conservation district.
The districts work includes agricultural assistance, soil conservation and improving water quality and salmon habitats. Its budget separate from the countys is set at about $2.1 million for 2013.
The new rates and credits to be awarded by the district would start next year and continue through 2017.
Under the new system, the annual rates would vary by the type of parcel: $3.95 for open space, $4.14 for agricultural, $4.98 for commercial, and $5 for residential.
Under the old system, owners of all types of parcels have been charged the same $5 annual assessment since 2004.
At least one County Council member favors doing away with the annual conservation charge altogether, which would eliminate the districts work.
Councilmember Dan Roach, R-Bonney Lake, said the costs of the settlement plus the risk of another lawsuit are too great to justify continuing to fund the district.
I just find it really, really hard to say yes to this, said Roach, who nonetheless praised the district for doing good work.
His opposition sparked two other councilmembers to speak up in support of the district and the new variable rate structure.
Councilmember Rick Talbert, D-Tacoma, said the new rates are more equitable and defensible. And Councilmember Tim Farrell, D-Tacoma, said without the district, the county would have to pay for the work to get done at a higher cost.
By a 3-1 vote, the councils Community Development Committee on Monday forwarded the rate structure to the full council with a do pass recommendation.
Council Chairwoman Joyce McDonald, R-Puyallup, voted yes along with Talbert and Farrell. Roach cast the lone no vote.
The full, seven-member council is scheduled to vote Oct. 23.
Several landowners and building groups sued King and Pierce counties and the two conservation districts in 2010, alleging the districts violated state law by charging a flat-rate, per parcel assessment but not a per-acre fee, Mello said.
In July, King County Superior Court Judge LeRoy McCullough approved a settlement.
The new rate system for the Pierce district, adopted by its board of supervisors, is based on the cost of programs and the benefits to categories of landowners. The Legislature changed state law earlier this year allowing for a new rate structure.
The plaintiffs agreed not to take further legal action as long as Pierce Conservation Districts charge does not exceed $5 per parcel and the charge for the district in King County is not greater than $10 per parcel. State law limits the maximum charges to those amounts.
Mello said the Pierce district must pay legal fees of about $75,000 for the plaintiffs from its portion of the settlement. In addition, the district already has paid $150,000 in legal costs to defend itself and Pierce County.
The total settlement was $2.4 million.
The costs break down to $1,992,480 for King Conservation District and $407,520 for Pierce Conservation District. Of the Pierce district settlement, $332,520 will go toward rate credits it awards over the next five years.
The King district settlement was larger because it has more parcels and charges the higher $10 per-parcel rate, which is allowed for counties with a population of more than 1.5 million.
Steve Maynard: 253-597-8647