Sports Fields Strike Out: Camas Council splits vote 4-3, knocks down field contract

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Dante Humble scores the first run for the Camas 11- to 12-year-old all-star team in the district championship game at Forest Home Park in Camas in July 2014. (Post-Record files)

In an unexpected move this week, a majority of Camas City Council members pulled the plug on a contract for a citywide sports field plan that would have, according to Camas Parks and Recreation Director Trang Lam, given the City a management tool to “efficiently and cost-effectively maintain and enhance its existing fields,” while also providing a plan to meet the city’s growing demand for sports fields.

Lam reminded the Council during an Oct. 2 workshop that improving the city’s network of sports fields was one of the key takeaways from the extensive Parks, Recreation and Open Space (PROS) Plan the Council approved in March 2022.

“Virtually all respondents to the PROS Plan community survey, which received nearly 1,400 responses, felt that local parks and recreation opportunities are important, or essential, to the quality of life in Camas,” Lam told Council members in her Oct. 2 staff report. “Three core priorities also emerged from community feedback: maintain what we have, fill gaps and improve trail connections, and develop and improve existing parks.”

The PROS Plan’s final chapter details three key project recommendations for achieving the community’s goals for Camas’ parks, recreational opportunities and open spaces — including the creation of a citywide assessment of Camas’ sports fields “to plan for drainage improvements and other field improvements, including turfing existing fields, installing lights to expand play seasons and the development of additional fields to accommodate demand.”

On Oct. 2, Lam came before the Council during its first October workshop to explain a $124,880 contract with Mackay Sposito to create that citywide sports field plan. Funding for the plan was included in the 2023-24 Camas Parks and Recreation budget the Council approved in December 2022.

“This will help us figure out our (sports field) priorities and projects we should work on,” Lam said, adding that the consultant would complete the sports field plan by May 2024, in time for the next round of grant funding through the Washington State Recreation and Conservation Office.

Lam, who was instrumental in securing $2.25 million in RCO grant funding for three Camas parks and recreation projects earlier this year, told the Council Oct. 2, that the sports field plan would help determine the City’s next round of RCO grant applications.

“I will only bring forward grant-funding applications that I feel we have a good chance of getting awarded,” Lam said. “(I would use) this process to help figure that out. Grants with partnerships and support from the community are so much better.”

Lam said Oct. 2, that the sports field plan would help City officials and Camas Parks leaders better understand the needs of the city’s nine existing sports fields and assess deficiencies to better maintain Camas’ sports fields.

Asked by Councilman Tim Hein on Oct. 2, how the plan might help her as a department head, Lam said the plan would help her make “sound decisions” when it comes to the city’s sports fields.

“I’m a systems thinker,” Lam said. “I inherited this great parks system, and I want to put some plans in place so we can make some sound decisions … we are creating data sets to better manage our (parks) system.”

A few Council members questioned the need for the plan during the Oct. 2 workshop, with Councilwoman Jennifer Senescu saying she recognizes “people want the maintenance,” but asking, “If we’re adding new sports fields, why not look at a pool instead of a sports field?”

“Where do we put our efforts and is this where our efforts should be?” asked Senescu, who was appointed to the Council in February 2023 — more than a year after the Council heard the results of an online open house on the draft PROS Plan, which showed that the two most common requests during that January 2022 open house were for a bike park/pump track and new sports fields.

Councilman Don Chaney asked Lam on Oct. 2, if she was proposing a consultant contract for the sports field plan “because, I assume, you don’t have adequate staff or skillset to do this in-house?”

“Yes,” Lam responded, adding that the consultant would also be able to “focus on synthetic fields to better understand what that would take and cost.”

Councilwoman Bonnie Carter said Oct. 2, that as a school district employee she knows there is “a high demand for practice fields and courts” in Camas.

“I’m happy to see this and to see a plan for maintenance,” Carter said, adding that she was glad to know the sports field plan planning would also help the City better capitalize on “grants and partnerships that come along.”

Council splits vote; opponents cite revenue shortfall

Although the sports field plan contact was initially included in the Council’s Oct. 16 consent agenda, Councilmembers asked that the item be removed and added to the regular meeting agenda so they could have more discussion about the contract.

A few of the Council members who opposed the sports field plan contract cited the City’s recent revenue shortfall, which has forced Camas Mayor Steve Hogan to propose pausing the hiring of 22 new staff positions, including eight firefighters, two police officers, two police sergeants, a parks project manager and three street maintenance positions initially included in the city’s 2023-24 budget.

The City’s finance director, Cathy Huber Nickerson, explained this month that a housing market slowdown has impacted Camas, which relies heavily on property and sales taxes to pay for fire, police, parks and streets services.

In the fall of 2022, when Hogan introduced his original 2023-24 budget plans, the mayor included a revenue package that included a 1% property tax levy increase — the maximum increase allowed under Washington state law — as well as the use of nearly $7 million in federal COVID-recovery funds from the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, and a new 3% tax on the city’s water, garbage, sewer and stormwater utilities.

City staff, including Huber Nickerson, warned city officials in 2022, that, without increasing and diversifying its revenues, the city faces a structural deficit — when its baseline expenditures are greater than its revenues — within the next few years.

Despite those warnings, four Council members — Don Chaney, Tim Hein, Leslie Lewallen and John Nohr — voted against the 1% property tax levy increase, which would have collected an additional $143,097 in 2023 for the city’s general fund, and cost the owner of a $624,000 house an additional $1.17 a month.

Three Council members — Chaney, Hein and Lewallen — also voted against a new, 2% tax on the city’s water, stormwater, sewer and solid waste utilities, which is expected to bring in $1 million in revenues during the 2023-24 biennium while costing average Camas family around $3.50 a month.

“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 Monday, 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.”

Lam said that, unlike the ongoing staffing costs that have been pulled from the mayor’s proposed 2024 budget, the sports field contract was a “one-time dollar amount” that would help Camas evaluate fees that could offset the city’s parks maintenance costs.

“We are in dire need of managing our assets,” Lam said Monday. “The sports fields we do have are aging and we get a lot of complaints from our users. We have not done an evaluation of this, and have not done an evaluation of fees at all. We could use some of those fees to help maintain (the city’s) parks moving forward.”

“I hear what you’re saying,” Lam added, “But we have a lot of needs, and it’s up to the Council to prioritize them.”

Camas currently spends more than seven times more money on public safety than it does on parks and recreation. The city’s $124 million 2023 budget dedicates $25.69 million (21% of the city’s expenditures) for public safety, including $17.5 million for firefighting and emergency medical services and $7.83 million for law enforcement. In contrast, the city’s 2023 budget allocates $6.11 million for “culture and recreation,” including $3.46 million for parks and recreation, of which 50% ($1.74 million) is spent on parks maintenance.

Lam said Camas is one of the few parks systems in Clark County that does not charge fees for its sports fields.

“We (have) the only facilities that are first-come, first-served and that are free,” Lam said Monday, adding that the proposed sports field plan also would reach out to neighboring sports field operators, including the Camas and Washougal school districts and the city of Washougal, to “see who’s using what and what (they) are charging.”

“We want to make it equitable for folks using these fields,” Lam said. “It would save us time in managing the fields and figuring out which fields (need to be) improved. We also want to align our fees. People are using our fields for free and then are unhappy coming to the school district and having to pay for (those fields).”

Chaney said he knew the city “needs to do the study,” but said he also believed it could wait.

“I’m not sure the timing is right,” Chaney said Monday.

Hein agreed, saying he supported Senescu’s comments.

“I understand the importance of it,” Hein said of the sports field plan. “My concern is the timing of it. … Even if we can just buy a few months until we see what the budget looks like. It’s not the project that concerns me; it’s the timing.”

Other Council members supported approval of the sports field plan contract.

“I know some of our fields are in poor condition … and it’s time for us to take a look at them and start moving forward,” Councilman John Nohr, who was appointed to the Council in October 2022, said Monday.

Nohr added that he’d heard other Council members advocate for pulling a $124,000 plan off the table, while talking about building a pool for under $2 million, “which can’t be done,” and said he knew many Camas families who would be interested in the sports field topic are not able to attend Council meetings to voice their opinions.

“We have a lot of families who can’t show up to these things to make comments because they have kids at home,” Nohr said. “We do need an assessment so we can make (our sports fields) usable for our kids and community and everyone who enjoys them.”

In the end, when a roll-call vote was taken, the Council shot down the sports field plan contract 4-3, with Council members Marilyn Boerke, Carter and Nohr voting to approve the sports field plan contract and Council members Chaney, Hein, Lewallen and Senescu voting against it.