‘Fix Camas’ petition deemed insufficient

County: over 500 invalid signatures on petition to send city's new utility tax to voters

Clark County elections officials say the Fix Camas group spearheading a referendum petition to send the city of Camas’ new 2% utility tax to voters did not collect the required number of valid signatures.

“To be considered a sufficient petition, a total (of) 2,730 signatures must be valid, which is 15% of the number of registered voters residing within the city of Camas in the last preceding general election,” Clark County Auditor Greg Kimsey stated in an email sent to the Fix Camas group and city of Camas officials on March 20.

Of the 3,164 signatures the Fix Camas group sent to the county for signature verification, only 2,639 proved valid, said Cathie Garber, Clark County’s elections director.

“We had our most seasoned team on this signature verification process,” Garber told The Post-Record this week. “We used our best workers to give (the referendum effort) the best chance to be a successful petition.”

According to Garber, the county’s signature-verification team found that the Fix Camas Referendum 1 petitions contained 2,639 valid signatures of Camas voters — 91 signatures short of the required 2,730 signatures. Of the signatures the county rejected: 29 were from people who signed the petition more than once; 252 were from people who were registered voters but were not Camas voters; 153 were from people who were not registered voters; 87 were signatures that did not match the signature in the voter registration file, including some signatures Garber said her staff believed to be “signed by other people;” three had no signature; and one was illegible.

The somewhat anonymous Fix Camas group, which described itself as “a bi-partisan group of concerned residents” on its fixcamas.com website, kicked off the referendum process in late 2022, following the Camas City Council’s 4-3 votes on Nov. 22, 2022, to implement a new, 2% utility tax on its residential, commercial and industrial water, stormwater, sewer and garbage users.

The Council’s vote followed several warnings from city staff that, without increasing and diversifying revenues, the city was facing a structural deficit — when baseline expenditures, including staff salaries and benefit costs, would outpace the amount of money the city takes in.

Though the Council ultimately voted 4-3 in favor of the new utility tax (Councilmembers Don Chaney, Tim Hein and Leslie Lewallen cast the three “no” votes), it also set conditions that rebates and exceptions be given to qualifying low-income residents, and that the new tax would “sunset” or end either with the creation of a regional fire authority or by Dec. 31, 2024.

The utility tax was expected to add an additional $1,051,119 to the city’s general fund over the 2023-24 biennium.

Camas City Administrator Doug Quinn said Monday that the new tax would likely cost the average residential customer an additional $1.48 to $2.33 a month. Camas Finance Director Cathy Huber Nickerson said in October 2022, that the tax would likely cost the average downtown Camas business an additional $22.25 a month while the average industrial user would pay an extra $1,909 a month.

Fix Camas signature collectors — which included Brian Lewallen, the husband of Camas City Councilmember Leslie Lewallen, who voted against the 2% utility tax, as well as Camas City Councilmember Jennifer Senescu, who was appointed to the Council more than one month after the signature-collection efforts — turned 305 pages of petitions with 3,164 signatures into the Camas city clerk by the 5 p.m. Jan. 9 deadline.

The city clerk later determined that the petitions, which did not include a copy of the city’s ordinance, should be rejected.

The clerk’s decision led Camas resident and Fix Camas member Brian Wiklem to file a civil complaint against the city of Camas and Clark County. Wiklem’s attorney argued that “once petition signature pages are submitted, there is no other duty for the city clerk except the duty to verify signatures, which the clerk refused to do” and that “not having 305 copies of the ordinance on the petition is not fatal to the signatures verification process.”

After Skamania County Superior Court Judge Randall Krog ruled on March 2, that the referendum process, including the verification of the 3,164 signatures, should continue, the city of Camas gave the signature pages to the Clark County Auditor’s office on March 6, for verification.

Garber said this week that the county has done its part in verifying the signatures, and that any “next steps” would be up to the city of Camas.

“There is nothing further (for us) to do,” Garber said of the county’s involvement in the referendum process. “It is up to the city at this point.”

Camas Mayor Steve Hogan said the city is “in no man’s land” this week and unsure if there is an appeal process available to the Fix Camas group.

“That’s what we’re asking: is there an appeal process? If so, how much time is tied to that appeal process? Is there time for a remedy to take place? And what is that time(frame)? That’s what we’re not getting any answers to,” Hogan told members of the Camas City Council during a Council workshop on Monday, April 3.

“There was a court case and the judge decided the city of Camas was out of the case and that the case would go back to Clark County. The order was actually to count the signatures. So, at this point, we are out of the court case and having trouble figuring out where the two parties will go at this point,” Hogan added.

The mayor said city staff have reached out to the Fix Camas group, but had not received a response as of Monday evening.

“We’re trying to contact the people who brought the referendum. I asked for an update today and there was no update,” Hogan said. “At this point, we’re in ‘no man’s land.’ We don’t know if there’s a chance for them to correct the signatures.”

Councilmembers invoke fears of ‘30% utility tax’

The issue of the utility tax came up during the Camas City Council’s 2023-24 budget discussions.

“When I came in as mayor, I got hit with a lot of items that were basically identified as failing — key capital and building needs,” Hogan told newly appointed Councilmember John Nohr in October 2022. “So, I worked with staff and asked them to focus on critical needs, on things that were failing and needed to be dealt with now.”

The mayor’s recommended 2023-24 budget included:

  • $7 million to “address critical components of the city’s facilities assessment” report, which noted in July 2022, that the city is facing nearly $35 million worth of needed upgrades and repairs to 17 of its publicly owned buildings;
  • $2 million for “life-saving equipment” for the city’s public safety and fire departments;
  • $8.6 million to enhance essential transportation routes throughout the city;
  • $7.4 million for park and trail development;
  • $1.2 million worth of investments in the Camas Public Library; and
  • $1.3 million for “critical technology.”

The mayor also called for staffing increases throughout the city’s departments, including the addition of two police “overhires” and two police sergeants; a project manager, volunteer coordinator and recreation specialist for the parks and recreation department; two street maintenance workers; eight firefighters; an engineering manager; a records specialist; and a part-time library associate.

To pay for those critical needs, Hogan proposed a revenue package that included a 1% property tax levy rate increase — the maximum increase allowed under Washington state law — as well as the use of nearly $7 million in federal COVID-recovery funds from the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, the use of about $24 million from the city’s reserves; and a new, 3% tax on the city’s garbage, sewer, stormwater and water utilities.

During the budget discussions leading up to the mayor’s proposed 2024-25 budget, city staff had warned Camas officials that the city would soon face a structural deficit — when its operating expenses will outpace its revenues — and should diversify its revenue streams.

“Utility taxes are part of the ‘three-legged stool’ for revenue (property, sales and utility taxes) to fund general operations of a city in Washington state,” Huber Nickerson, the city’s finance director, explained to the city council members in October 2022.

Council members voted on the mayor’s proposed revenue packages on Nov. 21, 2022. Two 4-3 votes led to the approval of a new 2% utility tax and knocked down the 1% property tax levy rate increase allowed by state law. Councilmembers Don Chaney, Tim Hein, Leslie Lewallen and John Nohr voted against the 1% property tax levy rate increase, which would have cost the owner of a $624,000 home an additional $14 a year, or around $1.17 more a month. Councilmembers Chaney, Hein and Lewallen also voted against the 2% utility tax.

Though it approved the new 2% utility tax, the Council also set the following conditions: that the city would give rebates and exceptions to qualifying low-income residents, and that the new tax would “sunset” or expire with the creation of a regional fire authority or by Dec. 31, 2024, whichever came first.

The utility tax, which was dropped down to 2% from the mayor’s recommended 3%, was supposed to help diversify the city’s revenue sources and bring in some funds to help stave off that structural deficit while Camas and Washougal officials went out to voters in a bid to form a regional fire authority and take some of the fire department funding burden off the city’s general fund. This is why the Camas City Council voted to sunset the tax in two years or when the RFA was formed.

The fact that it would take Council approval to continue the utility tax past December 2024, or raise the tax rate above 2%, has not stopped some people — including members of the Fix Camas group and at least two city council members — from claiming Camas residents could someday see their utility tax skyrocket to as much as 30%.

“I’m not arguing that we don’t have needs and that we’re (not) short some revenue,” Councilwoman Leslie Lewallen said Monday, during the Council’s April 3 workshop. “But there might be alternative ways of addressing this situation than proceeding down the road with a new tax that could wind up being a 30% tax down the road … that could become just a blank check later on in the future.”

The Council has not discussed continuing the new utility tax past its sunset date in December 2024, or given any indication it will consider raising the utility tax higher than 2%.

The tax’s detractors, however, have pointed to other small cities in Clark County that have imposed higher utility tax rates — including Battle Ground, Ridgefield and La Center, which have utility rates of 12%, 8% and 6%, respectively.

Councilwoman Jennifer Senescu, who the Council appointed in February to replace former Councilman Greg Anderson, said Monday she believed the Council should “maybe look at other solutions” including the possibility of selling city assets.

“I think we’ve all pointed out the small amount (of the utility tax) now, but it could be a big amount later,” Senescu said. “Maybe (we should be) taking a look at what our assets are and looking at that to gap what we’re missing for streets and other expenditures.”

Councilmember Marilyn Boerke took issue with suggestions that council members might increase the utility tax far beyond the 2% rate set in November 2022.

“My concern is that there have been statements made tonight that would indicate that our Council might willy-nilly raise a tax from 2% to 30%,” Boerke said. “I struggle with that very much as a councilperson of the people.”

At least one Council member who voted against the utility tax in November 2022, said they have reconsidered their vote in light of new information showing the city’s revenues have slowed.

“I really recognize the concerns I have about sustaining our current assets and infrastructure,” Councilman Don Chaney said Monday. “I can’t think of whether we should or shouldn’t (have passed the utility tax) because we know something more pressing today than we knew back then.”

Chaney said he voted against the utility tax because he believed in November 2022, that the tax was not needed to fully fund the mayor’s proposed 2024-25 budget.

“But the world has changed,” Chaney said Monday. “The streets are really bad. The memo sent … from the public works director really illustrates the risks of waiting any longer (to maintain the city’s streets). … Quite frankly, $500,000 a year (from the new utility tax revenues is) not going to fix our streets the way they stand now. But if we wait too long, the streets will be so much worse, we won’t be able to repair them. We’ll have to replace them. It’s a quality of life issue. … If the utility tax is, in fact, one of the mechanisms we need — absent some other creative funding — we need to get our streets fixed first.”

Councilman Nohr agreed.

“We are going to find ourselves in a position where we’re … millions (of dollars) in the hole if we don’t start fixing some of these things,” Nohr said Monday. “We have things that need to be fixed today. If we need to find revenue replacements two years from now (to replace the utility tax) then let’s look at that then. We have needs today that need to be taken care of, to help us get the community back up to speed.”