Public Service Center

The Clark County Public Service Center in downtown Vancouver

Clark County Council has adopted its 2021 annual budget, with some $557 million in expenses planned, and a number of property tax levies raised.

Council unanimously approved the budget during their Nov. 17 meeting, though were split when it came to increases in county levies. Those increases came in the form of statutory maximum increases in the county’s general and road funds of slightly more than six tenths of a percentage point of each of the levies.

Council voted 3-2 on each of those levies, with councilors Temple Lentz, Julie Olson and John Blom voting for them, and councilor Gary Medvigy and council chair Eileen Quiring O’Brien voting against. The levy increases are anticipated to result in a property tax increase of $5.23 annually on a median-priced home in the county.

The additional funding from the increases has helped to make the 2021 budget balanced, which although roughly $12 million higher than the 2020 budget initially approved, was about $37 million lower than this year’s expenses after budget amendments.

In remarks to council, Clark County Interim County Manager Kathleen Otto said the budget was “balanced, sustainable and provides flexibility.” The county faced challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which resulted in an anticipated $6 million reduction in revenues for this year, a release from the county announcing the approved budget stated. 

To help balance the budget, county departments worked to reduce expenses to the tune of about $8 million anticipated for 2021, through implementation of efficiencies, reduction of overtime expenses, cutting non-essential spending and having a hiring freeze in place, the release stated. 

“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,” Otto said in the release. “I appreciate and am proud of county staff efforts during this tumultuous year.”

Of the 209 budget requests from departments made for 2021, 124 were recommended by Otto. During a presentation ahead of the budget and levy votes, she noted that whereas in past years the county could increase its property tax levies by a full 1 percent, the inflation rate for property tax purposes was only about .6 percent. The lower inflation rate capped the rate at which the county could increase its levies, unless council voted 4-1 to raise it by the full percent.

During council deliberation, councilor Medvigy brought up discussion on foregone property tax increases in past years, saying the focus on those increases was misplaced. The county had passed on a 1-percent increase in its road fund levy eight times since 2010, for instance, resulting in $24 million less levied in that time period.

Medvigy said the real issue for the county’s revenues wasn’t forgoing levy raises, but sales tax “leakage.” He pointed out that Clark County was ranked ninth in the top-10 most populous counties in Washington state outside of King County for sales tax per capita, resulting in $12.7 million below the state average of sales tax revenues in 2019 alone.

“That’s our real concern,” Medvigy said about tax leakage.

“We can talk about the sales tax leakage until we’re blue in the face, but that’s not our decision,” councilor Blom said. “That’s the state legislature’s (decision.)”

Councilor Olson argued for taking the statutory increases, noting that the usually 1-percent cap was approved through a voter initiative. She added that sales tax leakage was something out of the control of county council.

“The voters said 1 percent. That’s what we’re asking for, to provide the services that they expect,” Olson remarked.

“If we don’t raise property taxes, we will still balance the budget, and we will do so without diminishing services,” Medvigy said. Blom responded by noting that the budget was only balanced by drawing down on reserve funding, including $6.2 million from the general fund reserve. The budget did still maintain adequate reserves per county policy, as noted in the county’s release. 

Acknowledging the cost-saving interventions within the executive side of county government, Medvigy said an additional step legislatively would be not taking the levy increases in an effort to not add additional burden on taxpayers in the county.

Quiring O’Brien agreed that foregoing levy increases would be some relief for county taxpayers.

“Our citizens have gone through a pretty tough year, and this just adds to it,” Quiring O’Brien said. “Next year, maybe 2021 will be a great year, and we’ll be able to collect more.”

Councilor Lentz acknowledged that outside of challenges from the pandemic, the county faces a structural deficit in its budgeting. A six-year forecast provided to council showed that next year looked as if the county would have roughly $1.6 million less than the minimum general fund balance per county policy, and by 2026’s budget the county could have exhausted the balance entirely. Otto said this would likely be addressed by reductions in county staff.

Councilor Olson, the longest-serving member of council, said that any time there was pushback on taking the statutory levy increase, there weren’t answers on how to rebalance the budget.

“There’s been a lot of ‘yes’ votes for budgets and levies, and a lot of ‘no’ votes. What I haven’t seen over the years is those voting ‘no’ to come up with any other solutions as to what services we want to stop, or what services we want to reduce, or what budget packages we want to eliminate. We just get ‘no,’” Olson said.

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