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May 7, 2021

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Clark County approves 1 percent levy increase

Public health to benefit from hike

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Clark County commissioners on Wednesday voted unanimously to increase the general fund property tax levy by 1 percent, with the stipulation the new revenue be used only for public health services.

Commissioners decided against raising the road fund levy by 1 percent.

The commissioners approved a two-year total budget of $887.5 million.

With the levy increase, the owner of a $200,000 home will pay an additional $2.84 next year to the county’s general fund.

Approximately $540,000 will be raised annually to help fund the health department’s two-year budget of $24.9 million.

Unlike 80 percent of the total budget, which by law must go for specific services, commissioners have some flexibility with the general fund.

About two-thirds of the general fund goes for public safety.

John Wiesman, director of Clark County Public Health, entered into the budget process down $4 million due to state and federal cuts.

He cut more than $2 million from his budget, then made the case for the county to step up and backfill some of the cuts because, he argued, public health should be considered a public safety service along with law enforcement.

In four years, Wiesman has cut his budget by $11 million and cut 74 staff positions. He has shifted some services to nonprofit agencies.

Commissioner Steve Stuart asked Wiesman why more services couldn’t be shifted.

“Because there’s no money to go with them,” Wiesman said, referring to state cuts. “Nonprofits also cannot provide services without funding. They have to pay staff, too.”

During three public hearings this week, commissioners heard from public health supporters who convinced them the budget has already been cut to the bone. They also heard from people who said employee benefits are too generous.

The county, which employs 1,640 people, spent $26 million on insurance premiums this year, with no contributions from employees.

Francine Reis, the county’s human resources director, said the county’s health care costs have increased 4.5 percent over three years. That’s during a time when people have seen costs increase by as much as 15 percent.

She credited the county’s health care committee, made of managers and nonmanagers, for keeping costs down. Most recently, the committee voted to have employees pay higher service costs rather than start taking payroll deductions.

“I think there’s a general recognition that we are on the verge of needing to do both,” Reis said.

The budget calls for employees to pay an additional $5.8 million for health care in the next biennium, said County Administrator Bill Barron.

“How this is accomplished will depend on the outcome of ongoing contract negotiations,” Barron said.

People who testified about county benefits made it clear they feel changes should have already been made.

Vancouver resident Lynn Costello testified Tuesday that a job with the county should not be a cash cow and county employees should pay a percentage of their premiums, a standard practice in the private sector.

“I believe public servants should have comparable salaries and benefits,” Costello said.

This year, 1,150 employees went without a wage increase, Reis said, and 136 employees received a wage increase that had been previously negotiated. The county is still negotiating with other unions representing 367 employees.

She said 966 employees have had or will have a two-year pay freeze, and managers’ pay was frozen for 2009-10.

The balance of employees will have a two-year wage freeze for 2010-11.

Not an easy fix

Carl Leonhardt, a 2006 graduate of Skyview High School who is finishing his undergraduate studies at Washington State University Vancouver, was among those who encouraged commissioners to help fund public health.

Leonhardt said he plans to attend medical school and has been volunteering with programs including a needle exchange that is staffed by one paid coordinator and volunteers.

Wednesday was his first time at a county public hearing, and he said he was impressed with the speakers.

“I thought it would be a bunch of rednecks ranting and raving,” Leonhardt said.

He said he grew up in a middle-class family and never used public health services, but in volunteering, he has seen people he hadn’t expected.

They aren’t hobos and junkies, he said.

If you have chronic back pain and a prescription for opiates, then you lose your health insurance and can’t get pain medication, where do you turn? Heroin, he told commissioners.

“These are your friends and your families,” he told commissioners.

Commissioner Marc Boldt, a Republican, said he “wholeheartedly” supports raising the general fund levy by 1 percent to support public health.

Stuart, a Democrat, and Tom Mielke, a Republican, also supported the increase.

Commissioners also voted to suspend 2.5 percent deferred compensation for county managers for two years, a move that will save $160,000.

They also emphasized that the budget process hasn’t been as dramatic as it could have been, because much of the cutting has been done.

The general fund budget, projected at $280 million for the next two years, has been cut by $62 million since the 2007-08 budget.

The commissioners made it clear they know it’s a difficult time to raise taxes.

Boldt, a former state legislator, said it’s “a lot easier being a budget person in Olympia and Congress.”

The majority party puts a spin on how wonderful the budget is, and the minority party just beats up on the majority, Boldt said.

But with only three county commissioners, “we actually have to get things done,” Boldt said.

Mielke voted for the increase even though he said it gave him heartburn. He expressed frustration that cities don’t pay the county for providing regional health services, which range from inspecting restaurants and controlling communicable disease outbreaks to making sure the county has clean water and air and providing services to low-income families.

Most of the people who use the services are probably Vancouver residents, Mielke said.

Stuart said the Legislature needs to make cities contribute to regional public health.

But to maintain public health services at an acceptable level, the county can’t wait for that legislative fix.

“This is about how we can better serve the people of Clark County,” Stuart said. “And it’s not easy to figure out.”

Stephanie Rice: 360-735-4508 or stephanie.rice@columbian.com.

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