Elected officials must earn citizens’ trust

Lately Washougal City Council members have been urged to trust various local leaders on issues ranging from granting a half million dollar economic development contract to the management of financial reserves. Among those proffering the advice have been other elected officials, our local newspaper publisher, and individual citizens.

Trust, however, is not something that the prudent individual gives lightly. It must be earned, particularly from elected officials whose primary function is to ensure the proper and meaningful use of the public’s hard earned taxes. Our system of checks and balances works best when each branch of government remains vigilant while watching over the actions of the others.

Trust, but verify is a good approach. As the sign at the Center for Disease Control put it – “In God we trust – everyone else has to show us the data.”

I was delighted to see a local resident take up the challenge implied in my editorial on “Preserving the Reserve,” and sad to see that those on our city council who have opposing views have not risen to defend their voting records on this issue. In her letter to the editor published in the July 26 Post-Record, a Washougal resident whose opinion I have come to value suggested a variety of reasons to spend the city’s financial reserves on infrastructure projects. Among them were the comparatively low cost of doing the work now when construction companies are competing fiercely for a limited number of jobs, and the need for infrastructure projects to attract businesses – both good arguments when taken in isolation.

Given the present economic uncertainties and our projected deficits resulting from a current structural imbalance between city income and expenses, however, the timing of such projects is critical. This is not the time, for example, to be spending nearly $300,000 for sidewalks along sparsely populated sections on the southern side of “E” Street that already have sidewalks on the other side of the street.

That amount is roughly equivalent to the projected 2013 deficit in one of our fire department accounts, from which we recently committed $155,000 of our reserves to extend current levels of ambulance service during a six-month trial consolidation with Camas. While it is worthwhile to explore the possibility of savings through consolidation, and consolidation may turn out to be a necessity in the long run, this project does not provide a solution to the current structural imbalance and the impending deficit. In fact, it aggravates it.

There appears to be a hope, unsupported by the facts, that the economy will improve soon and higher tax collections will enable us to replenish our financial reserves. It is not likely to happen in the next few years.

Most of our city’s income comes from property and sales taxes. Property values are not likely to rise significantly anytime soon because of (1) excess housing inventory, and (2) poor prospects for a quick return to full employment levels. Sales tax collections are not likely to improve to the degree required to cover our structural deficit without significant improvement in hiring. People concerned about finding or keeping jobs are not likely to spend for anything but necessities.

The current economic situation should give pause for thought, and encourage prudent financial decisions. The money that elected officials are spending, after all, comes from the tax payers, for whom it is a sacrifice.

As many credit card holders have discovered, you can go broke taking advantage of available bargains. As a city, we are now at that point. We need to evaluate carefully how many of the bargains available to us in this economy we can afford to take advantage of, and what the consequences will be if we deplete our financial reserves before the recession ends. The current Washougal City Council makeup makes that course of action difficult, if not impossible.

The current council has two members running for re-election this year who consistently vote for spending that is unnecessary, and in this economy, unwise — Molly Coston and Rod Morris. For the first time in several years, these council seats are being seriously contested. There is a reason for that.

Concerned citizens are beginning to recognize that this is the time for a change of leadership, and stepping forward to offer it. This year you have a choice. Please vote in the General Election this November. The future of your city is in your hands.

Dave Shoemaker is a member of the Washougal City Council. He can be reached at 210-4654 or dshoemaker@ci.washougal.wa.us.

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