The future of public safety in La Center looms over its financial forecast for next year. Although a decision on whether to contract with the Clark County Sheriff’s Office for police services has not been made, the city’s 2022 budget assumes expenses for a fully-staffed department of its own should council decide to forego outsourcing the service.
On Nov. 17, the La Center City Council approved the roughly $11.8 million budget for 2022. Chief among the considerations for funds was police services, which in the approved budget made up about $2.1 million, Riley Barbera, senior accountant for the city said.
The approved budget accounts for a fully-staffed police department in the city, including six officers, two sergeants, a police chief, a clerk and a part-time records management position, Barbera said. Currently the department has only one officer, one sergeant, an additional officer on military leave, and a contracted interim chief.
Earlier this year the interim chief, former Battle Ground Police Chief Bob Richardson, presented an analysis which looked at the possibility of contracting with the sheriff’s office instead of the city having its own department. Latest estimates of the contracting cost were set at about $1.4 million, close to the roughly $1.5 million budgeted for police in past years.
Barbera said the staffing levels included in the budget are based on a recent study on adequate policing in the city. He said the budgeted funds include recruitment bonuses and related costs for hiring to fill the positions.
The police budget led to an $834,000 drop in the city’s general fund balance. Barbera said the budget assumes full staffing for police would begin at the start of the year which isn’t necessarily realistic.
“We want to have that money in there in case these officers do come in. We already have it allocated,” Barbera said.
Apart from planning for more police officers, next year’s budget includes an additional position for the city’s public works department.
Although the general fund balance would decrease, the city’s dedicated reserve fund would maintain a similar balance as this year at about $4 million. Across all funds, the city would have about a half-million-dollar surplus to its balances, according to budget documents. Barbera mentioned the city has received about $950,000 in American Rescue Plan Act funds, though the city has not made a decision on what the money will be used for.
The city’s capital projects budget is similar to 2021 with about $4 million in expenditures.
Projects in the budget include design for a pedestrian path along Pacific Highway, paving and reconstruction of the westbound lane of La Center Road between the East Fork Lewis River bridge and Timmen Road, completion of an engineering design on the East Fourth Street road widening and culvert project, and renovation of the city’s community center, according to a staff report. La Center received a half-million-dollar grant from the state for kitchen upgrades and parking lot repair at the community center, and previously received more than $1 million for the East Fourth Street project.
Although the council approved a 1% increase to its property tax levy for 2022, the overall rate will decrease due to appreciation and new construction. Barbera said the city had about $50 million in new construction in 2021.
For 2022, the levy rate is estimated at about 95 cents per $1,000 of assessed value, compared to the roughly $1 per $1,000 of value levied in 2021.
Gambling tax revenue is budgeted at $1.2 million for 2022, an increase from the $975,000 planned for in the 2021 budget. That revenue hit a low of about $388,000 in 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic hit the city’s cardroom revenues which were already impacted by the opening of ilani in 2017.
Though higher than prior years, the need for other revenue sources for a city that historically relied heavily on gambling tax remains a concern.
“The big open question is how are we going to deal with this decrease in revenue,” Barbera said.
One development in 2021 attempted to address that issue, as the city approved site plans for commercial construction at the Interstate 5 junction. In a budget message to citizens, La Center Mayor Greg Thornton said the development would feature a five-story hotel with 101 units, an 11,600 square foot multi-tenant commercial building, a 4,510 square foot convenience store with a drive-thru, a 2,800 square foot drive-thru restaurant, and a 12-pump fuel station.
Though the timeframe for the development is still to be determined, Thornton wrote that when complete it “will add a significant number of jobs, set the stage for future development and increase,"
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