The Camas City Council voted this week to approve 1% property tax increases on its general fund levy and emergency medical services levy.
The increases will cost the owner of a $500,000 home — the median price in Camas — about $1.20 a month in 2021.
Camas Finance Director Cathy Huber Nickerson told council members Monday that property taxes are the city’s primary revenue source for funding general fund and EMS services.
In October, during a council workshop, Huber Nickerson encouraged the council members to pass the 1% levy increases, saying “the city doesn’t have the tax options that some of our neighbors have (including a utility tax), so we rely on the 1% increases.”
Like many cities in Washington that are confined to 1% percent property tax increases each year, Camas faces a structural deficit due to the fact that its expenses — — including labor contracts that have bumped salaries for city employees and managers up by 2 to 4 percent over the past few years, as well as benefit and pension costs that often increase 6 to 9 percent each year — continue to cost more than the city can bring in through property taxes alone.
“All of our neighbors have utilized that ‘third leg,’ utility taxes,” Huber Nickerson told councilors in October. “We have property taxes and sales taxes but do not have utility taxes.”
Camas City Councilman Steve Hogan, one of two who voted against the general fund levy increase on Monday, said in October that the city has tried to avoid utility taxes over the past 15 years “in order to attract businesses.”
Councilmember Shannon Roberts said in October and again this week that she opposed the levy increases.
“We are in an economic downturn,” Roberts said in October. “How do we justify this increase in property tax for those people who are already struggling?”
Huber Nickerson has said the increase is “very nominal” to the majority of Camas’ homeowners. The EMS levy increase will cost the owner of a half-a-million-dollar home less than $2 a year and the general fund increase, which pays for things like parks, streets, police and fire services, will cost the same homeowner an additional $1 a month.
The money collected from the levies “provides essential services for those homeowners,” Huber Nickerson said in October. “If we start to erode that revenue stream, we’re talking (about cutting employees). With benefits going up 6 to 9 percent, there would have to be some way to balance the budget.”
Huber Nickerson added that there are programs to help low-income individuals who need assistance paying their property taxes.
On Monday, Roberts again brought up the idea that people in Camas would not be able to afford the nominal tax increase during the COVID-19 pandemic and encouraged other council members to vote against the 1% increases for the general fund and EMS fund.
“I don’t believe now is the time to be burdening businesses and citizens with new taxes,” Roberts said. “Longtime residents are being taxed out of their homes. In good consciousness, how can we increase taxes during this time?”
In the end, Roberts and Hogan voted against the 1-percent increase for the general fund levy, and Roberts was the sole “nay” for the 1% increase to the EMS levy.
The city councilors have discussed using the 1% property tax increase to fund new positions within the Camas-Washougal Fire Department, but has not yet made a decision on that issue. The levy funds will add an additional $130,950 to the city’s general fund and an additional $22,443 to the city’s EMS fund in 2021.
The total cost of the city’s property tax levies in 2021 will be $3.04 per $1,000 assessed property value — $2.59 per $1,000 APV for the general levy and 45 cents per $1,000 APV for the EMS levy — and will generate $13.75 million for the general fund and $2.36 million for the EMS fund.