Washougal residents give city high marks

Community survey results: 65% satisfied with overall quality of city services

A community survey recently conducted for the city of Washougal indicated that 82 percent of respondents would support a levy "lid lift" of at least 10 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value to maintain or enhance the city's fire and emergency medical services. (Contributed graphic courtesy of city of Washougal)

Washougal residents have a positive overall perception of their city but would like to see improved street maintenance and economic development efforts, according to the results of a community survey. 

Chris Tatham, chief executive officer of the ETC Institute, an Olathe, Kansas-based consulting firm, told city leaders during a May 15 virtual presentation that satisfaction ratings held steady or increased in 49 of 54 categories since the city’s last community survey in 2018.

Sixty-five percent of residents indicated they’re satisfied with the overall quality of city services — an increase of 5 percent from 2018 — while 8 percent of residents indicated a dissatisfaction with the overall quality of city services.  

“Most residents in Washougal think you’re doing a great job,” Tatham told city leaders. “Compared to other communities, you’re setting the standard, particularly in customer service and the overall quality of city services. The improvements you’ve made just over the last couple of years are something you should be really proud of. It’s very unusual that I give a report like this and a community improves in 49 of 54 areas.” 

The city mailed 2,500 six-page surveys to a random sample of Washougal residents earlier this year and generated 517 responses. The feedback will be used to determine priorities, guide budget and investment decisions, measure trends and compare performance with other communities nationwide, according to a news release issued by the city.

“Long-term trends show increases in almost all areas assessed, which proves we’ve made remarkable progress with many city services,” Washougal Mayor Molly Coston said. “We’re being responsive to our community.” 

First responders ranked highest in terms of community satisfaction, with 87 percent of the respondents saying they are satisfied with the quality of the city’s fire, emergency medical and ambulance services and 78 percent saying they are satisfied with the quality of the city’s police services. Additionally, 70 percent were satisfied with the quality of the city’s customer service; and 64 percent were satisfied with the quality of city parks. 

“Once again, the staff and the customer service that is provided and the quality of that service is outstanding,” Washougal City Manager David Scott said. “We try our best to treat residents politely, try to be responsive and do the best we can to serve the community.” 

Several categories saw satisfaction increases from the 2018 survey, including the effectiveness of communication with the public (up 11 percent); enforcement of city codes and ordinances (up 6 percent); effectiveness of economic development efforts (up 11 percent) and maintenance of city streets (up 8 percent); overall feeling of safety in the city (up 10 percent) and overall quality of life in the city (up 8 percent).

“Most of your residents have a great perception of the city,” Tatham said. “When it comes to overall quality of customer service, (Washougal) is really setting the standard there at 25 percent above the northwest regional average and 28 percent above the U.S. average.”

Maintenance of city streets received the lowest support of any category (41 percent).The report also concluded that the city should focus on improving its economic development effectiveness, water utilities and parks. 

Council debates fire/EMS lid lift

The survey results will play a key role in the Washougal council members’ decision about the city’s expiring lid lift for fire and emergency medical services. 

The city annually assesses a property tax levy, which includes funding for fire services and by law cannot increase by more than 1 percent per year without voter approval. A “lid lift” allows the levy to be increased beyond the 1-percent cap by voter approval of an additional rate. 

“There are multiple kinds of lid lifts and durations,” Scott told the Post-Record. “The type we have used ‘lifts’ the levy rate upon its effective date, and a new total levy is then calculated. That new levy is then subject to the 1-percent cap in subsequent years, and then resets as if the ‘lift’ had never happened upon its expiration. In the final year of a ‘lift,’ we have gone back out to the voters to seek a renewal to start the next year. This is our current situation.”

In 2014, Washougal voters approved a lid lift to maintain the city’s fire, emergency medical and ambulance services at a cost of 10 cents per $1,000 of APV. 

In 2017, Washougal voters approved a separate levy for EMS services at 50 cents per $1,000 of APV.

“Washougal has needed to utilize both the voter-approved ‘lid lift’ and the EMS levy to provide the additional financial support needed for our fire/EMS program beyond what can be provided from our other general fund revenue sources,” Scott told the Post-Record.

“The dynamic for the council is what number makes sense, and there’s a risk that if (the lid lift) doesn’t pass, we lose revenue and then we’re in a difficult situation,” Scott said at a virtual workshop session on Monday, May 27. “If there is no new lid lift, we estimate a loss of a little over $171,000 in revenue for the purpose of fire and emergency medical response services. That’s what’s at stake.”

Eighty-two percent of the survey’s respondents indicated that they’d be willing to approve a lift of at least 10 cents; 60 percent indicated that they’d approve a lift of at least 15 cents; and 44 percent indicated that they’d vote to approve a lift of at least 20 cents. The levy would need at least 50 percent of the vote to pass.

“Ten cents is a renewal, and 82 percent of the survey respondents said they would support at least 10 cents, so it seems pretty safe in that regard,” Scott said. “These are unique times, and I don’t know what the world will be like in mid-October when we receive our ballots in the mail, but 82 percent is a pretty solid number. At 15 cents, it’s 60 percent. That’s a pretty solid number. It’s 10 percent higher than the minimum required passing vote. However, there’s not as much margin there, so it feels less safe.” 

According to the survey results, 87 percent of respondents are satisfied with the quality of the city’s fire, emergency medical and ambulance services.

“Potentially there’s an issue here around the community’s perception or understanding of the need for these resources,” Scott said. “There may be some correlation between that perception of a high level of service and a willingness to support enhancements in the program. If you look at 20 cents, 44 percent support it. If there was education, and the community agreed there was a need, maybe there’s some opportunity there.”

Citing growth, a rising demand for services and a call from local firefighters to raise staffing levels at the Camas-Washougal Fire Department (CWFD), Camas city council members approved the addition of two new firefighters and one fire inspector in January 2019. 

Washougal leaders originally said their city could not afford to pay its share (40 percent) of the new hires’ costs but then reversed course, agreeing to pay $65,000 for the positions for three-fourths of 2019 after reviewing the city’s 2018 budget performance. 

The Washougal councilors allocated an estimated $86,000 for the positions in 2020, but  declined to commit to paying for the positions in 2021 and beyond.

“Camas, our partner, is looking to enhance the program with some additional staff, and they’ve in fact already put on the books four full-time (employees), two of which we’re agreeing to on a year-by-year basis,” Scott said. “I know our partner would probably like to see something more than 10 cents because if we only do 10 cents, we can’t even do the two positions we’ve been paying for on a year-to-year basis. No matter what happens with this, we have work to do with our partner about moving that program forward.”

Scott said that if the levy doesn’t pass, the city wouldn’t be able to fund the two new firefighter positions in 2021 unless it could identify an alternative funding source, such as reserves.

“We projected a $1.6 million loss (in our general budget due to COVID-19),” Scott said. “Camas has some projections as well. I think their situation is a little bit better because they’ve got some different indicator dynamics at play. But if pessimistic (economic) projections carry the day, we’ve got more to worry about than losing $171,000, if that makes sense. There’s going to be bigger implications, and that (CWFD) program may need to be part of the conversation for the solution. Certainly, you don’t want to compound that by not having the lid lift at all. It’s very unknown.”

Most of the council members were in favor of asking voters to approve a 10-cent lift this year, then placing another levy on a ballot next year to ask for additional funds. 

“I think (10 cents is) an easier selling point, especially because nobody knows what this summer is going to bring and where the state of the economy is going to be at in general,” councilwoman Alex Yost said. “I would be much more confident in treading lightly and talking about maintenance and not enhancement at this point.”

“Let’s see if the economy really starts to get moving by late July,” councilman Brent Boger added. “I’m certainly willing to consider 15 cents if it is. I’d be willing to go to 15 cents if things were normal. Could we go ahead and renew this levy and then go out in a year for another one? That seems to me to be the answer. We’ll know whether the economy is recovered by then. Of course, that (would mean) a lag in revenue for a year, but so be it.” 

Scott told the council members that they must make a decision by their second meeting in July in order to meet the early August deadline for placing the levy on the November 2020 ballot.

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