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Saturday, March 2, 2024
March 2, 2024

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Clark County Council approves 2024 budget after public hearings

Future challenges include keeping competitive salaries and replacing federal pandemic funds

By , Columbian staff writer
Published:

Clark County could be facing a budget shortfall within just a few years, but for 2024, officials managed to balance the books.

Following two days of consecutive public hearings with presentations from County Manager Kathleen Otto and elected officials, the county council on Tuesday approved the proposed 2024 budget.

Councilor Gary Medvigy said warnings about a structural deficit have been a part of the budget process since he joined the council. He said staff always use the most conservative outlook when preparing the budget, so he isn’t worried about a deficit just yet.

“It was very complicated and hard won, but every (budget) is,” Medvigy said Wednesday. “All of our fund balances look good, in fact some are quite excessive.”

Among the biggest budget challenges, Otto said during the hearing, will be keeping salaries competitive with the market, replacing federal pandemic relief funds, and adjusting capital expenditures in the face of increased materials and labor costs. Otto said the budget recommendations are intended to address urgent, immediate needs, but more funding will be needed in the future.

“The budget is challenging with the loss now of some of the federal funding that helped us out during the COVID-19 pandemic and the leveling off of sales tax revenue,” Councilor Sue Marshall said Tuesday. “Revenue is down and needs are escalating.”

“The county has a lot of complex needs to respond to,” said Marshall, citing homelessness, mental health and the increasing lethality of opioids.

“Within the (comprehensive growth) plan update in the next couple of years, we will have an opportunity, in collaboration with the cities, to meet affordable housing needs for all income levels and to assure we address community livability as we grow,” Marshall said.

The county’s total revenue for 2024 is projected at $581.5 million, considerably less than $768.2 million budgeted for 2023. Much of the decline in revenue is related to spending down federal pandemic relief funds that the county received in 2021. Of the $95 million the county initially received, just over $17.6 million remains in the 2024 budget.

Sales taxes

The county’s sales tax revenue is projected to rise 4.2 percent next year, however that’s a decline from the unprecedented tax revenue increases seen during the COVID-19 pandemic. Revenue from the public safety sales tax passed in 2022 will help bolster the county’s coffers. The county expects to collect $7.5 million in 2024, up from $6 million in the 2023 budget which was the first year the tax was collected.

“Thank goodness for (American Rescue Plan Act) dollars and thank goodness the voters voted for the public safety sales tax. Without those two things, we would be in a real world of hurt right now,” Councilor Glen Yung said Wednesday.

Medvigy was also thankful for the public safety sales tax revenue.

“It was a godsend,” Medvigy said. “That paid huge dividends in our ability to add more deputies, which we did, as well as a K-9 unit for the jail. And we’re committed to the capital infrastructure at the jail.”

Levies

Yung said the county needs to have a “community conversation” to better understand the priorities and needs of the county’s residents.

“Are our service levels satisfactory or are they lacking? Are they excessive and we should scale them back? I would like to have that kind of discussion because the reality is, with our current funding levels, we’re slowly going to be eroding the level of service,” Yung said.

The council approved taking the 1 percent property tax increase allowed by state law but could not reach agreement on other levies, such as ones that raise money for the road fund and parks. The council will resume discussions on those levies at its Dec. 13 meeting.

Medvigy said the county needs to do a better job spending the money it already has, especially funds for mental and behavioral health, veterans’ assistance and others.

“We need to figure out what’s going on with these funds that we’re not able to get the taxpayer money back out into the community for the purpose that it is collected,” Medvigy said. “There’s a capacity issue that we need to address.”

The council approved funding for a 12th Superior Court judge, but not the two legal assistants requested to support a new judge. Superior Court Judge Derek Vanderwood said there is already a need for additional legal assistants but adding another judge would create a “substantial volume of work.”

Despite the urging of Vanderwood, the council voted 3-2 not to fund the two legal assistants needed to support an additional judge.

Medvigy, Chair Karen Bowerman and Councilor Michelle Belkot voted against funding the assistants while Marshall and Yung voted in favor. Medvigy said the process for adding a new judge to the bench is complicated and requires approval by the governor, adding there would be opportunities later to consider adding the corresponding legal assistants.

County departments requested nearly 140 new full-time positions but fewer than 10 were approved by the council, including the new Superior Court judge, as well as seven positions in the sheriff’s office and jail to be funded with public safety sales tax revenue.

Looking beyond 2024, Yung said the county will need to find ways to spur economic growth to match the growing population.

“There are a lot of things that we could do but all of those things come with a trade-off. The railroad would be a good example. That would provide more economic opportunities and some potentially good businesses. … But to implement those is also a challenge,” Yung said.

On the web

To view the full budget and related reports, go to clark.wa.gov/budget/2024-budget.

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