The council committed to further discussion on how to adjust spending to address social justice concerns around community policing
VANCOUVER — The Vancouver City Council on Monday approved a new 2021-2022 biennial budget.
At $1.3 billion, the two-year budget closes an anticipated $4 million gap each year, created by the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting economic downtown. Still, that amount is well below the $27 million revenue hit the city had been bracing for earlier in the year.
The new budget represents a 3.2 percent decrease over the 2019-22 budget, largely achieved by freezing 20 currently vacant full-time positions. The city also plans to spend approximately $57 million in cash reserves to fund one-time initiatives and capital projects.
Despite the freezing of 20 positions, the budget will add 15 positions, including two new full-time administrative level positions in the City Manager’s office. Those will include a Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion “to champion and coordinate internal and external efforts to promote social equity and justice causes,” the city said in a news release. There will also be a new Assistant City Manager position to “augment strategic city management resources, improve organizational resilience, and focus on succession planning.”
“The adopted 2021-22 budget continues to fund all core city services at existing levels, and includes increases in the programs of the highest importance to our community,” said Vancouver Mayor Anne McEnerny-Ogle in a statement after the council voted to approve the budget. “This budget reflects our focus as a city, which is to assure a firm foundation, implement current initiatives, advance key strategic projects and programs, and plan for A Stronger Vancouver into the future.”
The Stronger Vancouver initiative, which was envisioned as a plan to improve existing parks, create new ones, fund infrastructure improvements and provide public safety increases, was largely shelved earlier this year as the pandemic unfolded.
City Manager Eric Holmes’ budget attempted to bring some of the core elements of that plan into the new budget, while leaving room for others proposals to return if city revenues recover more quickly than expected after the pandemic ends.
“While it was created during an unprecedented time for our city, including a global pandemic and civil and racial justice unrest, this budget is consistent with direction set by the City Council and reflects the Vancouver community vision, the City’s strategic plan, the adopted financial policies, and input from City employees, boards and commissions, and the community,” said Holmes.
In order to support the budget goals, the council approved a series of revenue adjustments.
Those include taking a property tax levy increase which, this year, was capped at .602 percent. The increase would amount to approximately $4.33 more in property taxes per year on a home valued at $400,000.
The city will also increase stormwater and water rates by five percent in each of the next two years, along with a three percent rise in sewer rates, and a 1.9 percent solid waste collection fee increase.
Overall, utility rates for people living in the city of Vancouver are expected to increase by $4.09 per month in 2021.
The Washington Supreme Court ruling in October that overturned I-976, the 30 dollar car tab bill, will free up $4.8 million in Transportation Benefit District money the city had set aside during the legal battle. That money will be split between new safety and multimodal projects and capital projects of high importance, while also funding the proposed Pavement Management Program for proactive maintenance of existing roadways.
A new affordable housing sales tax of 0.01 percent is anticipated to raise between $4.2 and $4.5 million to fund housing units affordable to those making less than 60 percent of the county median income.
The city will also increase Park Impact Fees substantially for the first time since 1994, rising by 25 percent above current levels in each of the next two years.
That will increase the fee for a single family home to $2,819 in 2021, and $3,523 in 2022, or $2,060 and $2,575 for a multi-family home.
The PIF increase is anticipated to raise $500,000 in new revenue next year, with $1.1 million in 2022.
“It’s a very atypical situation for the city, because one of the financial policies actually requires us to keep up with the rate of inflation,” said the city’s Finance Director, Natasha Ramras. “This is not how the city has been adjusting the Park Impact Fees over this very long period of time, and the time has come to adjust the impact fees to a more reasonable level.”
Ryan Makinster, government affairs coordinator with the Building Industry Association of Clark County said home builders certainly are aware the impact fees haven’t been adjusted for a long time, but many feel the sudden increase comes at a bad time.
“These things as an aggregate, obviously, increase the cost to the price of a new home,” Makinster told the council. “And that doesn’t just affect new homes. The Real Estate Market is very dynamic, and home pricing affects everything down the line from new homes to used product, all the way down to rental.”
Makinster referenced a recent National Association of Home Builders student which showed every $1,000 increase in the price of a home means 776 people in Clark County who are priced out of the housing market.
“We have a housing crisis, we have a homelessness crisis, and I don’t hear anybody saying that we have a parks crisis,” added Glen Yung, a Vancouver resident and frequent commenter during city council meetings. “I just don’t think it’s appropriate to dump this entire burden on the housing industry when we have such a crisis right now.”
Councilor Bart Hansen was the lone council member to vote against the PIF increase, stating that he had concerns with the front-loaded nature of the increase.
Police funding criticized
The council again heard public testimony critical of the decision to increase funding for Vancouver Police Department.
As adopted Monday, the budget assigns $56.3 million for police department administration, a slight increase over 2020, but does not provide for any new hires.
Several community members again took the opportunity to express their belief that funding currently going to police would be better served elsewhere in the community.
Danielle Jokela read a statement on behalf of a coalition of community groups, aiming to push for reallocating police department funding into more social programs to address mental health, drug addiction, and homelessness.
“When we rely on police to respond to social crises because of a dearth of more appropriate publicly funded services, it undermines the value of our public investment,” Jokela said. “Policing vulnerable communities without tackling the structural issues creates a cycle wherein the public is paying the police to repeatedly engage in these activities without solving chronic public safety challenges.”
“Social Work is not the job police have trained for, nor is it the one they anticipated when they chose this career,” added Rita Rubenstein with the Clark County Justice group. “We need better approaches to behavioral health crises.”
Councilor Ty Stober, who serves on the board of Daybreak Youth Services, said it is his belief that drug addiction represents a mental health problem, rather than a directly criminal one.
“I tried to come up with an alternative proposal for council’s consideration,” said Stober, “but I soon discovered how deeply the current model is embedded in the budget, and a larger conversation is required.”
Other councilors said they would support the further discussion, but Erik Paulsen noted that many of the areas Stober and other community members were looking to shift funding actually fall under the purview of Clark County.
“Having said that, I don’t think that it’s appropriate for the city to completely recuse itself of responsibility for those things,” said Paulsen. “And so I very much look forward to conversations in the future.”
The City of Vancouver and Clark County recently announced a joint executive council to look into the area’s homelessness issue and make recommendations for actionable items to begin further addressing the situation.
The budget adopted Monday also provides $1.5 million per year to support the findings of the Community Task Force on Policing.
Capital project highlights
The budget provides for $300 million in capital projects, including $20 million to finalize updates to Water Station 5, $11 million to finalize the Vancouver Police Department move into a new headquarters at 521 SE Chkalov Drive, as well as $19 million to fund improvements to Southeast First Street.
Other highlights of the budget include:
- Advancement of key strategic projects that will play a transformative role in Vancouver’s evolution, including developing a Waterfront Gateway Master Redevelopment Plan, continued implementation of The Heights District Plan, updating the City’s Transportation System Plan, and building several Complete Streets projects.
- Continued funding for the city’s efforts to respond to homelessness, including a cross-departmental team to work with the homeless population, and funding for mental health services and clean-up efforts.
- Maintaining police and fire department staffing to ensure continued community safety, including 13 new positions that were added during the 2019-2020 biennium to staff the new Fire Station 11.
- Building on the A Stronger Vancouver initiative, which is aimed at establishing a long-term strategy for stable, sustainable and resilient funding approach that assures Vancouver can grow to become a safer, welcoming, vibrant and prosperous city.
Access to the 2021-2022 recommended budget document is available at www.cityofvancouver.us/budget. The final approved budget document will be available on the city’s website near the end of 2020.
A new online interactive budget dashboard is also accessible on the budget web page. This dashboard enables anyone to explore the City’s operating and capital budgets, which can be filtered by fund, department or category. There is also a map displaying the location of all capital projects.