Despite continuing declines in cardroom revenues, La Center’s economic and financial prospects remain healthy, according to Mayor Tom Strobehn.
The La Center City Council approved the 2024 budget at its Nov. 15 meeting.
“What La Center residents can expect next year is as close to a balanced budget as we can get. Previous budgets for the last five years have all been in the negative of $250,000-plus, all the way up to a million dollars,” Strobehn said Thursday.
Projected cardroom revenue, which had been a major source of income for the city, is $1.31 million in 2024, compared to $1.36 million in 2023 and $1.74 million in 2022.
Strobehn said the city would have been on track for a balanced budget had it not been for an unexpected late increase in insurance rates.
“At the last moment we got the notice our insurance jumped 25 percent,” Strobehn said. That put the 2024 deficit at around $50,000.
Strobehn said his own businesses don’t operate with a deficit and he doesn’t want the city to either. He said he wants to further reduce — or eliminate entirely — the deficit by next year.
“I would like to see us actually earn some money and set it aside in the bank instead of taking it out,” Strobehn said.
Total revenue for 2024 is expected to be $11.6 million compared to $12.67 million in 2023. Some of that loss has been offset by the new public safety sales tax, which is expected to add nearly $62,000 to the city’s coffers next year.
“I’m anticipating by 2025 that people will start to see the work that we’ve been putting in for the last five months come to fruition,” Strobehn said.
That work includes private and public projects near the Interstate 5 junction, such as two new hotels, a Shell gas station and convenience store, new housing and an intergovernmental agreement with the Cowlitz Indian Tribe that will mean more tax revenue for the city.
“I can’t save the city from revenue shortfalls in the very short term, but in the long term we’re going to be doing just fine,” he said.
While he understands not everyone will be in favor of growth, he said it will happen whether the city plans for it or not.
“With (development in) Ridgefield gone crazy, the next logical step is La Center’s area,” Strobehn said.
The 2024 budget includes the addition of two new employees, a new full-time outreach coordinator and a new part-time code enforcement officer.
Strobehn said the goal behind cracking down on code enforcement is to reduce the presence of illegal drugs in the community.
“I hate doing it, but we have to go after the drugs and get the dealers out of the city. I was told these are the routes you should take to do it, to go after the ones with motor homes in their yards and things like that,” Strobehn said.
Earlier this year, the city contracted with the Cowlitz Indian Tribe for police services after reviewing and evaluating contracts with the tribe, Clark County Sheriff’s Office and Ridgefield Police Department. The contract is still in negotiations but is expected to be completed before the end of the month and is included in the 2024 budget.
The 2024 budget also targets several infrastructure projects: a new multimodal trail along Pacific Highway, a community welcome sign at the Interstate 5 junction, citywide road improvements, a floating ADA-accessible kayak dock at Pollack Park and trail expansions along the East Fork Lewis River.