Public Service Center

The Clark County Public Service Center in downtown Vancouver

Rick Bannan

rick@thereflector.com

Clark County residents might see modest increases in property taxes next year as the county council voted in two levy increases as part of a more than half-a-billion-dollar budget for 2020.

The Clark County Council voted 3-2 to approve the 2020 budget during hearings that concluded Nov. 26. Apart from voting on the budget, council also split the vote on a nearly 2 percent increase to the county general fund levy and a 1 percent increase to the road fund levy in order to meet increased costs.

Clark County Manager Shawn Henessee presented the budget to the council during the hearing, recommending the increases to the levies as part of the more than $545 million budget. His recommendation took both the 1 percent levy increase for both funds allowed under state law, as well as a 0.979 percent increase in the general fund the county could take due to banked capacity, which is allowed when the county previously declined to take the 1 percent in a past year.

Last year, for the 2019 budget, councilors had voted to take 1 percent increases in both funds. Next year’s levy rates are expected to result in about $1.26 million more in the general fund and about $415,000 in the road fund, according to Henessee’s presentation.

In terms of impacts to residents, the general fund increase had about a $6.90 annual impact on a home assessed at $360,000. The road fund’s impact would be $4.75 on the same-priced home, according to the presentation.

Outside of raising the levies, the presentation showed new construction is anticipated to result in more than $1.55 million for the general fund and close to $894,000 in the road fund. Henessee said that sales tax revenue has been growing well, with his forecast showing $1.9 million more collected next year compared to 2019.

Henessee said the pace of increases in labor and benefit costs was offset by sales tax, though he cautioned against relying on it too much given that an economic downturn could diminish those revenues.

During the budget process more than 160 requests were received ranging from software and cybersecurity needs, infrastructure upkeep, law and justice safety needs and funding to maintain service levels countywide. Of those, Henessee recommended 108 be included, with council adding a few others in amendments.

Some request highlights Henessee provided included  $700,000 for a jail replacement and space needs study, something he said was necessary in implementing recommendations from a prior committee tasked with looking at that replacement that concluded earlier this year.

Another approved recommendation was close to $880,000 in increases to indigent defense, some of which had already been voted on by council, Henessee said. He explained that historically the county had a half-million dollar shortfall annually in the state-mandated service.

Other requests included ones dealing with facilities maintenance including Henessee’s recommendation for more than $1.21 million to pay off lines of credit the county had previously used for facilities maintenance. Council ultimately decided to use roughly half that was earmarked for that payoff for other requests that Henessee had not initially recommended.

Of the money diverted, $60,000 would go toward expansion of a senior property tax exemption program. Close to $97,000 would be used to add an 11th Clark County Superior Court judicial department, which was picked after testimony from the court demonstrated a need to handle increased workloads including civil and therapeutic courts.

Councilors also split the vote to approve $200,000 for a mail scanner at the jail and a one-time $128,000 funding for the Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) program.

The final redirection of maintenance payoff was an additional $100,000 from the general fund to handle abandoned RV cleanup in the county. Though Councilor Julie Olson said the abandoned vehicles had been a problem council had been “fairly inundated” with concerns, Council Chair Eileen Quiring said it was the first time she had heard of the issue, voting against it. Councilor Gary Medvigy felt that addressing the issue would be better next year during a supplemental budget amendment.

Both Quiring and Medvigy voted against the levy increases and budget, calling into question whether it was prudent for the county to raise taxes currently. Medvigy brought up the recent election which through advisory votes and approval on the vehicle tax-limiting Initiative 976 showed to him that citizens had “tax fatigue.”

“We always seem to point to, ‘oh, it’s just a few dollars per household,’ but all these taxes are cumulative,” Medvigy said. 

Though Quiring agreed on the senior property tax exemption amendment, she was against an additional superior court position or a jail mail scanner based on cost unknowns. She also worried about the one-time funding for CASA as potentially signaling to the state that the county can handle the program on its own dime.

“If we start taking it on, it will become ours,” Quiring said. Councilors noted it was a legislative priority to increase state funding into the program to help local government’s burden handling what has been characterised as an “unfunded mandate.”

Medvigy pointed to the currently robust economy and past strides in handling the county’s structural deficit as evidence against needed tax increases.

“It’s all headed in the right direction,” Medvigy said, though he expressed concerns that he felt the increase of tax base through development wasn’t covering the cost of increased services needed by that growth.

Olson pushed back on the notion that the county had healthy-enough finances to eschew a levy increase, saying that although general fund revenues had increased on average 1.8 percent annually for the past 10 years, expenditures were increasing at 2.3 percent.

“By not taking the 1 percent … I just don’t think that’s responsible (when) we’re mandated to provide those services,” Olson remarked.

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