Camas leaders shoot down utility tax

Finance director says city could face trouble without new revenue sources

It looks like it will be business as usual for Camas citizens when it comes to property and utility taxes in 2019-20.

At a Camas City Council workshop held Oct. 15, councilors voiced — nearly unanimously — opposition to implementing new utility taxes.

Camas Finance Director Cathy Huber Nickerson recommended the city impose a 1-percent tax on its natural gas utility, which would bring Camas an additional $120,000 in revenue in 2019.

“The primary reason why we’re talking about this, just a reminder, is that we’re talking about hedging risk with diversity,” Huber Nickerson told the councilors. “The risk being that a recession could occur.”

This had been Huber Nickerson’s main point throughout the city’s months-long biennial budget process: that revenue stream diversification is appealing when it comes to the city seeking bonds.

Councilwoman Bonnie Carter was the only city council member in support of the new utility tax.

“I would like to see us increase our bond ratings, so we can reap benefits by the millions for the city on our bigger projects,” Carter said.

The idea had been suggested as an alternative to a 1-percent property tax raise in 2019, but Huber Nickerson had already predicted that Camas city councilors would shoot down the utility taxes. Camas is one of only two Clark County cities that do not include a variety of utility taxes in revenue streams.

A utility tax doesn’t necessarily mean an increase in costs for homeowners, just a different method of taxation. For renters however, the tax could have been a new expense. For most of the council, that fact presented a sticking point. A tax on essential utilities, such as water and heat, would disproportionately harm low-income families, some council members suggested.

“I believe we need to diversify and it’s a good thing to do. I’m not sure that the utility taxes are a good way to do it,” Councilwoman Shannon Turk said. “It impacts our poor community more than it does our larger community.”

Councilwoman Melissa Smith agreed, saying she’d be more inclined to tax phone or cable utilities than to enforce a tax on necessary utilities.

“I’d feel more comfortable passing those two than gas, electricity — things that we need to live on,” Smith said.

Councilman Greg Anderson echoed Smith’s sentiment.

Earlier presentations on the possible utility taxes did demonstrate means of excluding the city’s lowest-income and fixed-income residents from the any added expenses.

Although not arguing in support of the utility taxes, Mayor Pro Tem Don Chaney did say the city would have a reckoning at some point.

“We do have to find a way to diversify. The economy is not always going to be as it is today,” Chaney said.

In July, Huber-Nickerson told city council 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 level of services by 2022.