Wednesday, December 8, 2021
Dec. 8, 2021

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Vancouver City Council advances $1.3 billion budget

Community members critical of police spending

By , Columbian staff writer

The Vancouver City Council moved toward adopting a $1.3 billion budget for the 2021-22 biennium Monday night, amid some criticism from community members over police spending.

The budget advanced Monday includes increases in citywide taxes and fees, including raising the city’s property tax levy by 0.6 percent. Water and surface water utility rates will increase by 5 percent, sewer utility rates will increase by 3 percent and garbage and recycling rates will increase by between 1 percent and 3.3 percent, depending on the service.

A new citywide sales tax, of 0.01 percent, is additionally expected to raise around $4 million for affordable housing projects. Those developments will be aimed at families making less than 60 percent of the area’s median income.

Operation and administration of the Vancouver Police Department is expected to cost $58.5 million in the coming biennium, an increase of about $3 million over the last budget. Elsewhere, departments are tightening their belts — the citywide budget is down 3.25 percent compared with the year prior, a result of the economic downturn linked to COVID-19.

“Public Safety uniformed staffing was largely protected from budget reductions to ensure continued community safety,” the budget document states.

Policing questions

Nationwide, activists linked to the Black Lives Matter movement have been calling for municipalities to rethink how they allocate their law enforcement spending, encouraging more resources for programs that address the cause of homelessness, mental illness and substance abuse rather than the symptoms. A group of Vancouver residents called into the city council’s remote meeting to express their hope that the city government will allocate its budget with those ideas in mind.

“As a city resident, taxpayer and community leader for some of our most vulnerable voices, I would like to see more intentional investment, such as providing direct intentional services for crisis intervention scenarios, mental health support situations and homelessness,” said Carmen McKibben, one of the forum’s participants.

She lauded the city for allocating $1.5 million toward a task force charged with investigating the cost and application of body-worn cameras, but urged city leadership to work faster. 

“Having this committee running through September 2021, though I’m sure it’s valuable — we do need something quicker,” McKibben said.

She was one of about a dozen people to call into Monday’s meeting. Another, Chelsea Unger, said she’s worked as a social worker in Vancouver for 10 years.

“Why is there such a disproportionate amount of our funds designated to the police department?” Unger asked. “Why are there not more funds going toward preventive and critical services for mental health? In my decadelong experience, the police have not protected or served the interest of unhoused people. On the contrary, the homeless have been criminalized and further marginalized.”

Councilors declined to comment on the issues raised during the public forum. They unanimously advanced the budget as written for a second reading next week.

The $1.3 billion budget advanced Monday night represents a modest decrease from the year prior. The document also recommends that the city dip into $57 million of its existing cash reserves to help minimize the impact of the coronavirus recession.

COVID-19 impacts

The impacts of COVID-19 on the economy, however, aren’t nearly as dire as originally feared. Back in April, Vancouver’s leaders were bracing for 40 percent reduction in the city’s general fund. That crater in the budget never materialized — though with the virus still spreading, the city is nowhere near out of the woods.

“The amount of economic uncertainty during the budget development process has been unprecedented, with the economy coming out of the deepest recession due to the pandemic and a high continued level of uncertainty related to changes in the spending patterns of society and the continued level of federal support of the economy,” the budget document states.

“The revenue forecast is built on a conservative set of assumptions, including lower recreation revenue in 2021 and subdued sales tax collections over the biennium.”

Most of the allocated expenses, or around $1 billion, will go toward operating expenses. Another $300 million has been set aside for capital projects. Highlights of the capital budget include $20 million to rehabilitate central Vancouver’s Water Station 5, $11 million to purchase a new police headquarters on Chkalov Drive and $19 million to upgrade Southeast First Street.

A second reading of the budget, followed by a public hearing, is scheduled for the next city council meeting on Monday.

Columbian staff writer