As the City of Camas tries to deal with pressing budget issues, officials would be wise to heed the words of Councilwoman Bonnie Carter.
When it comes to pursuing additional revenue, Carter stressed, leaders must be “educating people on what we do. There are a lot of misconceptions. Finding more revenue streams for us is going to sound ‘off’ to them if we don’t give them the ‘why.’ ” That must remain the mantra as the city deals with a revenue shortfall that is becoming problematic. With taxpayers understandably cautious about any proposed new revenue — in other words, taxes — it is up to city representatives to make the case for why such revenue is necessary.
In Camas, a strong case seemingly can be made. Labor costs — the city employs nearly 200 people — account for about 85 percent of the operating budget. Because of pensions, health care, salaries and wages, those costs have been growing about 6 percent a year; meanwhile, the property taxes that make up about two-thirds of the city’s revenue can, by law, increase an average of no more than 1 percent annually.
This is an untenable situation. And while it is likely to generate some calls for a reduction in city staff, the issue goes beyond such a simplistic solution. Instead, it extends to questions about what kind of community we want for ourselves, our neighbors and our children. How drastically are we willing to cut city services and reduce staffing for emergency responders, parks and recreation, street repair, and other items that form the foundation for a high quality of life?
Certainly, every effort should be made to eliminate redundancies and trim the budget wherever possible, but cuts rarely are painless.
Currently, Camas receives about 64 percent of its revenue from property tax and 36 percent from sales tax. The lack of diversity in revenue streams leaves the city particularly vulnerable to economic downturns and calls for some variance. Officials have considered a utility tax or a transportation benefit district, and these would be more sensible than an increase to the sales tax.
In formulating such a plan, communication and the seeking of public input will be essential. City leaders have good reasons for considering additional revenue; now the job is to explain those reasons to the public.