Cities question tax measure to fund Clark County Sheriff’s Office cameras

City council members from Battle Ground, Ridgefield and Camas raised concerns about a public safety sales tax the county has placed on the August primary ballot during a special meeting Monday night with members of the Clark County Council.

Not only did the county leave the cities out of its earlier discussions on the tax measure, the cities have their own priorities and tax needs, several councilors said.

“If I understand correctly, there’s no way to opt out of this?” Camas City Councilor Shannon Roberts asked. “We’re looking at affordable housing; and if people are taxed even more, how are we going to make housing affordable? Even though it’s a small amount, we have the mental health tax, and we have lots of other taxes. I’m just concerned about the overall tax situation and affordable housing.”

County Finance Director Mark Gassaway confirmed the cities cannot opt out because the county council has sole authority to create countywide tax measures. The county council approved placing a 0.01 percent safety sales tax measure on the August primary ballot following a May 3 public hearing.

The tax revenue would be used to fund the ongoing maintenance and operations of a body and dash camera program for the Clark County Sheriff’s Office.

County Council Chair Karen Bowerman said she shared Roberts’ concerns but thought it was best — and is required by state law — to leave the decision to voters. Bowerman noted the county’s previous effort to implement a tax to fund body and dash cameras failed “mightily.”

“We dissected (what) we think were some of the many reasons people did not vote for it. Probably one of the biggest ones was that they were confused with the financing,” Bowerman said.

Had it passed, the tax measure on the November 2021 ballot would have been used to fund juvenile and jail services. Then money in the general fund that would have been spent on those services otherwise would instead have gone to buy and run a body and dash camera program. It was defeated with 57.9 percent of voters voting against the measure.

The county now plans to used one-time federal COVID-19 relief funds allocated to the county through the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 to buy the cameras. The public safety tax would be used for ongoing expenses.

“There’s a lot of flexibility in the use of this sales tax,” Gassaway said during the meeting. “In fact, it will probably generate an additional amount that we’ll be able to use to help support our sheriff’s department both on the patrol side and on the corrections side.”

Gassaway estimates the tax would generate $12 million annually, based on 2021 population estimates. Gassaway said the county would receive $7.2 million, with the remaining $4.8 million divided among the cities. Vancouver would receive the largest share of that amount, around $3.4 million. Camas would receive $462,000; Battle Ground’s share would be $368,000; Washougal’s would be $302,000; Ridgefield would see $183,000; La Center would get $65,000; Yacolt would get $32,000 and Woodland would get $887.

“I think it is perhaps the wrong time to go about doing this. We have inflation that’s through the roof. I think the county is trying to skirt some of the more difficult choices that they need to make and just wants to put this out to voters. I think it’s a horrible idea,” said Battle Ground Councilor Adrian Cortes.

Several councilors said the cities should have been included in the county’s discussions earlier, rather than waiting until the decision had already been made to place the measure on the ballot.

“Elected officials sometimes have a hard time interacting with other public officials, that’s pretty obvious. We all have our interests, and in this case, the countywide decision made by the county council affected all of us,” Battle Ground Mayor Philip Johnson said in an email Tuesday.

While he said he understands the cities will get a share of the revenue generated by the tax, Johnson also wanted to know how residents of those cities will benefit from the 60 percent the county receives. Johnson said he’s still waiting for that answer.

“At some point in the coming month, our council will be discussing the pros and cons of this measure to Battle Ground, and we’ll decide if this is what’s best in our estimation for the folks in Battle Ground. From there the folks will have their say, and we’ll see on Aug. 2 if they want to pay for this,” Johnson said.

As for how the cities would use the tax revenue, that’s something they are still considering.

“For us in Battle Ground, if it passes, I think the council would put it in the general fund and at the appropriate time transfer it over into the public safety fund in the spirit of the vote,” Johnson said.

Johnson said Battle Ground faced a similar tax decision in 2020 when the city was annexed into Clark County Fire District 3. Johnson noted passage of that tax allowed the city to fully fund law enforcement, and now the city has other priorities.

“Our attention has turned to road maintenance, and we are working through ways to pay for this program. One of the ways is to run a sales tax initiative to add 0.2 percent to 0.3 percent to fund a Transportation Benefit District.

There comes a point, when the folks will say the sales tax rate is maxed out and they are not interested in adding to it. We just might see in August if we have reached that point.”

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