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News / Clark County News

Clark County Council again raises doubts about funding for Vancouver homeless shelter

City asks for tax revenue to provide services for homeless

By Alexis Weisend, Columbian staff reporter
Published: June 7, 2024, 6:05am

The Clark County Council is once again leaning toward making the city of Vancouver go through a lengthy committee process to acquire the funding it needs from the county to create a 150-bed homeless shelter.

The homeless shelter (referred to as a bridge shelter by officials) is a key part of the city’s plan to address homelessness since declaring a civil emergency in November. In addition to sheltering people living on the streets, it will give homeless people a safe place to stay after leaving the hospital or jail. People staying there will be offered services to help them get on their feet, including drug addiction treatment.

In May, City Manager Eric Holmes sent a letter to county councilors asking them to commit mental health sales tax funds for a third of the cost to acquire and operate the shelter.

Acquiring and building the shelter will cost about $16 million. Operating it will take another $6 million to $7 million per year. The city wants the county to pay for 30 percent of those combined costs — a maximum of $6 million up front and about $2 million a year after that.

Requests for mental health sales tax funds are supposed to go through a committee process, but the county council has made exceptions in the past.

Two weeks ago, the county council denied that request and required the city go through the same process as other projects. Then, last week, it rescinded that motion after a tense exchange with city officials — still holding out on committing funds but asking staff to come back with a six-year forecast of the mental health sales tax, including ongoing commitments.

Councilors seemed to flip flop after staff delivered that forecast before a meeting Wednesday. The county officials declined to provide a copy of that forecast to The Columbian, arguing that as a draft it’s exempt from disclosure public records laws.

“There’s a lot of need. And I think this is the first time since I’ve been here that our need may be exceeding the money that we have,” County Manager Kathleen Otto said. “I would respectfully ask council to consider going through the normal mental health sales tax process.”

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Putting aside the property acquisition and development, each bed will cost almost $50,000 a year. Councilors expressed concern about the shelter straining both county and city funds.

Vancouver is facing a deficit of $43 million next year (about 2.5 percent of its current budget), according to Holmes; 2025 will be the first year the city must make budget cuts in a decade.

“I don’t want to partner in something that would make that situation even worse,” Clark County Council Chairman Gary Medvigy said.

In 2022, about 9,000 people were estimated to be homeless within the county. Many of Clark County’s shelters are consistently full, meaning some people are forced to sleep outside, and governments are not allowed to enforce camping bans.

Councilor Glen Yung, who supported quick action to fund the bridge shelter from the start, pointed out people without shelter likely cost the county more than it would take to fund the bridge shelter.

“We’re talking about making a recommendation to move today on this or at some point in the future, but the reality is, we’re years behind. This should have been done years ago,” he said.

Councilor Sue Marshall, who also originally voted to take quick action, said despite her vote she still has big questions about funding the shelter. She said the county needs to know exactly how much money it has available before committing funds.

“I feel very frustrated about how this has played out because I do think that we are all supportive of this, and it’s not clear to me if there’s a delay of a month or two if that means the project does not work at all,” she said.

Some councilors said they wish the city had communicated with them more about its plans for the bridge shelter before coming to them for funding.

“It’s very difficult to partner when you’re not treated as a partner,” Medvigy said.

Originally, city officials were hoping to get an answer from the county before its June 10 workshop on its budget, but that’s unlikely to happen.

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This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.