Camas ties budget to state’s reopening phases

Finance director: phased budget lets mayor react faster to COVID-19 economic changes

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How do you build a two-year budget during a pandemic that seems to shift course every few weeks? That’s what city officials in Camas are grappling with this month, as they head into the city’s 2021-22 biennial budget process.

“We are very early in the budget process, so this is a good time to look at this and see if we need to do something differently or tweak something,” Cathy Huber Nickerson, the city’s finance director, told city council members Monday during the council’s remote workshop session.

Huber Nickerson presented the council members with a biennial budget plan that is tied to the state’s phased, “Safe Start” reopening plan. The approach means Camas leaders can “react very quickly to phase changes” because they will have a guide showing exactly which steps to take if the county moves forward in its reopening during the COVID-19 pandemic — or has to rollback to a more restrictive phase — Huber Nickerson said.

“We are hoping this approach provides some certainty (for the public) … to say, ‘Here’s why we’re doing what we’re doing,” she added.

The framework for the 2021-22 budget follows the state’s phased approach for reopening during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The budget phases run from essential-only services under the most restrictive Phase 1; to essential services plus COVID-related costs in Phase 2 (the city’s current phase); a limited budget with some offices reopening and the possibility of rehiring seasonal workers and budgeted staff in Phase 3; and a full budget with onsite work and open offices under the least-restrictive Phase 4.

The phased budget will allow Camas Mayor Barry McDonnell to more easily accommodate loss of revenue from a possible rollback into a more restrictive phase if the COVID-19 pandemic numbers continue to rise — and would also allow him to move forward with a more robust budget if the pandemic improves and Clark County enters a less-restrictive phase.

Many of the city’s revenue sources, including program fees, building revenues and license and permit fees, are tied to the state’s phased reopening plan, Huber Nickerson said, so it makes sense that the city would want to have a more flexible budget that accounts for ebbs and flows in its revenue streams.

“If the governor changes phases at any time during the year, if we regress from Phase 2 to Phase 1 for example, then we go back to essential services, everyone is at home, and we react accordingly with the budget,” Huber Nickerson said. “We can react very quickly to phase changes because we’ll know exactly what we need to do.”

Councilwoman Ellen Burton said she liked the idea of tying the city’s biennial budget to the state’s Safe Start phased reopening plan, but cautioned her peers against jumping into the hiring process too soon during a pandemic.

“I would like us to be careful about hiring,” Burton said, suggesting council members recommend that the mayor have the ability to hold off on new hires even when the city moves into the less-restrictive phases.

“We’re just not sure if we’re going to have to go back in a few months,” she added, “so I would want to be very careful about adding fixed costs.”

Councilman Steve Hogan said he would also like to see the city take a more conservative approach before starting construction projects that have been on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We are probably better off being conservative and putting some of those projects on the back end (in 2022), until we have a feel for where COVID’s at and where the budget is,” Hogan said.

The public can access the city’s phased budget plan in the Aug. 17, 2020 city council workshop agenda, available online at overnment/minuteagend avideo.