Camas Council decision leads to uncertainty

Officials’ 4-3 vote halting sports field contract prompts worries about other projects in 2023-24 budget, including library’s ‘Children’s Learning Hive’

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As Camas City Council members begin to reevaluate the City’s 2024 budget in light of unanticipated declines to the City’s property and sales tax revenues, the fates of 22 staff positions and several projects already approved and funded during the Council’s 2023-24 budget process are up in the air.

Camas Finance Director Cathy Huber Nickerson told Council members during an Oct. 2 Council workshop that the City was anticipating a decrease in revenues thanks to a slowdown in housing sales and new home construction.

“The numbers we’ll have for next year’s property taxes, which capture August 2022 to August 2023, is much lower than it has been in many years,” Huber Nickerson said Oct. 2. “The budget is tighter than we would have seen when we were starting to formulate (the 2023-24 biennial) budget, (so) we went back and worked with the mayor to come up with another option and tweak the budget.”

Camas Mayor Steve Hogan’s proposed 2024 budget would hold off on hiring 22 staff positions included in the 2023-24 budget the Council adopted in December 2022, including: two police officers, two police sergeants, eight firefighter/paramedics, an engineering manager, a parks and recreation project manager, a recreation specialist, a volunteer coordinator, an IT support specialist, a records specialist, a part-time library associate and three street maintenance workers.

“These are not just light cuts,” Mayor Hogan told the Council during the Oct. 2 workshop. “These were pretty important adds we agreed on when we put together the budget.”

Council members are set to discuss the mayor’s revamped 2024 budget over the next two months, but some Council members have already signaled they may want to see cuts coming from other places.

On Oct. 16, four Council members — Don Chaney, Tim Hein, Leslie Lewallen and Jennifer Senescu — voted against a $124,000 Parks and Recreation Department contract that would have paid for an assessment of the City’s aging sports fields and developed a plan for how the City might, according to Parks and Recreation Director Trang Lam’s presentation to the Council, “efficiently and cost-effectively maintain and enhance its existing fields” while also providing a plan for meeting the city’s growing demand for sports fields.

Before voting against the sports field assessment contract, which would have used an outside consultant as the City’s parks department does not have, as Councilman Chaney pointed out during the Council’s Oct. 2 workshop, “adequate staff (with the) skillset” necessary to conduct a citywide sports field assessment in–house, Senescu referenced the mayor’s proposed 2024 budget cuts.

“When I saw the (mayor’s proposed 2024 budget) didn’t include anything for police sergeants, firefighters, police officers, I couldn’t think consultation for sports fields at this time is a good use of our resources,” Senescu said during the Council’s Oct. 16 meeting, adding that she had also planned to make the same argument for a library contract expected to come before the Council next month. “I would love to see them happen at a later time. But right now it comes down to (police) sergeants or consultation on sports fields.”

Unintended consequences

Last week, after Lam discussed the Council’s 4-3 vote against the sports field assessment project, a few Camas Parks and Recreation Commission members noted there could be unintended consequences stemming from the Council’s decision.

The Parks Commission’s chairperson, Ellen Burton, pointed out that the City would need to move forward with the sports field assessment if it hoped to submit a sports field-related grant application during the state’s 2024 round of Recreation and Conservation Office (RCO) grants.

“Investing that $124,000 and assessing the state of our fields, which serve thousands of kids and adults, could potentially bring in $1.5 million in grants. That’s a huge opportunity, and there are time constraints.”

Burton pointed out that the state has given priority to grant-funding projects related to maintaining and improving existing sports fields, and said she hoped the Council would reconsider approving the sports field assessment contract.

“The state has a priority for sports fields right now,” Burton said. “I certainly hope that, as we get through the budget process and Council has a better idea of where we are, (they will reconsider) the request for professional services assessment of our sports fields so we can then be in the running for $1.5 million in state grants.”

Another Parks and Recreation Commission member, Jason Irving, has been coaching Little League teams in Camas for four years, and knows the state of Camas’ sports fields intimately.

“The field conditions and ADA accessibility have been big problems and have impacted families in Camas,” Irving told The Post-Record this week, adding that he also hopes the Council will reconsider the sports field assessment contract in light of not just grant-funding opportunities available in 2024 through the state, but also to help strengthen the City’s partnership with the local Little League community.

When local Little League leaders became aware that the City was planning to conduct a citywide sports field assessment and go out for sports field-related state grant funding, Irving said, they went to their board members and asked them to support the City’s efforts.

“The president of the (local) Little League did an excellent job rallying his troops and finding more capacity to be partners to the City,” Irving said. “That window of energy and expertise is a limited window. If we don’t leverage it now, it will be so much harder to get anything done in our sports fields in Camas.”

Irving added that improving the fields could also have a positive impact on the local economy.

“If we can improve our fields or expand capacity, we could attract (sports events and competitions) to Camas, and that would have a direct impact on our retailers,” Irving said.

He added that Lam, the director of the City’s parks department, understands how the state grant-funding process works and what it will take to complete parks projects community members have said are most important to them.

“She is highly qualified, and we have to trust her to make these plans and put these plans in place,” Irving said of Lam.

Council expected to discuss library contract, Children’s Learning Hive at Nov. 7 meeting

Given the Council’s unexpected vote against the sports field assessment contract, other projects included in the 2023-24 budget OK’d by the Council in December 2022, may also be at risk.

Camas Library Director Connie Urquhart said this week that she is prepared for the Council to pull a $479,000 library contract from its “consent agenda” and discuss the contract in greater detail during the Council’s next meeting on Monday, Nov. 6.

There is a chance the Council could vote to dramatically alter the contract, which would fund project management services with Seattle-based Johnston Architects.

The first phase of the project concentrates on the library’s exterior and focuses on safety and accessibility issues, including improving entrances at Fourth and Fifth avenues, repairing window and door casings, replacing monument signs and mitigating potential water damage.

The second phase of the project is focused on the interior of the library, specifically on the creation of a Children’s Learning Hive — a project that received the highest support from community members during the City’s outreach in 2022 about how it should spend federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds.

Nearly three-fourths of the contract is funded by grants, donations and ARPA funds, including a $730,000 state Department of Commerce grant that will pay for the exterior work and first phase of the contract going before the Council next week; $610,000 from ARPA funds, which community members said they wanted to see go toward improving the library’s children’s area; and two $10,000 grants also earmarked for the Children’s Learning Hive.

One-fourth of the contract, $490,000 for flooring, lighting and furniture, would come from the general fund and is included in the library’s 2023-24 budget.

Urquhart has explained that the City will save money bundling the two projects together under one project management contract.

“It really does save money to use one firm to do both,” Urquhart told The Post-Record this week. “We don’t have someone here who has the expertise to manage this project.”

At least one Council member, Senescu, has already noted that she doesn’t see a reason why the City would contract out to buy furniture and flooring for the library, but Urquhart said the City doesn’t have the same resources a project management company like Johnston Architects, which works with public libraries throughout the Pacific Northwest, would have.

“If we were to do it on our own, we don’t have the relationships with subcontractors to get some of the discounts (Johnston) would be able to get,” Urquhart explained.

Urquhart said the City has to move forward with the first phase of the project – the exterior work funded by the state grant — but would also like to move ahead with the Children’s Learning Hive, a project Urquhart noted has “a history of support” from the community.

“We started fundraising for the Children’s Learning Hive pre-COVID,” Urquhart said, “and raised about $20,000.”

After COVID hit and the City received more than $6 million in federal COVID-relief funds, city officials went to the community and asked Camas residents to rank several projects in the running to receive some of those federal ARPA dollars.

“One of the top vote-getters was upgrades to the children’s library, which was consistent with our own community surveys at the library,” Urquhart said. “Community members have been very vocal about this. There is no place to take kids on inclement weather days, nowhere that is free to hang out with their kids indoors. They have to go to Vancouver or Portland.”

The Children’s Learning Hive would provide not only a free, usable indoor space for families with young children, but would also help the library better meet the needs of its users.

“We serve children from birth to age 12 in the children’s library,” Urquhart said. “And we have to think about all the different ways children learn — all of the different stages they go through. … We also have so many kids with different learning abilities, and these architects (with Johnston) understand that and are trained for that.”

Urquhart said the Camas library has already outgrown its children’s storytime space and had to move storytimes to the library’s upstairs meeting rooms.

“The capacity for the storytime room is 75, which we often exceeded. We now host storytimes in the community rooms upstairs, which have a maximum capacity of 106,” Urquhart said, adding that Johnston Architects would be able to help the library transform the current children’s area into a true “learning hive” that accommodates children’s learning from birth through elementary school ages.

In her presentation to the Council in early October, Urquhart detailed plans for the future Children’s Learning Hive: “The hallway connecting the old storytime room and another room is dark, serves little purpose, and contains untapped potential. Johnston Architects will turn this dark cavern into a light hallway of discovery, where children can learn interactively. This area will be aimed at early elementary school students,” she noted. “At the end of the hallway is a rarely used room with beautiful but uncomfortable furniture. It’s the original children’s room furniture from 1940! This space will be transformed into a STEM lab and homework center for older elementary students, with furniture functional for the activity, audience and allocated space.”

Urquhart told The Post-Record this week that she feels “it’s a disservice to patrons if we don’t make some changes to the children’s library.”

“We’ve had so many inquiries about the old storytime room. It’s been empty for years now,” Urquhart said. “We can’t continue to let it sit empty.”

To detail how big an issue children’s learning is in Camas, Urquhart noted that 60% of items checked out from the library are for children, but only 16% of the library’s space actually focuses on children.

“It shows you why this is so important,” Urquhart said of the creation of the Children’s Learning Hive. “We have to maximize that space and use every single inch in the best way possible.”

Urquhart added that she has used consultants very sparingly in her seven years as the library’s director.

“We just don’t use consultants,” she said. “I don’t think we’ve used any since I’ve been here. We have done two strategic plans without consultants, and I used my own staff to do community outreach. We take our role as stewards of taxpayer dollars very seriously. Whenever we can do the work ourselves, we do. This is a moment that is beyond our expertise, and we would be doing the taxpayers a disservice if we were to try to do this work ourselves.”

Though she is hopeful Camas officials will see the importance of using a consultant group to manage both the exterior and interior work at the library, Urquhart also said she is prepared for bad news.

“We’re going to see what happens on Nov. 6, and then we’ll regroup,” Urquhart said, adding that the City needs to move forward with the state grant-funded exterior portion of the contract regardless, but that she is hopeful the Council will also include the Children’s Learning Hive in the contract, as separating the two would likely mean the City will need to re-bid the project.

“Most likely (if the children’s library were removed from the contract), Johnston would not be interested,” Urquhart said. “They work with public libraries and specifically do interiors and love working with children’s areas.”

If the City needed to re-bid project management for the library’s exterior work, they may run into time constraints, Urquhart added, noting that the Department of Commerce grant money must be spent by the end of 2025.

“It seems like we have so much time, but if we had to delay … construction itself is just a wildcard. And, if we re-bid, prices could be higher,” Urquhart noted.

The Camas City Council will meet at 7 p.m. Monday, Nov. 6, at Camas City Hall. The meeting also will be livestreamed and available via Zoom. For more information, visit