Monday, February 6, 2023
Feb. 6, 2023

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Donnelly: City council, follow advice of business leaders


On Nov. 21, a city of Vancouver public hearing on the 2023-24 budget brought the city council face to face with seven business experts from our community, attending to advise against a proposal for increased fees on business. That councilors did not take their advice exposes a disconnect between the city council and the business community.

That night, several tax increases were on the agenda, including a 1 percent property tax levy and utility tax increases. But the business community focused on a proposed ordinance updating business license fees and surcharges, increasing the per-employee surcharge over time. Their testimony politely schooled the city council on the potential harm of the proposal.

As explained by speaker Nick Massie of construction company Rotschy, Inc. and the SW Washington Contractors Association, “it’s all about hours.” That is, the more hours a company’s employees work, and the more FTEs, the more they will pay the city of Vancouver for a business license under the proposed ordinance.

So, the proposal takes direct aim at employment and productivity. Yet it is precisely that private-sector productivity that pays the public’s bills, as patiently explained by the speakers.

Massie told the council the increase is “too much, too fast,” given the challenges companies are facing. He expressed concern for landscapers, who must also comply with the first steps of the city’s climate action plan by replacing gas-fueled equipment with electric, and now must pay more in license fees. This is “not inclusive,” he pointed out, referring to the city’s drive for inclusiveness.

Ron Arp, president of Identity Clark County, testified for ICC’s many business members and investors that the proposed budget represented higher taxes even than the Stronger Vancouver proposal of 2019-20. He cited 11 new or expanded taxes, estimating the cost at $60 million, double the estimated impact of Stronger Vancouver.  He described many businesses here as “barely squeaking by.” Vancouver’s worthy objectives — diversity, climate policy, safety — can only happen if businesses remain to pay the bills, he argued.

Commercial real estate agent Tamara Fuller, prominent in Vancouver’s business community for 20 years, stated that at this time when Vancouver has “arrived” as a magnet city, this proposal aimed at business is “sending the wrong message.” “Is now the time?” to burden business, she asked.

Mark Matthias, owner of Beaches and tireless in causes benefiting Vancouver, pointed to a “disconnect” between the city government and business. When federal, state and city taxes and fees increase, he observed, the result is not “nice and warm” for businesses. A 5 percent decrease in city taxes on business would be more to the point, he stated.

Matthias reminded the council that “any tax is a community tax,” and that it’s an illusion that “just business” will bear the burden.

Ron Frederickson, former chair of the Columbia River Economic Development Council, pointed to a recent lost opportunity that would have brought an $80 million company and 100 jobs to Vancouver. The city’s budget feels “designed in another era,” Frederickson said.

Carmen Castro, executive director of the Hispanic Metropolitan Chamber of Oregon & SW WA, testified that many minority businesses have not recovered to their pre-pandemic levels of viability. “Please postpone (this proposal),” she urged.

To no avail. The council approved the ordinance, over “no” votes from Councilors Sarah Fox and Bart Hansen. The vote for the entire biennial budget was unanimous.

Priorities need reordering when such well-founded advice from experts has so little impact.