Camas to revisit utility tax

Citizen group’s referendum efforts to put issue before voters rejected for missing information

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The front of Camas City Hall is pictured in August 2018. (Post-Record files)

Less than two months after passing a 2% utility tax on the city’s water, stormwater, sewer and garbage utilities, the Camas City Council has voted to revisit the issue in the near future.

The Council voted 4-2 on Tuesday, Jan. 17, to take another look at the city’s new utility tax in the second quarter of 2023 (April through June) — after the Council appoints someone to fill the Ward 3 seat left vacant in December 2022, after the surprise resignation of longtime Councilman Greg Anderson.

The Council approved the new 2% utility tax in a 4-3 vote – with Council members Don Chaney, Tim Hein and Leslie Lewallen voting against the tax — on Nov. 21, 2022. The Council also set conditions that rebates and exceptions be given to qualifying low-income residents, and that the new tax would “sunset” or end with the creation of a regional fire authority, which would likely reduce the city’s fire and emergency medical services costs, or by Dec. 31, 2024, whichever comes first.

The 2% utility tax on the city’s water, sewer, solid waste (garbage) and stormwater utilities is expected to add a little over $1 million to the city’s general fund over the 2023-24 biennium. City leaders have said the tax is needed to help steer the city away from a looming structural deficit as the costs of running the city begin to outpace the city’s revenues.

According to a presentation shown to the Camas City Council by Camas Finance Director Cathy Huber Nickerson on Oct. 17, 2022, the new tax will cost the average Camas family an extra $3.56 a month. The average downtown Camas business will pay an additional $22.25 a month and the average industrial user will pay an additional $1,909 a month.

Citizen group’s referendum attempt rejected

The Council’s decision to revisit the new 2% utility tax comes one week after a citizen group’s attempt to place the issue before Camas voters through the referendum process was rejected by the city clerk’s office because the “Camas Taxpayers Alliance” group’s signature sheets — which the group said included 3,160 signatures from Camas voters who wanted a chance to vote on the utility tax issue — did not include the full text of the city’s utility tax ordinance as required by law.

Camas City Clerk Bernie Bacon sent a letter to Brian Wiklem, Brian Lewellan — the husband of City Councilwoman Leslie Lewallen — and Scott Hogg, of the Camas Taxpayers Alliance, on Jan. 11, stating the reason the referendum petition had been rejected.

“None of the submitted signed forms of the Petition include the full text of the Ordinance to be referred as required by law,” Bacon stated in the letter.

Bacon had sent the Camas Taxpayers Alliance representatives a detailed list of things that needed to be added to, or removed from the referendum petition forms on Dec. 9, and noted the recommendations came “after a very lengthy discussion and review of the petition form with Clark County Elections.”

Bacon noted that seven of the 305 pages of petition forms turned in to her office 20 minutes before the 5 p.m. Jan. 9 deadline also had additional “terms and formatting,” including “Instructions to Signers” that had not been included in the final draft of the petition submitted to the city clerk’s office for review in December.

New city administrator says utility tax ‘clearly the source of contention’

In a letter sent to Council members on Jan. 11, Camas City Administrator Doug Quinn — who had stepped into his new role leading the city’s day-to-day business on Jan. 4 — said that “with the failure of the referendum to have met legal requirements” city leaders had “an opportunity to revisit the adoption of the tax.”

“Since my arrival at the City on (Jan. 4), Mayor (Steve) Hogan and I have been weighing the benefits of the utility tax against the proposed program elements funded by it,” Quinn stated in his letter to the Council. “The tax provides funding for legitimate, essential staffing required to advance service to the community, but is clearly the source of contention. Further, the sunsetting of the tax after only two years presents a significant complication to maintaining a balanced budget in the future.”

After talking to Huber Nickerson, the city’s finance director, Quinn told Council members his opinion was that “the $1 (million) generated through the imposition of the tax can be offset through budget reductions if that is the wish of the Council.”

“I am scheduling this for Council action to confirm or repeal the utility tax,” Quinn stated.

On Tuesday, Councilman Tim Hein suggested the Council hold off on having another utility tax discussion until the vacant Ward 3 seat had been filled.

“I respect the work that was done on the referendum. I also respect the process that has gone into the vote on the utility tax,” Councilman Tim Hein said Tuesday, during the Council’s regular meeting.

“The reason I asked for a delay (in revisiting the utility tax decision) is that, since the Council voted this in … it’s important that a full Council reviews it at a future point in time,” Hein said.

‘Reopening this budget is going to delay operations of the city’

At least two Council members worried that repealing the utility tax after having discussed budget issues for several months before voting on the utility tax in November would set a bad precedent for future Council decisions.

“I have a hard time discussing something that would set a precedent,” Councilwoman Bonnie Carter said Tuesday. “We spent a year discussing the budget. We discussed sliding levels of service another two years in order to not have a utility tax. When it came to the vote, we voted on levels of service with a utility tax. (It will cost) $35 to $40 for an average household, which is money to people, I get that, but we are maintaining levels of service — services they may need someday.”

“Reopening this budget is only going to delay operations of the city,” Carter added. “We gave staff a work plan for the next two years. Now we’re going to stall on that? Every time we stall, we kick things down the road. We’ve been doing that for years because no one wants to talk about taxes to our citizens.”

Councilwoman Marilyn Boerke agreed.

“This isn’t easy,” Boerke said Tuesday. “The months we spent in discussion (about) this budget — that’s what I keep falling back on. … If we continue to second-guess the votes we’ve taken based on … volumes of data, then that sets a precedent.”