Letter: Council approves new utility tax while having record cash in bank

Camas resident John Ley shares his thoughts on new taxes proposed by city of Camas officials.

Clark County resident John Ley shares his thoughts on new taxes proposed by city of Camas officials

Editor’s note: Opinions expressed in this letter to the editor are those of the author alone and do not reflect the editorial position of ClarkCountyToday.com

On Monday evening, the Camas City Council considered two taxes on its citizens, as proposed by Mayor Steve Hogan in his budget. One was a new 2 percent utility tax. The other was the 1 percent increase in property taxes allowed by law.

John Ley
John Ley

A host of citizens showed up speaking in opposition, including several senior citizens on fixed incomes. Of note was former Councilor Helen Gerde saying they could save $1.5 million simply by cutting lower priority spending, as identified by staff. She also asked “why would Washougal citizens vote to raise their taxes if Camas continues to foot the bill” for our joint fire department?

Gerde was referencing the fact that for the past few years, Camas has added new fire positions that Washougal could not afford to pay its 40 percent share of the costs. Therefore Camas taxpayers have picked up the Washougal portion of the newly hired fire/EMS positions. In the budget, the Mayor wants to hire another 13 fire/EMS positions, in spite of the reality that Washougal can’t afford their full share of what we already have on staff.

Citizens of both Camas and Washougal need to understand that because Camas has hired a significant number of new fire/EMS employees in the past few years which Washougal can’t afford, we are on a path that will destroy the current agreement. In fact the Camas council is actively discussing the creation of a new Rural Fire District in 2024 and ending the current partnership. 

A new RFD would have its own taxing authority. Would Camas and Washougal reduce their taxes by an amount equivalent to the current costs of supporting the CWFD? Most citizens would be appropriately skeptical.

Former councilor Shannon Roberts asked the council to hit the pause button on new taxes, expressing concerns for seniors on fixed incomes. One senior citizen shared she had eliminated her home phone and cable tv as a means of stretching her finances. Another citizen mentioned all the consultants the city is spending money on.

The big picture is that Camas has $101.2 million cash and cash equivalents in the bank. That’s enough money to run the city for seven months without them receiving any taxes.

In the past three years the city’s cash reserves have increased 44.7 percent or $31 million. Finance Director Kathy Huber Nickerson shared the city had $69.9 million at the end of the 3rd quarter 2019. How many of our citizens have had their savings accounts increase by nearly 45 percent over the past three years? Especially during the pandemic!

By the end of the night the council approved a new 2 percent utility tax under the guise of “diversifying” their sources of income. The vote was 4 in favor and 3 against, with councilors Hein, Lewallen, and Chaney voting “no,” and Carter, Anderson, Boerke, and Nohr voted “yes.”

In a separate vote, Nohr joined the “no” voters, rejecting a 1 percent property tax increase. Staff then rushed to add an item to the agenda, allowing the council to “bank” that one percent for possible future use if there were a financial emergency.

During council deliberations, Councilor Chaney shared a large spreadsheet the council had received earlier in the month. He noted there was part of it with “0/0” or zero new taxes for both utilities and the 1 percent increase. The council asked staff at that meeting if the city could function properly with no new tax increases, and Chaney said the answer was “yes”. He asked the Mayor if his memory was correct, which Mayor Hogan affirmed.

The staff confirmed that the city could do just fine with no new taxes. Thank you Councilor Chaney for remembering that important detail. Citizens need to remember the names of the four council members who chose to create a new tax burden in next year’s elections.

Overall, the Mayor’s budget requests the addition of 30 new government employees, of which 13 are fire/EMS employees. In response to a question from council, staff confirmed that Washougal does not intend to pay their portion of any of those new fire/EMS employees.

The City Council will vote on the budget at the Dec. 5 meeting. Citizens should not only email the council, but also show up and speak during the public comment period.

John Ley

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