Full story lacking in ‘Fix Camas’ referendum efforts

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category icon Editorials, Opinion

Editor’s note: Due to space constraints, a condensed version of this editorial was published in the print edition of The Post-Record on Jan. 19, 2023. 

There is absolutely nothing wrong with voters wanting to have more control over local government decisions impacting a wide range of constituents. 

We would guess this reasoning had a lot to do with the decision of more than 3,100 Camas voters to sign on to a recent referendum effort by a group known as the Camas Taxpayers Alliance, which would have given voters a chance to decide the fate of the Camas City Council’s November 2022 decision to impose a temporary 2% tax on the city’s water, sewer, stormwater and garbage utilities.  

The problem with this recent referendum effort — which was rejected by the Camas City Clerk’s office because, as the city clerk noted in her letter to Camas Taxpayers Alliance representatives,  “none of the submitted signed forms” included the full text of the Council’s utility tax ordinance as required by law — does not reside in the reasonable idea of sending controversial Council decisions to the voters but, rather, in the amount of misinformation and half-truths pumped out by the Camas Taxpayers Alliance — the same group that registered as a political with the state in 2019 to fight the city’s proposed community-aquatics center bond — on its “Fix Camas” website

Several referendum supporters, including former Camas City Councilwoman Shannon Roberts and the husband of current Councilwoman Leslie Lewallen, were aghast at what they believed to be certain city council members’ insinuation that some people who signed up for the referendum efforts may not have known exactly what they were supporting. 

“Really? We’re so dumb that we didn’t know what we were signing? That person who put the thing together didn’t know what he was doing?” Roberts said during a public comment period at the end of the city council’s regular meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 17. “How pompous of you to say that.” 

Camas attorney Brian Lewallen, who helped with the referendum efforts (and whose wife, Councilwoman Leslie Lewallen, voted against the city’s 2% utility tax in 2022), also chimed in during the public comment portion of the Tuesday night meeting: “To hear a council(member) say that citizens didn’t know what they were signing is a dangerous comment,” Brian Lewallen said. “To (say we were trying to) dupe 3,160 people into signing a piece of paper, to have that allegation made, is dangerous and personally offensive to me.” 

And while these folks might be dismayed that a lot of effort — including walking door to door during the holidays and during a really nasty stretch of winter weather — went to waste because the referendum signature sheets did not include the required full text of the city’s ordinance, it is right to question the “facts” presented to Camas voters by the “Fix Camas” referendum backers. 

Here is what the “Fix Camas” folks told Camas voters: “On Dec. 5, 2022 our Camas City Council passed a 2% utility tax, placing our city among the ranks of other cities like Vancouver that are taxing residents up to 40%. This utility tax was approved on a slim 4-3 vote and with a two-year sunset provision, but that is no guarantee of retirement as the City reserves the right to increase the percentage of the tax as they see fit as long as it’s an option. The financial implications and burden this tax places on Camas residents is more than residents should be asked to bear.”

Sounds pretty awful, right? 

Of course, having spent the past year listening in to — and taking detailed notes of — the Camas City Council’s numerous workshops, planning sessions and budget meetings, it’s obvious that whoever created the “Fix Camas” website left out critical pieces of information that likely would have impacted Camasonians’ understanding of the issue — and probably would have dissuaded quite a few from signing on to the referendum efforts. 

For example, while it’s true the Council could have funded the 2023-24 budget without the utility tax, this nugget of information leaves out the fact that the budget includes one-time revenue sources (the $6 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act money the city received to help it recover from the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic), the use of the city’s fund balance — a fund that is supposed to have at least two months’ worth of expenditures in it for liquidity purposes – and the fact that the city is teetering on the brink of a structural deficit, which means the amount of money Camas takes in through its limited revenue sources (property, sales and utility taxes) is not keeping up with the cost of running a city that has more than doubled in size over the past two decades. 

“We know we’re growing every year,” Jeff Swanson, the city’s then-interim city administrator, told the Council in early November, noting that the budget for 2023-24 would use one-time revenues and fund balance to help pay for the mayor’s recommended budget. 

“These are not ongoing revenues,” Swanson said. 

As the city’s finance director pointed out in September 2022, Camas is at risk of a structural deficit because its revenue sources rely heavily on development within the city limits: “We’re fine when development is going on, but when it stops we have issues.”
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. The Council voted to sunset the tax in two years or when the RFA was formed, whichever came first. 

And how much will the 2% utility tax — a low amount compared to many cities’ utility tax rates, including Battle Ground’s 12% utility tax, Ridgefield’s 8% utility tax and La Center’s 6% utility tax — actually cost the average Camas resident? The typical family will pay less than $40 a year (around $3.30 a month). Low-income seniors and people living with disabilities can get utility rebates and exemptions depending on their income levels. As noted in a presentation given by the city’s finance director in September 2022 — and reiterated several times throughout the Council’s budget discussions – the city offers tax rebates and tax exemptions to customers who are 65 years or older or have a disability as defined by (state law), live within city limits and meet income requirements (the state also offers property tax rebates to those 61 years and older who have a household income of $58,423 or less).

None of that information was included on the “Fix Camas” website promoting the referendum efforts. Instead, most of the literature was meant to scare people into thinking they’d be paying massive amounts of money for the new tax. “Senior Citizens and Camas residents on fixed incomes can’t afford new taxes right now,” the website stated. “The financial implications … (are) more than residents should be asked to bear.” 

To average Camasonians: Is $40 a year “more than you can bear”?

Or should we be asking who this effort to send this issue to voters would really benefit? It is not, after all, average residents who will be impacted by the 2% utility tax. Rather, industrial customers in Camas — especially, we would imagine, the semiconductor fabs that can easily blow through millions of gallons of water each day —will be the most impacted by the new utility tax. The city estimates that typical industrial customers will pay an additional $1,900 more per month on their utility bills. 

And yet, nobody — not the city council members who opposed the 2% tax or those who supported the referendum efforts — has pointed out that the utility tax will have a much bigger impact on industrial customers than it will on the average Camas homeowner or low-income senior on a fixed income.

The “Fix Camas” website also noted “the City of Camas currently has cash and cash equivalent assets of over $1,000,000” and said they “anticipate this to stay at healthy levels as the City will also benefit from increased cash flows as the city continues to grow.” The website lists a slide (Slide 21) in a third quarter 2022 financial outlook presentation to back this assertion. In fact, what that presentation noted was that the city’s finance director anticipates “a pull back on building permits with higher mortgage rates” and notes that, “locally, revenues are slowing.” It seems that the “Fix Camas” website is referring to the city’s cash and cash equivalent assets, which is not at all the same as revenues the city can spend on whatever it wishes. In fact, as the finance director pointed out during this third quarter 2022 overview, the city’s revenues have slowed. “There’s no doubt about it,” Cathy Huber Nickerson, the finance director, told the Council during this November 2022 presentation. “That’s another reason why we look for (revenue) diversification.” Councilman Don Chaney even asked Huber Nickerson what the city was facing in 2023-24 if housing and other development permits didn’t rise to the previously anticipated levels, and the finance director told him the city was facing a revenue shortfall of $300,000 to $400,000. 

We could go on, but the point is that much of the information presented to Camas voters on the “Fix Camas” website — and, we’re guessing, in the group’s in-person pitches — is misleading, leaving out critical facts and context that would have allowed Camas voters to truly understand the complexity of the city’s financial situation and the need for the city to diversify its limited revenue streams. 

We cannot help but wonder: How many of the 3,160 people who signed the referendum petition would have changed their minds had they fully understood the utility tax’s true cost to Camas residents versus Camas’ industrial utility users? How many would have signed if they realized the “$1 million in cash” figure isn’t an accurate way to interpret the city’s financial health? Or that the city’s general fund balance must remain around 17% but that previous city council members have set an actual goal of 22% for the fund balance? How many would have signed if they knew all of the facts about their city’s looming structural deficit? Or that, as the city’s new administrator pointed out this week, city officials could repeal the tax, but would have to find $1 million in cuts to the 2023-24 budget? 

The problem with a referendum effort based on half truths and deflections is that we will never know.