More than one way to create safe, healthy city

Over the next few weeks, elected Camas city officials will tackle the issue of what to do in the face of an unexpected — but not altogether unimagined — revenue shortfall

It is likely that at least a few of these officials will argue that funds already dedicated to non-public safety services should be put on hold, especially given what transpired during this week’s Camas City Council meeting, when the Council split its vote 4-3 against a parks contract that would have assessed the city’s sports fields and come up with a path toward not only improving the fields’ conditions and maintaining the city’s parks investments, but also could have placed the city of Camas in a better position to obtain hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars in state recreation grants during next year’s grant-funding cycle. 

Despite the fact that assessing Camas’ sports fields was one of three top priority projects included in the Parks, Recreation and Open Spaces (PROS) Plan the Camas Council approved two years prior, and the fact that the money for this type of assessment was included in the 2023-24 budget the Council OK’d a little over 10 months ago, Council members Don Chaney, Tim Hein, Leslie Lewallen and Jennifer Senescu said they wouldn’t approve the contract due to the revenue shortfall the city will likely experience in 2024. 

That shortfall, which the city’s finance director attributed to a housing market slowdown and an unanticipated drop in the city’s property and sales tax revenues, has prompted Camas Mayor Steve Hogan to propose a revamped 2024 budget that removes 22 new staff positions: 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. 

The staffing cuts impact a variety of city services, but, on Monday night, for the four councilors who knocked down the sports fields plan, the emphasis was mostly on losses to the city’s public safety departments. It should be noted, that these same councilors (with the exception of Senescu who was appointed after the 2023-24 budget process) voted against taking the city’s 1% property tax levy increase allowed under state law, which would have cost the average Camas homeowner a little more than $1 a month. The city’s finance director has said the loss of compounding interest from that property tax levy increase could be as much as $800,000 over the next decade. Those same council members (Chaney, Hein and Lewallen) also voted against implementing a new 2% utility tax on the city’s water, sewer, stormwater and garbage utilities, which will add around $1 million to the city’s general fund during the 2023-24 biennium while costing the average utility ratepayer less than $4 a month.  

The councilors who voted “no” to the sports field contract Monday night made it clear they didn’t want to put the city’s recreational and parks needs over public safety. The fact is that the city already shows through its annual budget process that officials are prioritizing police, fire and emergency medical services: public safety departments currently receive more than seven times the amount of funding when compared to the city’s parks and recreation department ($25.69 million for law enforcement, fire and EMS services versus $3.46 million for parks and recreation services, including $1.74 million for parks maintenance).

So why do members of the Council feel the need to keep cutting from a parks department that is already dwarfed, in terms of funding and staffing levels, by the city’s public safety departments? 

Another question worth asking is this: When we talk about “safety” in our community, why do we usually concentrate only on police and fire/EMS services? There are so many ways public officials can contribute to the creation of a safer, healthier community, including creating and maintaining public green spaces and low-cost, inclusive recreational opportunities for all ages and abilities.

In fact, research shows that having more green space in a community is associated with lower risk of property crime and other non-violent offenses — the very types of crime that are much more common in a town like Camas, which was this year named one of the 20 safest suburbs in the nation? 

Other studies, including one published by the University of Virginia in 2020, have found that having more “properly designed and maintained outdoor green spaces has the potential to reduce violent crime and gun violence, to make communities safer and  keep residents healthier.” 

And then there is the research showing that having plenty of access to public parks and green spaces —  including natural sports fields — can not only help boost our mental, physical and emotional health, but also can “play a crucial role in regulating heat waves, floods and carbon sequestration, creating stronger, healthier towns that can stave off, or at least better prepare for, the life-threatening impacts of climate change.

Promoting “public safety” in Camas doesn’t have to mean “more police” or “more firefighter-paramedics,” even though obviously both play a critical role when crimes, accidents, fires or medical emergencies occur. But there are so many other ways our community leaders can invest in preventative methods that will make us all safer and healthier. 

As the research shows, keeping people safe and healthy can also mean “build and maintain more public green spaces.” 

It could mean “more social safety nets,” since other research shows that “public assistance programs such as cash payments and housing aid can help reduce criminal activity.” 

It could even mean “more transportation investments,” because there are plenty of studies showing transportation planning elements such as roundabouts and traffic-calming devices make a community safer for drivers, bicyclists and pedestrians. 

This is not to say Camas leaders shouldn’t take the staffing issues at the city’s police or fire departments less seriously. We hope they can find a way to shore up the revenue shortfall using the tools such as property, sales and utility taxes Washington jurisdictions — which are unable to collect a more-equitable income tax available in 43 other states — use to fund, maintain and grow critical city services.

But taking care of public safety departments should not be the sole focus of city officials as they contend with the most recent revenue challenges, and we urge all Camas officials to see that there is more than one way to build a safe, healthy community that will protect Camasonians well into the future.