County council on the verge of adopting 2017/18 biennial budget

VANCOUVER — Clark County residents wishing to have a voice in the biennial budget process will have the opportunity to do so at a Tuesday evening hearing.

The Clark County Board of Councilors will hold a public hearing for the Clark County 2017/18 biennial budget on Tue., Dec. 6 at 6 p.m. in the Councilor’s Hearing Room on the 6th floor of the Public Service Center, located at 1300 Franklin Street in Vancouver.

Following the hearing and any continuances thereof, the Board of County Councilors may adopt Clark County’s 2017/18 biennial budget with such modifications as may be developed at the hearing.

Copies of the recommended biennial budget are available online at www.clark.wa.gov/budget/documents. The recommended budget was prepared by County Manager Mark McCauley and county staff. It represents a General Fund shortfall of $22.6 million.

“Clark County continues to face the ongoing challenge of a structural deficit, a systemic problem for counties across the state that results because expenses grow faster than revenue,’’ McCauley wrote in the recommended budget summary. “Approximately two-thirds of the county’s General Fund expenses are personnel-related, with growth that is driven by wage increases required to be competitive in the local market, medical employer contributions and state-mandated retirement rate increases.

“On the revenue side, although sales tax dollars linked to the economy show healthy growth, we have lowered the forecast to reflect expected losses after Vancouver’s planned 2018 annexation of the Costco area north of Vancouver Mall,’’ McCauley wrote. “Property tax revenue growth has been limited to new construction, and other departmental revenues have declined.

“These combined factors have caused a $12.9 million General Fund shortfall to pay for county services,’’ McCauley added. “In addition, the 2017-2018 General Fund will lose $3.3 million because the Vancouver Police Department will terminate its records management contract with the Sheriff’s Office.

“The  General Fund is also under pressure from demands related to aging infrastructure,’’ McCauley wrote. “We have identified $6.4 million in critical needs to continue our current service levels. In sum, the total General Fund shortfall is $22.6 million. The shortfall represents approximately 7 percent of General Fund expenses.’’

As a result, McCauley said the recommended budget includes ongoing reductions or revenue enhancements that reduce the shortfall by $6 million. To address the remaining $16.6 million General Fund shortfall, the recommended budget includes:

  • $2 million from expected vacancy savings
  • Enacting the 1 percent property tax increase approved by voters to generate $1.8 million
  • Retrieving $600,000 in lost fee revenue by centralizing billing and collections reducing county vehicle expenses  by $1 million
  • Eliminating the remaining $540,000 General Fund subsidy to development engineering, which is now fully funded
  • Using $1.8 million in alternative funding sources where eligible, such as mental health sales tax and real estate excise tax
  • Reestablishing parking fees in parks and raising shelter fees, which is anticipated to generate approximately $400,000
  • Additional departmental reductions of approximately $800,000
  • $1.3 million expense reduction related to the loss of the records contract with Vancouver

Councilors David Madore and Tom Mielke dispute McCauley’s assumptions and contentions. The two councilors have worked together on their own response to the recommended biennial budget. Madore said he doesn’t accept the assumption that a structural deficit is based upon.

“The big picture is that the budget is already increasing proportionately to the growth of our local economy,’’ Madore said. “Our economy is taxation based. The county budget has already increased by many millions of dollars without us increasing our rates. I’m supportive of proportional increases based on that.

“What this budget does is it defines a term called structural deficit,’’ Madore said. “A structural deficit is based on an assumption. That assumption is that government spending will always outgrow the economy that supports it. It’s always assumed that government employees will receive substantial increases above what the salaries and benefits the private sector will receive. That’s the problem with this budget. We have a growing government agenda by the county majority now that is in conflict with the limited government agenda that has prevailed over the last two years.’’

Madore said there will be three parts to the presentation he and Mielke will offer including forecasted vs. actual records; assumptions he and Mielke offer to improve the budget and avoid tax increases; and additional documentation from the county auditor and budget office that backs up all of the data they are presenting.

Madore has also made several proposed amendments to the recommended budget including deleting decision packages which reduce General Fund expenses for the Sheriff’s Office (five items totaling a little more than $3 million). Madore offers other amendments that will reduce funding to other county departments to compensate for restoring the funding to the Sheriff’s Office.

Madore also proposed an amendment reducing the car allowance paid to county councilors from $700 per month to $50 per month, a savings of $78,000 to the county.

“There is plenty of new revenue pouring into the county coffers,’’ Madore said. “The problem with what is being proposed going forward is that it outspends that by a significant margin. This is not the time to outspend a booming economy. How in the world does that make sense?’’

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About The Author

Ken Vance got his start in the newspaper industry in 1987 as a reporter at The Columbian Newspaper in Vancouver. Vance graduated from Stevenson High School in Stevenson, WA, and attended Clark College in Vancouver. He worked for The Columbian from 1987-2001. He was most recently a staff member of The Reflector Newspaper in Battle Ground, where he served as editor since 2010 and reporter since 2007. Vance’s work in the newspaper industry has won him multiple awards, including a first place award from the Society of Professional Journalists for in-depth reporting.

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