Battle Ground passes tight budget

City wields layoffs, a tax hike, delay of some street repairs to plan 2013-14

By Tyler Graf, Columbian county government reporter

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BATTLE GROUND -- Before approving the city's 2013-14 biennial budget Monday, with its 1 percent property tax increase, the Battle Ground City Council voted to scrape together every last penny it could to pay for transportation projects.

It was the latest sign that finances are tight for Clark County's second-largest city.

The council voted unanimously to use an extra $30,000 from its economic development fund on street striping, minimal lighting repairs and sidewalk improvements. Still, it's "not nearly enough" to pay for the city's street-repair projects, said City Manager John Williams.

Overall, the $46.9 million budget represents a financial contraction for Battle Ground.

The city will lay off three employees and raise its property taxes to mend the budget gap.

With those measures set to take effect at the beginning of the year, the budget received a split vote from councilors.

They voted 5-2 to pass the budget, with councilors Alex Reinhold and Philip Johnson voting against it.

Reinhold said he felt rushed in reviewing the budget in its entirety and voted against it because he didn't want to give a nod of approval to something he didn't thoroughly understand.

Johnson said he opposed increasing property taxes.

Battle Ground's current property tax rate is $1.97 per $1,000 of assessed home value. The city estimates the tax rate will increase to $2.06 per $1,000 of assessed home value at the beginning of the year, resulting in a $412 bill for homes valued at $200,000.

Councilors passed the budget at a time when the city's financial outlook has been complicated by decreasing property tax revenue. Those decreases have been further compounded by reductions in state revenue-sharing dollars.

City Councilor Adrian Cortes called the budget "not perfect," but also necessary.

"I think after many, many years of cutting the fat, cutting the muscle, we're down to the bone," Cortes said.

As a result of the layoffs, the city will lose two positions from its engineering department and a clerk from the police department.

Paying for transportation projects had been a sticking point for Councilor Bill Ganley, a long-time advocate of road projects.

A former city planning commissioner, Ganley also sits on the C-Tran Board of Directors and the Regional Transportation Council.

He called the budget "one of the toughest" he'd seen in his five terms on the council.

He had previously voiced concerns about the proposed budget's lack of transportation priorities and pushed for money to be shifted to pay for them.

"This will be an important time to know what programs are necessary," Ganley said, "and the city will have to be flexible."

Mayor Lisa Walters said Battle Ground will likely hold a series of town hall meetings in 2013 to address the city's budgetary shortfalls.

She's concerned already-dwindling state-shared revenue will continue to decrease. Cities throughout Washington have seen drop-offs in motor vehicle excise taxes, liquor taxes and state grants.

"We're going to have to find money for the next five years," Walters said, adding that state legislators hadn't made generating new revenue a priority. "I don't want to say they're proactive as much as they're reactive."

Tyler Graf: 360-735-4517; http://twitter.com/col_smallcities; tyler.graf@columbian.com.