Preliminary estimates for 2015 indicate that Washougal is projected to have a deficit of $322,000 in our general fund. This preliminary estimate is an improvement over earlier estimates, resulting from continued prudent fiscal management and a recovering economy.
When I first took office in January 2010, we had a deficit of $1.5 million. In that first year, we erased that deficit by implementing more conservative budgeting practices and through expense reductions. In fact, we ended 2010 nearly $300,000 to the good.
Since that time, we have continued to conservatively manage the budget and make expense reductions, resulting in improved financial health. In the coming few years, however, unless the economy makes sustained significant improvements, we will continue to see growing deficits every year.
We can implement further expense reductions to address the deficit next year. However, with the reductions we have already made, we are in a position that solving next year’s deficits with cuts alone will result in reduced staffing and impacts to services in our community. I have worked with our administrative team to identify a balanced approach to addressing the 2015 deficit. By implementing some additional administrative efficiencies, and some very modest revenue increases, with the help of our citizens, we can balance our budget.
Washougal has been part of the Camas-Washougal-East County Fire EMS system since it started in 1978, and our residents have consistently renewed the levy every six years to provide for exceptional EMS coverage.
From 2007 to 2012, Washougal also had a voter approved 10 cent per $1,000 assessed value levy lid lift for emergency medical services. This lid lift was used to supplement our long-standing voter approved EMS levy, to ensure adequate emergency medical services in our community. The levy lid lift expired at the end of 2012 and because of the declining property values of the great recession, we have not had the capacity in our taxing ability to ask voters to renew it, until recently.
In the next weeks, I will be asking the Washougal City Council to place a six-year renewal of the EMS levy lid lift on the November 2014 ballot. It will be for a simple renewal of the 10 cents per $1,000 assessed value of property, no more. For a home assessed by the county at $275,000, that means $27.50 on your property taxes which will provide us with $144,000 annually for this service that we now pay out of the general fund. I am confident that our community will continue its support for this essential service and vote to approve a renewal of the expired 10 cent levy lid lift for fire and emergency medical services.
I will also be asking the city council to enact a vehicle tab fee that will add between $10 to $20 to the cost of your vehicle license each year (some trailers, campers, ATV’s, farm vehicles, disabled American veterans, etc. excluded). The funds from this vehicle tab fee, $107,000 to $215,000 will go exclusively into maintaining our streets.
There has been some discussion about putting such a fee on the ballot and seeing what the voters think. Instead, I will be asking the council to simply enact the fee as they are empowered to do. I know some of you will feel that is wrong and for that, I apologize in advance. The basic maintenance of our streets is one of the very few issues that I feel should be paramount in our community.
Currently we spend $150,000 on materials (not staff) to maintain our streets. In 2013, we did a complete inventory of all city streets to gauge their condition and maintenance needs. On average, Washougal streets scored an 82 on a scale of 1-100, with 100 being a brand new street. Since that inventory was completed, we are now at 80 and the number drops a bit every month.
To maintain our streets at a level of 78 to 80 and avoid further deterioration overall, we need to be spending roughly $360,000 a year on materials, not $150,000. We need an additional $210,000 over what we now spend and we simply do not have those funds available to us. While I think many of our residents would like to see even better streets, the cost to do so would raise the funds needed to an additional $350,000 or more.
Given the circumstances of our economy, it is my belief that our most reasonable approach is to simply maintain what we have. This will not get us new streets, just adequately maintained streets. Potholes will be filled and we will expand our chip seal, slurry seals and grind inlay programs, but we will not be building new streets outside your homes. Of course, we will continue to pursue grants to do additional work in areas of our city that qualify for special programs.
For 2015, assuming that our voters also approve the EMS levy lid lift for fire and emergency medical services, I believe that we can accomplish this with a $10 per vehicle fee. In 2016, however, unless we see substantial economic recovery and growth, it may be necessary to go to the maximum of $20. And, to be frank, I don’t know that you will ever see this fee go away. The reality is that we need to maintain our streets and we need an on-going source of revenue dedicated to do it. To let our streets decline means that we will only need to pay much higher amounts later to rebuild them.
I believe that the residents of Washougal want to see adequately maintained streets and a well-run fire and EMS system. I believe that both of these revenue sources, the levy lid lift and the vehicle tab fee, when combined with continued efficiencies are a reasonable way to achieve them.
Being fairly conservative myself, I don’t relish asking our citizens for more money. I am one of those folks who keep asking our legislators, both on the state and national level, to stop trying to fund every program that comes along and tax people to accommodate the costs.
In Washougal, after sitting in the mayor’s seat for my fifth year, I know that we have been prudent with our funds, and we have cut $2 million-plus out of our general fund since 2010. I know that we are consistently coming in under budget year after year, and I applaud all of our staff and departments heads for digging in so that we are able to do so without compromising the service we provide to our residents and without going to you asking for more every year.
Obviously, the EMS levy lid lift will be on the ballot and there will be information in the newspapers and voters pamphlet for you to read up on it.
On the vehicle tab fee, since I will be asking the city council to approve it outright, I will be scheduling a public meeting before council action so that we can review highlights of our street programs and why we need the funds. I want to hear from you and I also want you to have a chance to ask questions openly and have them answered.
In the end, I am hopeful that we will work together to keep Washougal moving forward.
Sean Guard is in his second term as the mayor of Washougal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 834-2533.