The Vancouver City Council passed a resolution Monday expressing its support for a tax increase crafted to address public safety concerns.
Councilors discussed Clark County’s Proposition 11, which would authorize a sales tax of one-tenth of 1 percent to Clark County and its incorporated cities for public safety and criminal justice programs. The Vancouver City Council does not oversee whether the proposition is on the ballot; rather, the purpose of the meeting was to provide an official endorsement of the measure.
If approved, the county would retain 60 percent of the collected revenue, and 40 percent would be distributed between cities on a per capita basis. Clark County expects the tax increase to generate $12 million in 2023, meaning $4.8 million would be allocated among cities. Vancouver would receive about $3.38 million.
The county would use its portion of accrued funds to invest in body and dash cameras, as well as staffing, for the Clark County Sheriff’s Office and other expenses, such as a jail upgrade.
Vancouver City Council members unanimously supported the move to invest in public safety, but not all councilors backed the motion to approve Vancouver’s resolution. Council members Diana Perez and Erik Paulsen voiced their opposition, both saying it’s up to the voters to reach their own conclusions.
“I just believe that it’s not our place to step in and issue some kind of voice when really it’s the people’s voice,” Perez said.
Paulsen criticized the county council’s approach to funding public safety measures. He said the county council has not exhausted its revenue opportunities prior to asking voters for additional funding. Instead of making difficult decisions, such as imposing a slight property tax increase, Paulsen continued, the county council is directing its responsibility to county residents.
“I have previously said that I wanted to remain quiet on this issue,” he said. “I believe that the right way for this council to proceed is to neither take a particular position for or against, but to instead take the approach that the county council has taken, which is to take the passive approach and let the voters decide.”
Remaining members Sarah Fox, Kim Harless, Bart Hansen and Mayor Pro Tem Ty Stober were supportive of the resolution.
“We still have a strong desire to continue to forge forward with a better relationship with our candidate partners,” Stober said. “So I’ve been back and forth, but I am in the end coming down on the side of thinking that we should make a statement and it’s important.”
City Manager Eric Holmes said the Vancouver Police Department is fully funded, meaning its staffing and programs are covered. However, the conversation surrounding sufficient funding becomes more nuanced when considering the longevity of the city’s law enforcement, he said, especially as it relates to Vancouver’s fast population growth.
Proponents of the proposed tax tool say it’s necessary for establishing and maintaining a body camera program, which will generate transparency on behalf of law enforcement, according to the county’s voters pamphlet.
Supporters also assert an urgency to resolve staffing shortages. The Clark County Sheriff’s Office has among the lowest law enforcement staffing rates in the state. The department had 0.6 officers per 1,000 people served in 2021, according to the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs.
Those who oppose the proposition question how the revenue will be used after the county’s body camera program is fully paid for, according to the pamphlet.
One-third of the collected revenue must be used for criminal justice or fire protection purposes. Criminal justice purposes are defined as a variety of services that assist the justice system, according to state law. Local government programs are also entwined in the definition if there is a reasonable link to criminal justice, including but not limited to addressing homelessness and behavioral health.
The remaining two-thirds can be utilized for any lawful government purpose if it’s related to what was outlined in the ballot measure. Cities cannot opt out of the tax increase. If municipalities pursue a similar measure under the same statute in the future, they will have to provide 15 percent of their revenue to the county.
Proposition 11 will appear on voters’ ballots for the Aug. 2 primary election. If it succeeds, Vancouver’s total sales tax would be 8.6 percent; the city’s 2023-2024 biennial budget would be modified to reflect the additional funding.