When it came to collecting revenues that help fund the city’s basic services, the Camas City Council was a house divided this week.
Council members split their revenue-related votes on Monday, Nov. 21 — knocking down a 1% increase to the city’s property tax levy for the general fund, while approving a 1% increase on the city’s property tax levy that funds the city’s emergency medical services as well as a new, 2% tax on the city’s water, stormwater, sewer and solid waste utilities.
City staff have warned city officials for several months that, without increasing and diversifying its revenues, the city faces a structural deficit — when its baseline expenditures are greater than its revenues — within the next few years.
In September, the city’s finance director, Cathy Huber Nickerson, told Council members property taxes “are the primary revenue source for funding of general fund services and emergency medical services” and explained that, in Washington state, the annual 1% property tax levy increases are not based on increasing property values but, rather, on the amount of property taxes assessed during the previous year. Washington city officials cannot increase that tax levy rate by more than 1% in any given year.
In Camas, the 1% increase to the property tax levy that funds the city’s fire, police, parks, library, streets, cemetery, court and community development services, would have collected an additional $143,097 in 2023, and cost the owner of a $624,000 house an additional $14 a year or around $1.17 a month.
The Council voted 4-3 on Monday against the 1% property tax increase for the city’s general fund, with Councilmembers Don Chaney, Tim Hein, Leslie Lewallen and John Nohr voting against the increase.
City officials could opt to “bank” the 1% increase and impose it at a later time, but Huber Nickerson has warned officials that forgoing the annual increase means the city will miss out on the “compounding” effect connected to the annual increase on the city’s tax levy amount.
“When you look at 10 years, that’s $700,000 to $800,000 that you’ve lost and can never recover,” Huber Nickerson told the Council on Nov. 7. “That’s one (full-time employee) or up to seven or eight (full-time employees) that you’ve lost, if you go out 10 years … I strongly encourage you to consider that lost opportunity.”
Though they knocked down the annual 1% increase to the city’s property levy for general fund services, the Council did approve two other revenue increases Monday night, voting 6-1, with Lewallen the sole “no” vote, in favor of a 1% increase on the city’s property tax levy that funds emergency medical services in Camas. This increase will collect an additional $24,635 in 2023, and cost the average Camas homeowner less than $3 a year.
The Council also split its vote on a proposed 2% tax on the city’s water, sewer, solid waste and stormwater utilities that would add an additional $1,051,119 to the city’s general fund over the 2023-24 biennium and cost a typical Camas family with a bi-monthly utility bill of $356 an additional $3.56 a month. The Council approved the new 2% utility tax in a 4-3 vote – Chaney, Hein and Lewallen voted against the tax — and set conditions that rebates and exceptions be given to qualifying low-income residents, and that the new tax will “sunset” or end with the creation of a regional fire authority or by Dec. 31, 2024, whichever comes first.
‘Death by a 1,000 cuts’ or ‘about time’? Citizens speak out
The public hearings on the three tax increases drew a larger-than-normal crowd to the Council’s regular meeting Monday evening, with many in attendance urging the Council to vote down the tax increases, saying the taxes — which, combined, would have cost the average Camas homeowner around $5 a month — would harm Camasonians.
“This is a death by a thousand cuts,” said Camas property owner John Ley, arguing the taxes would harm Camas residents’ — “especially for low-income (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 this,” Roberts said, adding that she believed many lower-income residents would be hesitant to apply for the city’s available tax exemptions and rebates for qualifying low-income residents. “People will work their fingers to the bone to not 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 for increasing the staffing levels at the Camas-Washougal Fire Department, urged the Council to approve the 2% utility tax and the 1% property tax levy increases for the general fund and the EMS fund.
“This is necessary … and it’s about time,” Goodman said of the utility tax implementation. “Camas 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 a breaking point” from working mandatory overtime. Then-Fire Chief Nick Swinhart told the Camas City Council in November 2021, that Camas-Washougal firefighters, who face working up to 60 consecutive hours of overtime before getting a 12-hour break, are overworked, and the mandatory overtime was beginning to take a toll on their health.
“We’ve had three who have suffered serious cardiac events while on duty,” the fire chief told city officials in 2021. That includes one firefighter who suffered a heart attack in early November after working nearly 300 hours of overtime. Post-traumatic stress disorder claims also are on the rise among local firefighters, Swinhart said.
“If somebody calls in sick and we’re at minimum (staffing levels), we either hire on overtime to fill that spot or close a fire station down,” Swinhart said in November 2021. “Those are the two options I have to consider as a fire chief.”
Goodman said Monday that he, too, understood the impact of working too many overtime hours as a firefighter.
“I’ve worked 1,000 hours overtime,” Goodman said. “People are hurting … and now is the time (to increase staffing levels at the Camas-Washougal Fire Department). And I’m excited about the opportunity to see a better staffed fire department in Camas-Washougal. It’s about time.”
Ley, who has spoken against tax increases in Camas in the past, later said he didn’t believe the firefighter’s claim regarding overtime.
“If it’s true that they’re working 60 hours a week – if that is even possible every single week of the year — I suggest that’s unsafe, but doubt that’s true for our fine firefighters … The math doesn’t suggest to me (that firefighters are working 1,000 hours of overtime in a year),” Ley, a retired airline pilot, said, adding he is “happy with our current level of staffing in our fire department.”
‘This was not easy, but we’re stepping up to make a hard decision’
The Council spent much of their time discussing the 2% utility tax during the Monday night public hearings on tax increases.
“I don’t think it’s a good argument that ‘just because everyone else has a utility tax, we should have it,’” Lewallen said. “Or that, because we’re an ‘affluent community’ we can afford it. … We may be solving the problem of a structural deficit (but) we’re outpricing people from living or remaining in our community. Six months from now, we’ll be right back up here talking about affordable housing or the homeless crisis.”
Lewallen said she thought the process of applying for the utility tax rebate or exemption wasn’t an adequate solution for Camas residents.
“What if you don’t get the exception? What if you don’t have time to apply? What if you’re too embarrassed to apply?” she said Monday. “We’ve heard that people will do anything to remain off the government ‘dole.’ … I think we’re creating more problems than we’re solving.”
Some councilors brought up the fact that the mayor’s proposed 2023-24 budget and the majority of its new staff expenses will hold up even without the utility tax or 1% property tax increases, but failed to discuss the fact that the proposed 2023-24 budget includes around $6 million from federal COVID-recovery funds that are, as the city’s interim city administrator, Jeff Swanson, has pointed out, one-time — not ongoing — revenue sources.
Two longtime city council members, Greg Anderson and Bonnie Carter, argued in favor of the taxes.
Carter said she heard members of the public who were asking officials to “tighten their belts and push things out for a year or two until times are better,” but cautioned that this line of thinking is what has led the city to this moment.
“All year we’ve had meetings that outlined projects and capital assets that haven’t been maintained for decades because we’ve tightened our belt, and now we’re at critical mass,” Carter said. “This was a hard decision. We didn’t just sit here and let this come in front of us. We’ve discussed this nine times this year, going through our priorities — and we did take some things (out of the budget). We’ve heard from our citizens repeatedly. This is not easy, but we’re stepping up to make a hard decision, and I would like some support from my peers.”
Anderson, as well as Councilwoman Marilyn Boerke, gave that support.
“We’ve kicked the can a lot of times,” Anderson said. “This budget is uncomfortable – very uncomfortable — because it’s what we need.”
“We need to have a good staff and not have staff migrate to a better paycheck somewhere else. We need to have good facilities for staff to work in,” Anderson added. “We’ve had complaints about potholes over the years because we didn’t have enough money to stay ahead of them. We’re trying to make up for those prior issues — the failing buildings, insufficient buildings. I’m there. I don’t like being there. It’s hard as heck.”
Boerke, who said the Council has discussed the 2023-24 budget at nearly every workshop and meetings she’s attended since being elected in 2021, agreed.
“It’s hard to hear people saying, ‘You need to listen,’ because we have been listening,” Boerke said. “We’ve been talking about the budget for nine months.”
The budget proposals are based on “citizen and community input,” Boerke said, adding that the public comments she’d heard Monday night “feel so adversarial.”
“And it saddens me, because we’re here to serve,” Boerke said.
Carter added that the city’s staff had been working with officials for nine months to help them understand what staffing positions and projects were priorities for various department heads.
“They have wanted to move forward, to give the level of service that our citizens have been expecting,” Carter said of the city’s department managers and the projects and staffing positions they’ve said they need to maintain the city’s levels of service going into the future. “At what time are we going to make them stop pushing our levels of service down the road?”
Boerke added that, “as hard as this conversation is, we’ve listened to staff discuss how they’re limping along … forced to work overtime, which is unsafe.”
“I appreciate and understand how hard this is for all of us,” Boerke said. “We can’t keep making our staff do without.”