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Clark County Council denies assessor request for 2 positions

Council approves supplemental budget

By , Columbian breaking news reporter
Published: November 7, 2019, 6:03am

While adopting an update to its annual budget, the Clark County Council rejected a request by the county Assessor’s Office to fund two full-time positions to administer a senior citizen property tax relief program, which may lead to cuts in other areas of the department.

On Tuesday, the council passed a fall supplemental budget. State law allows the county to adopt supplemental budgets — typically in the spring and fall — that tweak its annual budget and address unforeseen expenses and revenue.

One of those unexpected obligations came in April when state lawmakers passed Senate Bill 5160, which changes the senior program’s qualifying threshold from a flat income level to one based on median income. Veterans with a service-related disability may also qualify. The change makes thousands of additional households eligible for the program, Clark County Assessor Peter Van Nortwick said during Tuesday’s budget hearing.

Clark County Manager Shawn Henessee did not recommend the assessor’s office’s request, asking that it make adjustments. Henessee has called for limited staffing levels; labor costs have outpaced property tax revenue. In response to the assessor’s request, he knocked the state’s tendency to issue unfunded mandates.

“I’m trying to limit, as much as possible, the additional (full-time employees),” Henessee said. “That has a significant impact in later years.”

Van Nortwick, however, said his staff is stretched due to increased construction projects. He said that if he does not receive the additional $116,178 in funding, he will forfeit a full-time appraiser position in the 2020 budget to hire the new employees.

“I hear the county manager’s concern (that) this is a state unfunded mandate. That doesn’t change the fact that the work still needs to be done,” Van Nortwick said. “If I’m going to be asked to prioritize, I will be prioritizing our disabled veterans and low-income senior citizens.”

The council rejected the amendment to the county manager’s proposed budget by a vote of 3-2. Council Chair Eileen Quiring and Councilor Gary Medvigy voted in favor.

“I just think that it is important to process these senior exemptions, and I know that we still have a lot of new housing that’s coming in,” Quiring said. “This will help them to be able to defer their taxes, at least.”

Councilors Temple Lentz, John Blom and Julie Olson voted against the amendment. All three said they supported the program but did not want to adopt changes to the budget without knowing exactly how they would be able to save money in other areas.

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“Budgeting on the fly is probably not the best practice for us to pursue,” Lentz said. “I look forward to having the continued conversation about 2020 and hope that we can make something happen there.”

The council passed a $518 million annual budget in December. The supplemental budget adds a net $7.4 million in funds. Roughly $5 million of that comes from a decrease in expenses from the county’s road fund due to several projects that were postponed.

County departments submitted 46 budget requests to address increased workload demands, infrastructure needs and updated revenue forecasts. Henessee declined to recommend five of those requests.

Highlights of items that were passed include $1 million in facilities maintenance, $500,000 in contracts for indigent defense attorneys and $74,040 in coding fixes for an upcoming countywide software switch to Microsoft Office 365. The budget also dropped four full-time positions while adding three more plus one part-time post.

Later this month, councilors will be asked to adopt the county’s annual budget for 2020. The proposed $545.27 million budget will be discussed at public hearings on Nov. 25, Nov. 26 and, if necessary, Nov. 27.

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