County budget includes events center bailout, no new taxes

$300,000 moved from general fund to cover operating expenses

By Stephanie Rice, Columbian Vancouver city government reporter

Published:

Updated: December 7, 2011, 8:06 PM

 

In approving an updated budget Tuesday evening, the Board of Clark County Commissioners agreed not to raise taxes.

By law, commissioners could have increased the countywide general property tax levy by 1 percent and the road fund levy (assessed only on residents in unincorporated areas) by 1 percent; increases would have netted an additional $550,000 for the general fund and $352,000 for the road fund.

Commissioners Marc Boldt, Tom Mielke and Steve Stuart also agreed to effectively freeze their pay for 2012.

They are scheduled to receive a $2,000 raise, which will bring their salaries up to $102,224, but each commissioner said he will donate $2,000 to a nonprofit organization.

Commissioners expressed concerns about the fallout from pending state budget cuts, particularly for social services.

“If we hold the line on public spending, and the needs continue to increase, the community is going to have to step up and help our neighbors even more,” Boldt said.

On Wednesday morning, commissioners spent an hour discussing one of the most disappointing aspects of the budget.

For the first time, commissioners had to move $300,000 from the county’s general fund to the fair fund to cover operating expenses for the Clark County Event Center at the Fairgrounds.

While the annual Clark County Fair makes a profit, it’s not enough to sustain the fair fund, which covers expenses at the events center and horse arena.

Clark County Fair Manager John Morrison said Wednesday that the 10-day fair typically turns a profit of approximately $300,000. That’s usually enough to sustain the events center. But a drop in shows at the events center attributed to the lousy economy — a decision by Poulsbo RV to cancel the Northwest RV Show, for example, meant a loss of $120,000 — resulted in a deficit that could only be filled by the general fund.

Overall, general fund revenues and expenses are tracking closely with the budget commissioners adopted a year ago. Only the fair fund and some expenses for public health needed assists from the general fund.

The biggest change to the budget that was approved Tuesday? Real estate excise taxes, which are charged on property sales, will be redirected from the county road fund to pay off debt on county buildings.

Commissioners have agreed that honoring existing debt is their top capital funding priority, followed by preserving assets (facilities, roads, parks) and acquiring additional assets.

In 2012, $5.4 million in real estate excise tax revenue will go toward paying off debt on five county buildings and energy-efficiency investments in county buildings.

The debt payments are for the Center for Community Health, the Public Service Center, the Clark County Jail Work Center, the juvenile detention center and the Clark County Sheriff’s Office West Precinct.

Originally, real estate taxes were projected to pay for new capital investments such as roads and parks.

While the events center needed the $300,000 to cover operating expenses, the county does not need real estate excise tax revenue to pay off debt on the events center. Debt on the center gets paid out of rent collected from owners of the Sleep Country Amphitheater, said Mark McCauley, the county’s director of general services. Even though the commissioners agreed in 2008 to reduce rent from $600,000 to $300,000 a year to help the amphitheater survive, there’s enough to cover events center debt payments.

Commissioners asked Mc-Cauley about what’s being done to increase revenue at the events center. He said three new events this year all turned a profit, including a holiday gift bazaar and a statewide horse show.

The events center staff has been doing a great job at trying to fill the calendar, he said.

He reminded commissioners that the events center can only be booked seven months of the year because the owners of Sleep County Amphitheater have the booking rights May through September. Even though the amphitheater only put on seven shows this year (not including five concerts booked by the county as part of the 10-day fair), the events center can’t book during those five months.

Events cannot be at the amphitheater and the events center simultaneously because of parking constraints at the site and traffic.

In addition to trying to book more events, McCauley said the county will look at trying to reduce expenses by contracting out support services.

Commissioner Steve Stuart asked McCauley if he thought the $300,000 would be a one-time bail out.

“Certainly, that will be our goal,” McCauley said.

By law, the county has to have a balanced budget.

Last December, commissioners adopted a two-year total budget of $887.5 million.

Of that total budget, the general fund, projected at $280 million for the following two years, has been cut by $62 million since the 2007-08 budget.

Approximately 70 percent of the total budget comes from federal and state sources and from fees and penalties tied to specific services; commissioners have some flexibility with the general fund.

About two-thirds of the general fund goes for public safety, including the sheriff’s office and county jail.

Stephanie Rice: http://www.facebook.com/reporterrice; http://twitter.com/col_clarkgov; stephanie.rice@columbian.com.