Clark County Council approves $557 million budget for 2021


The council also approved property tax and road fund levy increases, with two members voting ‘no’

CLARK COUNTY — The Clark County Council on Tuesday approved a new $557 million budget for 2021.

Facing potential budget hits due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the new budget is $34 million less than 2020, once all supplemental budgets are accounted for.

“The recommended budget is balanced, sustainable and provides flexibility,” said Interim County Manager Kathleen Otto during Tuesday’s council meeting.

Clark County Interim Manager Kathleen Otto speaks during a County Council hearing earlier this year. Photo via Clark-Vancouver Television
Clark County Interim Manager Kathleen Otto speaks during a County Council hearing earlier this year. Photo via Clark-Vancouver Television

While less severe than initially expected, the COVID-19 pandemic is anticipated to cut approximately $6 million in revenue for this year, largely through sales tax reductions and deferred property tax payments.

Otto said her department had received 209 departmental budget requests, of which 124 were recommended. 

That included an amount of $700,000 set aside for potentially hiring an outside consulting firm to look into options for the long-overdue renovation and expansion of the county jail, as well as other improvements to the law and justice campus space.

The Clark County Public Service Building. File Photo
The Clark County Public Service Building. File Photo

The fund also sets aside nearly $1.6 million for one-time capital facility improvements, and $1.7 million to replace the leaking courthouse roof.

Still, Otto noted that departmental belt-tightening had resulted in an anticipated $8 million in cost reductions for the general fund budget through departmental efficiencies, reducing overtime expenses, curtailing non-essential spending, and having a hiring freeze in place.

A graph showing where Clark County’s property tax funding is spent. Image courtesy Clark County, Washington
A graph showing where Clark County’s property tax funding is spent. Image courtesy Clark County, Washington

“The hard work of county departments and offices to establish these reductions means we are able to adopt a 2021 budget without having to sacrifice services our residents deserve,” said Otto. “I appreciate and am proud of county staff efforts during this tumultuous year.”

Outside of the pandemic, the financial challenges facing Clark County are familiar ones.

Despite being the fifth most populous county in Washington state, Clark County ranks 18th when it comes to sales tax revenue per capita, thanks largely to proximity to Oregon, which does not charge sales tax.

Otto said the county likely loses between 10 and 30 percent of its potential sales tax revenue through “leakage” from residents crossing the Columbia River, usually for big ticket items.

All of that adds up to a per capita revenue of $191.34 per county resident, Otto said, compared to the statewide average of $248.24 (the data excluded King County as an outlier due to its size).

The projected 2021 budget assumes no change to that situation, and expects revenue from both sales taxes and property taxes will likely remain relatively stagnant. Otto said the assumption was based on continuing uncertainty around the economic recovery from the pandemic.

Even as revenue is presumed to flatline, the county is also facing upward pressure on the cost per employee. 

Employee costs have risen, even as the number of full-time employees in Clark County remain largely unchanged. Image courtesy Clark County, Washington
Employee costs have risen, even as the number of full-time employees in Clark County remain largely unchanged. Image courtesy Clark County, Washington

Clark County’s 2019 budget included 1,621 full-time equivalent employees, an increase of just three percent since 2010. Otto noted that means the number of county employees per resident has dropped by 10.4 percent, to 3.32 full-time employees per 1,000 residents.

(The county had budgeted for 1,723 full-time employees in 2019, but 110 of those remained unfilled).

Even so, the cost per employee has risen from approximately $93,000 in 2012, to more than $109,000 last year, once salary and benefits are combined.

Otto noted that most of those cost increases have been in benefits and the state’s Public Employee Retirement System (PERS). Average base salaries have actually declined from $77,700 in 2017, to $75,400 last year, largely as non-union employees saw wage growth stagnate.

Property tax levy divides Council

The two areas the council members largely diverged on were whether or not to take a state-approved increase in the property tax levy, and the road fund levy.

Council Chair Eileen Quiring O’Brien and District 4 Councilor Gary Medvigy opposed the increases, noting that the upcoming budget could be balanced without it.

Members of the Clark County Council voted 3-2 in favor of taking the .602 percent increase in the property tax and road fund levy. Image courtesy Clark County, Washington
Members of the Clark County Council voted 3-2 in favor of taking the .602 percent increase in the property tax and road fund levy. Image courtesy Clark County, Washington

“Right now, it’s very uncertain, and now is not a time to raise taxes,” said Medvigy, who favored banking the levy increase to potentially use at a later date when people weren’t feeling so much economic uncertainty.

The .602 percent increase in the road fund and the property tax levy were estimated to add $5.23 per year onto the tax bill of a median priced home worth $389,900.

“It doesn’t sound like that much, but it does accumulate,” said O’Brien, noting that many area businesses have already gone under, and others are facing an uncertain future during the pandemic.

Councilor Julie Olson responded with a brief history lesson, noting that voters statewide approved I-747 in 2001, limiting local municipalities to a levy increase of no more than 1 percent each budget cycle. The state Supreme Court later overturned the initiative in November of 2007, after which then-Governor Christine Gregoire convened a special session of the legislature to address the issue.

“The voters have said local governments can take up to one percent to fund county government,” said Olson, “and that’s what we’re trying to do here.”

For the road fund levy, Otto noted in her presentation that the council had declined to use the allowed increase eight times since 2010, leaving an estimated $24 million out of the road fund.

“Our roads are in great shape, we’re doing a good job,” said Medvigy in arguing against the road fund levy increase. “And we have a healthy road fund without adding additional taxes to it.”

“If our public works department is doing a good job, and if we’re happy with the work, then it doesn’t seem to make sense to cut off avenues to the funding that allow them to do that job,” countered Councilor Temple Lentz, noting that previous presentations by Public Works have shown the road fund dwindling quickly without additional sources of revenue.

Ultimately, the council voted 3-2 in favor of the .602 percent property tax and road fund levy increase, and 5-0 in favor of a small increase to both the parks fund, as well as conservation futures.

The council declined to use banked tax capacity for the road and general fund levies, though they did use banked capacity for the parks fund.

A six-year budget forecast for Clark County. Image courtesy Clark County, Washington
A six-year budget forecast for Clark County. Image courtesy Clark County, Washington

Without those increases, Otto noted, the county would likely see its ending fund balance disappear by 2026.

“Even with taking the one percent this year, if there were no requests and no increases for next year, we are not balanced,” Otto told the council. “We have $1.6 million without any new requests that we’re going to have to reduce … probably with staff, because that’s 75 percent of our general fund.”

To see the budget presentation go to the council website at https://clark.wa.gov/councilors/clark-county-council-meetings

To watch a video of Tuesday’s budget hearing go to the CVTV website at https://www.cvtv.org/vid_link/31776?start=0&stop=9473.

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About The Author

Chris Brown comes to Clark County Today with 15 years of local news experience as a reporter, editor, and anchor at KXL News Radio and KOIN-6 TV in Portland. In 2016, he won an Oregon Association of Broadcaster's award for Best Investigative Reporting for a series on America's Violent Youth. He has also been awarded by the Associated Press for Best Breaking News coverage as editor of Portland's Morning News following the 2015 school shooting at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon. The second oldest of eight home-schooled children, Brown graduated from high school two years early. After several odd jobs, he earned an internship at KXL Radio, eventually working his way into a full-time job. Brown has lived in Clark County his entire life, and is very excited at the opportunity to now focus full-time on the significant stories happening in his own back yard, rather than across “the river.’’ After a few years in Vancouver, he recently moved back to Battle Ground with his wife and two young daughters. When he's not working to report what's happening in Clark County, Brown enjoys spending time with his family, playing music, taking pictures, or working in the yard. He also actually does enjoy long walks on the beach, and sunsets.

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