Camas budget heats up

Utility taxes, firefighter hires on the table

For Camas City Council members, it may seem like it’s always budget season. For interested citizens, however, it’s just beginning.

Camas Finance Director Cathy Huber-Nickerson presented the mayor’s recommended biennial budget at the Oct. 1 city council workshop. The details of this recommendation will be reworked leading up to the final budget. Citizens can offer public comment at city council meetings and workshops in the interim. The council meets again for a workshop and regular session, Monday, Oct. 15.

The main talking points include potential firefighter hires and the recommended introduction of a new, citywide utility tax.

The firefighter dilemma: To hire or not to hire

The recommended budget includes four new firefighter hires. While this decision was viewed favorably by city councilors at earlier meetings, a recent Washougal City Council decision to not fund 40 percent of the new hires’ cost has changed the conversation in Camas.

“This will be probably the biggest decision point you’ll make,” Huber-Nickerson told council members about the firefighter hires.

Washougal’s refusal to partially fund the new hires increases Camas’ costs from $251,000 to $450,000 in 2019.

Camas Mayor Pro Tem Don Chaney noted Oct. 1, this is a long-term burden for Camas to bear alone.

“If we decide to do that, we need to be mindful it’s an ongoing commitment — not just a one-time commitment — and what that does to the partnership and how that plays out,” Chaney said of Camas potentially going it alone and funding all four new hires without Washougal shouldering 40 percent of the cost, as is normal policy for any Camas-Washougal Fire Department budget decisions.

Camas City Administrator Pete Capell said he had received word on Oct. 1 that an administrative review had upheld state fire violations lodged against the city following a Feb. 14 fire. The violations were tied to the responding engine being staffed with two firefighters, rather than the minimum of three recommended under state code. The city plans to appeal this decision to a judge, a process that could take much longer than the review.

Capell said losing that appeal could impact the city’s hiring plan, because it might force them to look at hiring significantly more firefighters to avoid a repeat offense.

“If we were to run into another incident where we only have two people on an engine, then we could run into much more significant penalties,” Capell told The Post-Record Tuesday. “We’re a little wary of doing anything now until this gets settled.”

According to Capell, some city council members share his reservations and those views may be reflected on the final budget.

“I don’t want to speak for council, but I think some of them have expressed concern that with (the appeal) still hanging out there, and Washougal not wanting to pay for it, maybe we should defer it until we have more information,” he said.

Camas-Washougal Fire Chief Nick Swinhart reiterated his position after council initially introduced the idea of hiring four new firefighters: he had made his recommendation, and the rest was beyond his control.

“The funding of those positions is up at a higher level and it’s up to Camas (City) Council,” Swinhart said. “Basically, it’s out of my hands.”

New taxes, revenue concerns on the horizon

The recommended budget also includes a 1-percent increase in property taxes in both 2019 and 2020. The 2019 recommended increase will be banked, meaning taxpayers won’t actually see the increase in 2019, and the city can implement it in a later year. To cover the estimated $119,972 a 1-percent property tax increase would draw in 2019, the recommendation is that city council members approve utility taxes.

The benefit of this strategy, according to Huber-Nickerson, is threefold: it diversifies revenue for the city, pushes some of the tax load from homeowners to renters and saves that banked increase — as well as opening up the concept of utility taxes — for a time when the budget is tighter.

That time might not be so far away. In July, Huber-Nickerson told city council members and former Mayor Scott Higgins that Camas could experience a “soft recession” in 2020 and 2021. Without new revenue sources, she predicted the city will likely not have enough money to fund its desired levels of service by 2022.

For the 2019-20 budget, council will be deciding whether to take this new utility-tax route or stick to a straight 1-percent property tax increase — the highest level allowed under state law. While property taxes have to be decided now, utility taxes could potentially be implemented later, within the biennium.

Councilman Steve Hogan immediately voiced a preference at the Oct. 1 meeting.

“I just want to let you guys know that I’m not really leaning toward the utility tax,” Hogan said.

Huber-Nickerson, who has floated the idea of a utility tax before, later told The Post-Record she suspected council members would knock down the idea of implementing taxes on utilities. Camas is one of the only cities in Clark County to not include a variety of utility taxes in its revenue sources.

Further discussion about these taxes, and the budget as a whole, will take place at the Oct. 15 Camas City Council regular meeting.