A unique candidate forum recently had the mayors of Clark County cities throwing questions at candidates running for 18th Legislative District political seats.
The event, moderated by Washougal Mayor Sean Guard, aimed to offer an opportunity for elected city leaders to query the men and women running for House and Senate seats in the 17th, 18th and 49th districts, on critical city issues.
Camas and Washougal are part of the 18th District. Candidates running for state representative positions include incumbent Liz Pike (R-Camas) and Democrat Kathy Gillespie of Vancouver, and incumbent Brandon Vick (R-Felida) and Democrat Justin Oberg of Salmon Creek. For state senate, incumbent Ann Rivers (R-La Center) is pitted against Democrat Eric Holt of Hockinson.
Ballots for the General Election were mailed last week, and must be postmarked by Tuesday, Nov. 8.
While candidates from all districts agreed on several topics brought up during the forum, they were divided on the issue of property taxes.
Currently, cities are allowed to increase property taxes by 1 percent annually, and must adhere to statutory limits on levy rates. Expenses, city officials argued, are typically greater than 1 percent.
Candidates were asked if they would support legislation that would raise the cap to a “reasonable” number, or adjust the cap each year to reflect the rate of inflation.
Vick, Pike and Rivers all said they would not support the legislature making changes to current property tax limitations.
According to Pike, her constituents have told her they do not want a tax increase.
“When you have new construction in your cities, you get revenue from that, you get sales tax increases and you get new assessed valuation,” Pike said. “We all need to live within our means.”
Holt, Oberg and Gillespie voiced support for allowing cities to have some kind of flexibility when it comes to the property tax rate.
“I would support reasonable flexibility in that,” Holt said. “I would like to see it come to the people first, to test the waters.”
“I think it’s reasonable to look to see if we can do better,” commented Gillespie. “When we talk about cities being sacrificed, what we really mean is our citizens are being sacrificed. They are losing out on necessary services that make life livable. I think it’s something we should talk about.”
The candidates were aligned in their opinions on most other issues tackled during the forum.
They all lent their support to increasing funding for the state’s basic law enforcement academy; reasonable reforms to the state statute dealing with binding interest arbitration; reforms to the open public records act; and maintaining the money needed for the Municipal Research Service Center, which provides information to city leaders on legal and policy issues.
They also agreed that there should be legislation passed to reinstate the Public Works Trust Fund, or a similar fund.
The PWTF once provided low-interest loans to cities for street, water and sewer projects.
“In 2009, the state legislators started taking funds from the trust account to balance the state budget,” said Ridgefield Mayor Ron Onslow. “In 2013 it diverted the tax revenues for six years to fund education. In total they have swept over $1 billion in infrastructure funds that would go to all of the cities and counties in the state. In 2016 the legislature again approved sweeping the account into future years.”
Rivers said she plans to introduce legislation to reinstate the account.
“It will be a multi-pronged approach to assuring the safety of the account,” she said.
According to Gillespie, the legislature often has the wrong priorities.
“In 2013, the legislature raced back into special session to approve an $8.7 billion tax giveaway to Boeing,” Gillespie said. “In the same year, they took more funds from the Public Works Trust Fund. Again, it’s irresponsible budgeting, from my point of view.”
“It seems like there is a singular theme going on with a lot of the topics that are important to cities, and that is the state is raiding the budget,” Holt commented. “I think we need to do more in the legislature to be responsible, practice good governance and have a balanced budget where we don’t have to raid our municipalities to get it passed.”
The candidates all supported reinstating state shared revenues, like the liquor tax, and removing caps to future revenues, to address state and local service needs.
Rivers said she would co-sponsor legislation addressing this issue.
“I think there is a tradition of taking state funds away from cities, but I do want to point out that in the next biennium the marijuana revenue is scheduled to be about $732 million,” she said. “The cities who participate in that will be the beneficiaries of a significant amount of money. For those cities who do not participate in that, sorry about your luck.”
Pike is also in favor of shared revenues.
“Our cities and counties are on the front lines of enforcing our laws related to alcohol, and as such the financial burden falls on our cities and counties,” she said. “Absolutely you should get what you had before pre-recession levels. Those budget cuts were made in a recession, and we’re not in a recession anymore so we should restore those.”
Gillespie said she supports reinstating the funding source, but also questioned why the changes to the revenue sharing arrangement were instituted in the first place.
“I am wondering how we sell initiatives to our people, and then change the rules,” she said. “Sen. Rivers talked about the marijuana revenues coming in. I hope that those remain dedicated in the way that we first told our people they would be. I am just flabbergasted when I hear about these issues.”
Camas Mayor Scott Higgins said he was encouraged to see the candidates agree on many of the issues that were brought up during the forum. He expressed hope that the unity would continue during work that takes place during the next legislative session.
“My encouragement to this delegation is to rise to the occasion, to be leaders from Clark County, to unite on the things we can unite on,” he said. “[Legislators need to] make sure that the rest of the state doesn’t do a better job of bringing things back to their communities than Clark County does.”
To view the Clark County Mayors’ Candidate Forum, visit www.cvtv.org.