Camas utility tax in limbo

Skamania County Superior Court ruling means voters may have final say on two-year, 2% tax

Camas voters may have a say in whether or not the city can collect a new utility tax, after all.

On March 2, a Skamania County Superior Court judge ruled that the referendum process, which would ultimately allow voters to determine the fate of the city’s newly adopted, two-year, 2% utility tax, must go on.

At issue were 305 pages of petitions to send the utility tax issue to the voters. A group known as “Fix Camas” had 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 with the creation of a regional fire authority or by Dec. 31, 2024, whichever comes first.

The utility tax was expected to add an additional $1,051,119 to the city’s general fund over the 2023-24 biennium. According to a presentation shown to the Camas City Council by Camas Finance Director Cathy Huber Nickerson on Oct. 17, 2022, the new tax would cost the average Camas family about $3.56 more each month; while the average downtown Camas business would pay an additional $22.25 a month; and the average industrial user an extra $1,909 a month.

Shortly after the Council’s vote on the new, 2%, two-year utility tax, a group known as Fix Camas initiated a referendum effort that would place the utility tax issue before Camas voters and possibly reverse the Council’s decision.

The group needed to collect more than 3,000 signatures and turn in its petitions to the Camas city clerk by 5 p.m. Jan. 9.

According to court documents, “at approximately 4:40 p.m. on (Jan. 9), the city clerk was provided with what was determined to be 305 pages of petitions” collected by the Fix Camas group. “The final determination of the city clerk was that the petitions should be rejected (because) none of the petitions included the ordinances, which had been attached by (the Fix Camas petitioners) in their submittal to the clerk … nor did any of the petitions include in the alternative a reproduction of the ordinance on the reverse side of the petitions.”

Camas resident Brian Wiklem, a member of the Fix Camas group that circulated the petitions, filed a civil complaint against the city of Camas and Clark County following the city clerk’s decision that the petitions, which contained more than 3,000 signatures, should be rejected, arguing in court documents through his attorney 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.”

Skamania County Superior Court Judge Randall Krog said last week that the referendum process, including the verification of the more than 3,000 signatures on the 305 petitions, should continue.

Camas Director of Communications Bryan Rachal said the signature pages were turned in to the Clark County Auditor’s office Monday, March 6.

“The court made their decision, and we respect that,” Rachal said. “As such, we will move forward with that process.”

Mayor pauses hiring new staffers; Council may revisit utility tax

Given the uncertain future of the utility tax — which was expected to bring in revenues of $511,000 in 2023, and $540,000 in 2024 — Rachal said the city has “put a pause on implementing the utility taxes” and that Mayor Steve Hogan has “placed a hold” on hiring new staff positions included in the 2023-24 budget, including positions approved for the city’s police, fire, emergency medical services, parks and recreation, library, street maintenance and park maintenance divisions.

The Camas City Council has already voted to revisit the utility tax issue. On Jan. 17, the Council voted to take another look at the tax after the Council appointed someone to fill the Ward 3 seat left vacant in December 2022, after longtime Councilman Greg Anderson tendered his resignation one year before the end of his four-year term.

On Feb. 17, the Council appointed Camas-Washougal Chamber of Commerce Director Jennifer Senescu as Anderson’s replacement.

Senescu’s appointment on the Council could shift the debate on the utility tax since Anderson was one of the four Council members who voted for the new tax in November 2022, and Senescu is one of the people who signed declarations submitted to the Skamania County Superior Court ahead of the March 2 hearing, attesting that they had gathered signatures for the petition to send the utility tax to the voters. Councilwoman Leslie Lewallen’s husband, Brian Lewallen, also signed a declaration attesting that he was one of the people who had gathered signatures for the referendum petition.

Rachal said this week that, without the utility tax, the city would be facing reductions to its 2023-24 budget.

“Staff is considering options for the potential loss of $1,051,000 over the biennium for general services,” Rachal said Tuesday, adding that, with the loss of the utility tax, the city would not be able to pay for all of the items Council deemed priorities and approved during its 2023-24 budget process.

“There will need to be a budget reduction of ongoing expenses,” he said.