Camas City Council wrestles with budget, fire/EMS discussions


2021 legislative agenda approved by council members

On Monday afternoon, members of the Camas City Council continued their deliberations over their bi-annual budget planning process. Critical issues surrounding the fire and EMS services continued to dominate the discussion. The council moved forward to approving a 2-year $170 million dollar budget.

A critical piece was whether or not to approve up to a 1 percent increase in the city’s tax levy. State law limits the authority of a city to raise their levy to no more than a unique “inflation” calculation, or 1 percent. The Implicit Price Deflator (IPD) or inflation number for 2020 is 0.6 percent. The council has the option to take no increase, to increase the levy by 0.6 percent; raise the levy by 1 percent; or if they do not take the increase, they can “bank” that 1 percent increase for use in the future.

Total taxpayer revenues generally grow by more than 1 percent as new home construction adds additional funding. The city reports: “Revenues for the General Fund are primarily taxes such as property taxes, sales taxes and charges for services. Property taxes are expected to grow 3.2 percent in 2019 and 3.7 percent in 2020. This growth will be primarily due to growth in new construction growth in housing and commercial projects in the City.”

The Camas City Council approved a 1 percent increase in both the property tax levy and EMS levy at the Monday meeting. A public comment period on the budget and the tax increase is open through the Dec. 7 meeting. Graphic courtesy of city of Camas
The Camas City Council approved a 1 percent increase in both the property tax levy and EMS levy at the Monday meeting. A public comment period on the budget and the tax increase is open through the Dec. 7 meeting. Graphic courtesy of city of Camas

Councilor Shannon Roberts spoke about not increasing taxes on the people.

“I don’t believe that now is the time to be burdening businesses and citizens with more taxes,” Roberts said. She gave a personal example of the increased tax burden homeowners face. She purchased her home in June of 2015. Property taxes were a little over $2,000. 

“Currently my taxes are $3,073; that’s a 52 percent increase in five years — $500 alone in 2019,” she said. “Simply put, we’re taxing people out of their homes. How can we raise taxes during this time period? No matter how small of an increase, it always adds up later on.”

A public comment period was opened at Monday’s meeting on the property tax issue, per state law It will remain open until the City Council Regular Meeting on Dec. 7, 2020. The published agenda stated “The impact will be nominal to most homeowners, approximately $13 for the year on average.”

One concern raised by Councilor Don Chaney was language in the mayor’s proposal which dedicated the entire 1 percent increase to funding Fire/EMS. That language was included in the resolution. Given that Washougal is unable to fund their full obligation under the current agreement, Chaney didn’t want to dedicate the 1 percent increase to Fire/EMS funding when the entire agreement between the two cities may be falling apart.

Recently the Camas-Washougal Fire Department (CWFD) hired five new positions. The present agreement calls for Washougal to pay 40 percent. They were unable to fully meet this obligation last year. The cities reached agreement allowing Washougal to fund their part of two new positions, and Camas picked up the balance of the cost. This fall, Washougal has indicated their financial constraints continue and they cannot afford to cover their full obligation. (See story here).

At the Nov. 2 council meeting, the council considered funding four additional firefighter/paramedics to eliminate cross-staffing at Camas-Washougal Fire District Station 42. One option was to dedicate the 1 percent tax increase to fund the positions. Council directed staff to develop a 2021-2022 Budget package with two new positions in 2021 and two in 2022. One component of the funding would be dedicating the property tax 1 percent.

During council discussions it was mentioned that the union contract limits the ability of the city to have volunteer firefighters assist the department.

The council directed City Administrator Jamal Fox to work with Washougal City Administrator Dave Scott at the Nov. 2 meeting. Some initial discussions were begun but there is no resolution of the issue. Fox asked the council to give him until Feb. 15 to work with Washougal for a resolution, one way or another. Scott was listening to the meeting. He shared that the Washougal council members are committed to the partnership, but they remain financially constrained. 

The Camas council members don’t want to hire additional fire fighters when Washougal is unable to meet their current obligations at present staffing levels. “The longer we keep kicking this can the worse the problem is going to get. I do not want it to delay,” said Anderson.

The council allowed Fox to continue working with Scott until February, “We just can’t continue to impose this on our community and affect the other services that we provide,” said Chaney.

Several fire fighters gave public comments, reminding the council that the staffing issue has been a 20-year problem that remains unresolved. Five of nine desired positions have been hired recently.

The Camas City Council can take no levy increase, an “inflation” increase of 0.6 percent for next year, or up to a full 1 percent. This shows the impact on the budget and for an “average” homeowner of the various choices. Graphic courtesy city of Camas
The Camas City Council can take no levy increase, an “inflation” increase of 0.6 percent for next year, or up to a full 1 percent. This shows the impact on the budget and for an “average” homeowner of the various choices. Graphic courtesy city of Camas

In order to raise taxes by the full 1 percent, the council had to approve a resolution saying there is a “substantial need” to go above the IPD inflation rate of 0.6 percent. That resolution was passed The council had a requirement to approve an increase in the levy amount by the end of November. The council voted to approve raising taxes by the full 1 percent, with only councilors Roberts and Steve Hogan voting “No.”

Additionally, the council had to address raising the Fire/EMS levy by 1 percent. That resolution passed as well, with only Roberts voting “No.”

The council had a discussion on water quality issues of Lacamas Lake. Included in the budget is $300,000 for lake water quality. Fox shared the city is working with Clark County and the state to begin addressing the issue. Public Works Director Steve Wall indicated most of the funding will go to consultants to begin studying the problem. 

“I look at this as like a 20-year project,” said Hogan. “This is a unique lake and it has unique problems. Algae is the number one problem and dealing with our stormwater that’s going into the lake is top priority for algae reasons. But there are other problems within the lake, affecting the water quality and in the watershed leading into the lake. And those problems will need to be addressed over time.”

They approved their legislative agenda as well. Former City Administrator Lloyd Halverson is now the city lobbyist to the legislature. He presented the agenda which included $45 million to replace the Camas Slough Bridge. That is an 80-percent increase in the $25 million that was allocated in the 2016 gas tax package to replace the bridge.

Additionally, the agenda included widening the SR-500 Corridor north of Lake Road, including replacement of the Everett Street Bridge. They will seek state support (funding) for addressing water quality issues for Lacamas, Round, and Fallen Leaf lakes.

Finally, the legislative agenda includes asking the legislature for a new tax. “Support Parks Maintenance — Support the bill to allow local agencies to place a proposition on the ballot for a 1/10th of 1% sales tax option to support parks acquisition, construction, improvement and maintenance.”

The final budget for the city must be approved by the end of the year. Citizens have a public comment period through the Dec. 7 council meeting regarding the property tax increase.

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About The Author

John is a retired airline pilot, serving Delta for over 31 years. Prior to Delta, he served in the US Air Force for 11 and a half years; three and a half years as a Public Affairs Officer and eight years as a pilot. John flew multiple airplanes around the world for Delta, retiring as a B-767 Captain. During his 31 years at Delta, John served as a member of the pilot’s union leadership, representing the Portland-based pilots for five years. John got involved in area politics during the Columbia River Crossing debate. He became a citizen activist, speaking out against wasteful spending and fighting for common sense transportation solutions. He ran for the Washington state legislature twice, a Representative position in 2014 and Senate in 2020. John is the eldest of six children. He remains extremely close with members of his family and lives in Oregon and Washington. He has 14 nieces and nephews and a growing number of “grands” in the next generation. John has enjoyed skiing, scuba diving, travel, and time on his Harley when he’s not busy with local issues or flying.

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