Divided Clark County Council approves 2020 budget

The $545 million budget includes $1.7 million in new taxes

CLARK COUNTY — A divided and frustrated Clark County Council approved a new $545 million budget for 2020 before heading into the Thanksgiving holiday weekend. That represents a $27 million increase over the county’s 2019 budget.

A divided Clark County Council approved a $545 million budget before the Thanksgiving holiday. Photo by Chris Brown
A divided Clark County Council approved a $545 million budget before the Thanksgiving holiday. Photo by Chris Brown

But the process leading up to the 3-2 vote approving the budget, along with a list of amendments introduced by members of the council, left a bitter taste in the mouth of Council Chair Eileen Quiring and District 4 Councilor Gary Medvigy.

“It’s tax fatigue,” said Medvigy. “Whether it’s the car tabs or these advisory votes, the public is speaking, ‘stop taxing us.’”

Medvigy and Quiring were the lone ‘no’ votes on a decision to approve a 1 percent property tax increase, as well as using .979 percent banked capacity. The increase will add approximately $1.26 million to the general fund budget and amount to a $6.90 increase in yearly property taxes on a $360,000 home.

Democrat Councilor Temple Lentz, along with Republicans John Blom and Julie Olson, also voted in favor of a 1 percent increase in the road fund levy. That will add $414,768 to the road fund, which has seen a significant decrease in its ending fund balance over the past several years, and increase the tax bill on a $360,000 home by $4.75 per year.

“What I appreciate about this is that it is a very modest raise that doesn’t even keep up with the cost of living,” said Lentz. “A 1 percent increase really just barely keeps us floating.”

“We have an ever-growing elderly population here, retirees and people on fixed incomes,” countered Medvigy. “We are raising costs with these tax increases that are at least making them worry, if not making them homeless.”

While property tax and sales tax revenues have continued to show steady growth in the past several years, County Manager Shawn Henessee noted that the cost of road projects, staffing, and unfunded state mandates have outpaced revenue growth in the county. 

Henessee also noted previous councils have declined a property tax increase in five of the last 10 years, and a road fund levy increase in eight of the past 10. That has resulted in a net loss of $18.1 million in the general fund budget, and $20.5 million in the road fund, said Henessee.

Out of 161 budget requests, Henessee said 53 were recommended in his budget. Those related mainly to software and cybersecurity needs, including an upgrade to the district attorney’s computer systems that will allow them to continue accessing national crime reporting databases. 

The budget also includes $700,000 set aside for the hiring of a consultant to review work done by the county’s Correctional Facilities Advisory Committee (CFAC) and provide a more detailed analysis of needs and possible answers for the county jail, along with other law and justice needs.

Out of the requests left out of Henessee’s recommended budget, Olson and Blom introduced several amendments, including $97,000 to provide an additional Superior Court judge and staff, $60,000 for a full-time, two-year position to help the county assessor’s office deal with changes to the senior citizen property tax relief program, $200,000 for a new mail scanner at the county jail, and $150,000 towards helping the county sheriff deal with abandoned RVs. Of that, $50,000  would come out of the road fund which, by state law, can be used to help with law enforcement expenses.

“We had a joint meeting with the sheriff’s office, public works, community development, code enforcement, Waste Connections, who’s our contractor for waste disposal in Clark County,” said Olson, “and spent about an hour, hour-and-a-half talking about this, and actually have a pretty good path forward.”

Quiring fired back, saying the rest of the council hadn’t heard about any of this prior to Olson bringing her amendment forward at the meeting.

“I don’t appreciate this surprise, on the wings of a dove,” said Quiring, to which Olson responded the meeting had happened just the week before.

“You may have been working with other people but you have not been working with the County Council and we’ve heard nothing about it,” responded Quiring, adding that she would prefer to hold off on spending the money in order to bring the full council into the discussion. Ultimately, the amendment passed, with Medvigy and Quiring voting “no,’’ as will all the other amendments.

Olson said the funding will help with the cost of towing and disposing of derelict RVs, and may help fund a deputy to help public works deal with the issue.

To offset the cost of their amendments, the councilors agreed to extend Henessee’s recommendation to pay off $1.2 million in operating deficit for county facilities from one year to two, meaning the county will pay $627,810 this year, and the remaining balance in the 2021 budget.

Henessee’s budget also included a $1 million increase in the budget for facilities to hopefully keep from cost overruns that end up costing extra. There is also a $179,275 increase to compensation for indigent defense attorneys, as well as a $700,000 increase to the budget for that department, the first in almost a decade.

Clark County Assessor Peter Van Nortwick secured one of two requested positions to help with changes to the Senior Citizen Property Tax Exemption program. Photo by Chris Brown
Clark County Assessor Peter Van Nortwick secured one of two requested positions to help with changes to the Senior Citizen Property Tax Exemption program. Photo by Chris Brown

The county appraiser will also get to keep a new full-time residential appraiser at a cost of $75,520 this coming year. The county prosecutor’s case management software upgrade will cost half a million dollars, with ongoing costs of $185,000 a year going forward. Henessee also will receive $400,000 to help integrate new software for budgeting and workflow into the county treasurer’s system. The council also approved $150,000 for a new body scanner at the jail.

Medvigy and Quiring said they don’t necessarily believe that the amendments introduced are not necessary or useful, but that the county needs to operate within its means and not “act like Olympia” and just increase taxes to offset new spending.

“Our economy is so healthy right now,” said Medvigy. “This should work out without raising taxes.

“The truth of the matter is the general fund revenues have increased about 1.8 percent per year over the last 10 years, and our expenses have increased 2.3 percent,” countered Olson. “So we can talk about the great economy, we can talk about all the revenues flowing into the county. But the truth is, those are the numbers. The good news is though, we funded a lot of really, really important things that are going to impact this community in a really positive way.”

“We’re not the federal government, we can’t live on a credit card, we have to pass a balanced budget,” added Blom. “If we didn’t want to raise taxes, or there’s counselors that had concerns with that, we’ve had a month … to pick those decision packages that we are not going to fund, what services we are going to cut, so that we could pass a balanced budget without increasing taxes.”

“I guarantee you any budget packages that would have been suggested by the couple of people here that don’t want to raise taxes would not have been accepted by the people who do so,” responded Quiring. “I would have made an amendment to be able to do the assessor’s budget and taken it from other funds so that would have been balanced.”

“Well, you didn’t propose it,” responded Olson with a chuckle.

“Oh, isn’t it funny?” shot back Quiring.

Things turned even more frigid during the final vote, with Quiring voting “no,” then adding an even more strident, “no!”

“Could you say ‘no’ one more time?” said Olson as Quiring announced the budget approved.

“Is there an opportunity? Maybe I will,” replied Quiring before adjourning the meeting.


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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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