Camas City Council divided over new tax increase

When it comes to raising revenue that helps pay for the city’s basic services, Camas City Council was a divided house this week.

Council members split their revenue-related votes on Monday, November 21 – striking down a 1% increase in the city’s property tax for the general fund, while approving a 1% increase in the city’s property tax that funds the city ​​medical emergency. utilities, as well as a new 2% tax on public water, rainwater, sewage and solid waste services in the city.

City staff have been warning city officials for several months that without increasing and diversifying its revenues, the city will face a structural deficit – when its basic expenditures are greater than its revenues – for years to come.

In September, the city’s chief financial officer, Cathy Huber Nickerson, told council members that property taxes “are the primary source of revenue for funding general fund services and emergency medical services” and explained that in the In Washington state, the 1% annual property tax increases are not based on the increase in property values, but rather on the amount of property taxes collected during the previous year. Washington city officials cannot increase this tax rate by more than 1% in any given year.

In Camas, the 1% increase in the property tax that funds the city’s fire, police, parks, library, streets, cemetery, courthouse, and community development services would have raised an additional US$143,097 in 2023 and cost the homeowner US$ 624,000. house an additional $14 per year or about $1.17 per month.

The Council voted 4-3 on Monday against raising the 1% property tax for the city’s general fund, with Councilors Don Chaney, Tim Hein, Leslie Lewallen and John Nohr voting against the increase.

City officials can choose to “buy” the 1% increase and impose it at a later date, but Huber Nickerson warned officials that waiving the annual increase means the city will lose the “compounding” effect related to the annual increase in the value of the property. city ​​tax collection.

“When you look back 10 years, that’s $700,000 to $800,000 you’ve lost that you can never get back,” Huber Nickerson told the Board Nov. 7. “That’s one (full-time employee) or even seven or eight (employee-temporary employees) that you lost, if you left for 10 years… I strongly encourage you to consider this opportunity lost.”

Although they struck down the city’s annual 1% property tax increase for general fund services, the Council approved two further revenue increases on Monday night, voting 6-1, with Lewallen the only “no” vote. ”, in favor of a 1% increase in the municipal IPTU that finances emergency medical services in Camas. This increase will raise an additional $24,635 in 2023 and cost the average Bed owner less than $3 per year.

The Council also split its vote on a proposed 2% tax on the city’s water, sewage, solid waste, and stormwater utilities, which would add an additional $1,051,119 to the city’s general fund during the 2023-24 biennium. and it would cost a typical Camas family with a bi-monthly utility bill of $356 and an additional $3.56 per month. The Council approved the new 2% utility tax in a 4-3 vote – Chaney, Hein and Lewallen all voted against the tax – and set conditions that rebates and exceptions be given to qualifying low-income residents and that the new tax will “fall” or end with the creation of a regional fire authority or by December 31, 2024, whichever comes first.

🇧🇷Death by 1,000 cuts’ or ‘on the fly’? citizens speak

Public hearings on the three tax increases drew a larger-than-usual crowd for the Council’s regular meeting on Monday night, with many in attendance urging the Council to reject the tax increases, saying that taxes – which, combined, would have cost the average Camason owner around $5 a month – would hurt Camasonians.

“This is a death by a thousand cuts,” said Camas property owner John Ley, arguing that the taxes would hurt Camas residents — “especially for low-income people (residents) and seniors on fixed incomes” — ability to “survive and, hopefully, thrive in our community.”

Former Camas City Councilor Shannon Roberts also urged the Council to reject the utility tax.

“Now is not the time to do that,” Roberts said, adding that he believes many low-income residents would be hesitant to apply for the city’s available tax exemptions and rebates for qualifying low-income residents. “People will work hard so they don’t have to go out and ask for things.”

Others in the audience supported the tax increases.

Zach Goodman, a Camas resident and Portland firefighter who has long advocated increasing staffing levels at the Camas-Washougal Fire Department, urged the Board to pass the 2% utility tax and the 2% property tax increases. 1% for the General Fund and the EMS Fund.

“This is necessary … and it’s about time,” Goodman said of the utility tax’s implementation. “Beds is one of, if not the only (city in Clark County) that doesn’t have one. … Hopefully this will fund essential services (for) the fire department, which has been understaffed and underfunded for decades.”

Camas officials learned in 2021 that their fire department employees were “at breaking point” from doing mandatory overtime. Then-fire chief Nick Swinhart told the Camas City Council in November 2021 that Camas-Washougal firefighters, who work up to 60 consecutive hours of overtime before getting a 12-hour break, are overworked and the hours Mandatory extras were starting to take their time. a toll on your health.

“We’ve had three who have suffered serious heart problems while on duty,” the fire chief told city officials in 2021. That includes a firefighter who suffered a heart attack in early November after working nearly 300 hours of overtime. Claims of post-traumatic stress disorder are also on the rise among local firefighters, Swinhart said.

“If someone calls in sick and we’re at the minimum (staffing levels), we hire overtime to fill that vacancy or we close a fire department,” Swinhart said in November 2021. “These are the two options I have to consider. . as fire chief.

Goodman said Monday that he, too, understood the impact of working a lot of overtime as a firefighter.

“I worked 1,000 hours of overtime,” Goodman said. “People are suffering … and now is the time (to increase staffing levels at the Camas-Washougal Fire Department). And I’m excited for the opportunity to see a better staffed fire department in Camas-Washougal. It was about time.”

Ley, who has spoken out against raising taxes in Camas in the past, later said he did not believe the firefighter’s claim regarding overtime.

“If it’s true that they’re working 60 hours a week – if that’s even possible every week of the year – I’d suggest that’s not safe, but I doubt that’s true of our good firefighters… The math doesn’t suggest it to me. (that firefighters are working 1,000 extra hours in a year),” said Ley, a retired airline pilot, adding that he is “happy with our current level of staffing in our fire department.”

‘It wasn’t easy, but we are moving forward to make a difficult decision’

The Council spent much of its time discussing the 2% utility tax during Monday night’s public hearings on tax increases.

“I don’t think it’s a good argument to say that ‘just because everybody has a utility tax, we should have one,’” Lewallen said. “Or because we are a ‘rich community’ and can afford it. … We may be solving the problem of a structural deficit (but) we are overburdening people with living or staying in our community. Six months from now, we’ll be back here talking about affordable housing or the homelessness crisis.”

Lewallen said he felt the process for applying for a utility tax rebate or exemption was not an adequate solution for residents of Camas.

“What if you don’t get the exception? What if you don’t have time to apply? What if you are too embarrassed to apply?” she said monday. “We hear that people will do anything to stay out of government. … I think we are creating more problems than we are solving.”

Some councilors mentioned the fact that the mayor’s proposed budget for 2023-24 and most of his new personnel expenses will be maintained even without the utility tax or 1% property tax increases, but did not discuss the fact that the proposed 2023-24 budget includes about $6 million of federal COVID recovery funds that are, as Acting City Administrator Jeff Swanson has pointed out, one-time—not ongoing—revenue sources.

Two former city council members, Greg Anderson and Bonnie Carter, argued in favor of the taxes.

Carter said he’s heard members of the public urging officials to “tighten their belts and hold things off for a year or two until times improve,” but cautioned that that line of thinking is what brought the city to this moment.

“Throughout the year we’ve had meetings that have outlined projects and capital assets that haven’t been held for decades because we’ve tightened our belts and are now at critical mass,” said Carter. “This was a difficult decision. We don’t just sit here and let this happen in front of us. We’ve discussed it nine times this year, going through our priorities – and taking some things out (out of budget). We listen to our citizens over and over again. It is not easy, but we are moving forward to make a difficult decision and I would like some support from my colleagues.”

Anderson, as well as Councilwoman Marilyn Boerke, were supportive.

“We kicked the can many times,” Anderson said. “This budget is uncomfortable – very uncomfortable – because it is what we need.”

“We need to have a good team and not migrate to a better salary elsewhere. We need to have good facilities for people to work in,” added Anderson. “We’ve had pothole complaints over the years because we didn’t have enough money to stay ahead of them. We are trying to compensate for these previous problems – the dilapidated buildings, insufficient buildings. I’m there. I don’t like being there. It’s hard as hell.”

Boerke, who said the Council has discussed the 2023-24 budget in nearly every workshop and meeting she has attended since being elected in 2021, agreed.

“It’s hard to hear people saying, ‘You’ve got to listen,’ because we’re listening,” Boerke said. “We’ve been talking about the budget for nine months now.”

The budget proposals are based on “citizen and community input,” Boerke said, adding that the public comments she heard Monday night “seem so antagonistic.”

“And that saddens me, because we’re here to serve,” Boerke said.

Carter added that the city team has been working with officials for nine months to help them understand which jobs and staffing projects are priorities for various department heads.

“They wanted to move forward, provide the level of service that our citizens have come to expect,” Carter said of the city’s department managers and the projects and staffing positions they said they needed to keep the city’s service levels going into the future. . “What time are we going to get them to stop pushing our service levels down the road?”

Boerke added that, “As difficult as this conversation is, we hear the team discuss how they are limping… forced to work overtime, which is not safe.”

“I appreciate and understand how difficult this is for all of us,” said Boerke. “We cannot continue to make our team go without.”

Camas City Council divided over new tax increase

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