Busy year ahead for city of Washougal

City manager says fire and EMS funding, fostering new development top list

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Washougal City Manager David Scott recently characterized the city’s 2020 budget, which city council members approved in early December, as “executable” but “tight.”

The budget projects revenues of $43,776,646 and expenses of $50,796,482.

“We are able to maintain current service levels, but nothing beyond that,” Scott said. “In order to accomplish that, this is the second year in a row that the dollars appropriated to the departments in the general fund were not given any inflationary adjustments. (Essentially) the buying power of our departments for our general fund services has gone down.”

The city has been limited by its relatively stagnant rate of new construction, Scott said.

“For a community that’s got a lot of new construction, its property tax revenues might go up 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 percent, and it will have a little bit of room to operate and potentially expand programs,” he said. “But if your new construction is coming in at 1 or 2 percent, you add that to the 1 percent that you (already) get, that revenue stream’s only going up 2 or 3 percent, and that’s basically enough to barely keep your nose above water. That is Washougal’s situation.”

This is why fostering industrial and retail development, Scott said, is one of the city’s top objectives for 2020.

“In Washougal, growth has slowed down a little bit,” Scott said. “The tax structure incentivizes cities to chase growth, but the trick is to not just chase any growth. You want to grow in a way that your community wants to grow. But if you have no growth, you can’t sustain services.”

Scott said there is new development in the city’s northwest area, “so that’s going to reinvigorate some (residential) growth,” he continued. “The Port (of Camas-Washougal) is getting primed and ready to do some good work (on the waterfront). And we’re investing in our Town Center in the hopes that we can see continued investment there.”

Following are some of the city of Washougal’s goals for 2020, according to Scott:

Finding a ‘sweet spot’ in Camas-Washougal Fire Department funding

“Operationally, (that is our) biggest ticket item,” Scott said of the city’s fire and emergency services. “Our levy lid lift expires at the end of the year, so it needs to be renewed. And the question will be, ‘At what level will it be renewed?’ That will determine what level of service is provided. The council, working with (the city of Camas) has to try to find a sweet spot, and then we’ll have to go to our voters, and ultimately they’re the decision makers about what level of services is appropriate.”

Voters passed the city’s replacement levy to maintain fire, emergency medical and ambulance services, at a cost of 10 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value, in the November 2014 general election. That levy, which garnered more than 58 percent of the votes in 2014, is set to expire at the end of 2020.

Scott said Washougal councilmembers must decide by early August if they want to place a levy on the November ballot.

“So that decision probably needs to be made by July,” Scott said. “We’ve got basically six months to figure that out.”

Accreditation and welcoming new chief at police department

Scott said Washougal’s police department is set to receive accreditation from the Washington Association of Sheriffs & Police Chiefs in either 2020 or 2021.

“That’s a good milestone, a benchmarking credential,” he said. “It’ll be good for the community to be able to have a police department that’s accredited, so we’re looking forward to that.”

Additionally, the city’s police leader, Washougal Police Chief Wendi Steinbronn, is already fitting in with the department after coming on board in late 2019, Scott said.

“She’s jumped right in, taken command of the police department and is integrating into the team here,” he said of Steinbronn, a Camas resident and former Portland police commander. “She has been tasked with doing an evaluation of the program — where are we at relative to where we should be, in (her) professional opinion, in terms of the community’s growth?”

Road and transportation improvements

Scott said the city should have close to 30 percent design completion — “kind of a magic number for transportation projects” — on its new underpass at 32nd Street, which will eventually eliminate the at-grade crossing with the railroad.

Scott said the underpass is needed, but expensive.

“It costs tens of millions of dollars to deliver a project like that, and that’s more than a community like Washougal can handle,” he said. “That’s going to require other assistance in order to really be able to have conversations about trying to get funding for what we need to have. Maybe a little bit of local money (is) in that design, but mostly it’s federal and state money. That’s a hugely important thing that’s happening, but it’s totally behind the scenes, and the fruit of that is years out.”

The Washougal City Council has prioritized road improvements as a main objective in 2020, Scott said, but constraints on license tab fees at the state level could hinder that goal.

“The idea is to leverage revenue (from a $20 car license fee) to enhance our pavement management program and take it from 2018 levels at $750,000 up into the $900,000 range with this new revenue,” Scott explained.

Voters approved Initiative 976 in the November 2019 general election that will limit license fees to $30. That law was set to take effect in December 2019, but pending legal challenges have held up its implementation.

The initiative, which showed voters aren’t enthusiastic about vehicle “tab” fees in Washington, is a challenge for many cities, including Washougal, which rely on that source of revenue for maintaining city streets and transportation projects.

“How are we going to meet this goal of enhancing pavement management, essentially street maintenance in our community, if the revenue available to make that happen goes away?” Scott said. “It’s an untenable goal without additional resources. We’ll do everything we can and continue to have a good pavement management program, but it’s potentially not going to be able to be enhanced depending upon what happens with that tab fee.”

Completing waterfront trail and building ballfields

Scott said the city’s waterfront trail will be completed in 2020, and work on the Schmid ballfields is scheduled to begin this year, too.

“(The waterfront trail completion is) a huge thing because we’re going to connect the work that the Port did to the rest of the trail along the levy,” Scott said. “That’s a real nice missing link. That will connect people to the Lacamas Greenway rail system up to the lake. This has been a long time coming.”

The city is “still trying to fine-tune” the ballfields project, but it is scheduled to begin later this year, Scott said.

“We’ll get enhanced facilities there for our community to use,” he said. “We’re excited about that.”

Developing ‘Town Center’ and looking toward economic development

“We’re working on a sub-area plan, an economic development tool that makes it easier for folks who want to develop within the boundaries of an area, for our Town Center,” Scott said.

The city’s vision for the Town Center is, according to Scott, a “robust, mixed-use environment with office, retail and residential spaces.”

The plan under development won’t change the vision, but could provide more specific details for those hoping to develop in Washougal’s Town Center area.

Now that the Camas-Washougal Economic Development Association (CWEDA) has been disbanded, city leaders in Camas are considering the addition of an in-house economic development staff member. Earlier this year the Port added an economic development manager position and hired Derek Jaeger for the role.

“I can’t speak for the Port, but there’s a possibility that the Port and the city of Washougal will partner with Camas in this position and potentially share that resource in some way,” Scott said. “That’s not finalized yet. If we don’t do that, then we will figure something out ourselves. But if we can share resources, I think we’re more efficient. Camas is open to that, but we just have to figure out what that looks like, and if our council really wants to do that. That’s a work in progress.”

Engaging community, enhancing aesthetics

Scott said city leaders in Washougal want to make sure they are “proactively engaging” with the community and sharing good information.

“In 2020, we will do our bi-annual community survey that engages a number of indicators for us about the community’s perception (of the city),” Scott said. “We will probably use that tool to ask some questions about how we engage with people. Not just ‘Do you use social media?’ but ‘Exactly how do you use social media? Should we invest more in this tool, or should we communicate more this way?’ We just want to be effective.”

Another goal for Washougal officials in 2020 is to enhance community aesthetics, Scott said. “There are some challenges in the community with some properties where maybe they could be maintained a little bit better, or maybe there’s some issues going on,” he explained. “How do we engage with those property owners to enhance the aesthetic? Is that code enforcement? Is it a different way?”

“That’s an opportunity we’ll be looking at this year,” Scott added, “how to figure that out without any additional resources. There may be some things we can look at programmatically around that notion.”