Port Angeles council mulls levy lid lift, other measures to fund code enforcement

PORT ANGELES — The Port Angeles City Council has voted to explore three funding options for code enforcement, including a possible levy lid lift on the November ballot.

The council Tuesday passed a resolution 4-3 directing staff to pursue a levy lid lift ballot proposition, fines and fees and the use of traffic safety cameras as possible ways to fund a code compliance program.

The city has been without an enforcement officer since 2012.

Each of the funding options to reinstitute the program would be developed by staff and approved by the council after public hearings.

“Keep in mind, all of these will come back with more information,” Mayor Sissi Bruch said before the vote.

“There could be discussions as to how it’s really implemented and exactly where the money’s going and the whole thing. So I guess I just want everybody to know that it is still flexible at this point.”

Voting in favor of the resolution were Bruch, Deputy Mayor Kate Dexter and Council Members Mike French and Lindsey Schromen-Wawrin.

Council members Cherie Kidd, Michael Merideth and Jim Moran voted no.

All seven council members said they favored having code enforcement but differed on how to pay for it.

Much of the discussion — and disagreement — centered on the proposed 3 percent levy lid lift.

The ballot measure would generate an estimated $135,000 per year and cost the average homeowner $12 in annual property taxes, City Manager Nathan West said.

“Getting a sustainable funding source for this new program is critically important,” West told the council.

If the council decides to authorize a levy lid lift after a public hearing in May, the measure would appear on general election ballots in November.

Kidd and Moran said they would oppose a levy lid lift as a funding option.

“The people of Port Angeles feel the weight of our property taxes quite heavily,” Kidd said.

“We talk so frequently about affordable housing, and as long as we keep increasing property taxes, we’re increasing expenses to the homeowner and to the landlords and to everyone. I just don’t think that’s the way we need to go right now.”

Merideth said he would oppose a levy lid lift absent a sunset clause.

“As an individual home owner, I’m not in support of this,” Merideth said.

“But as a council member, I’m in support of an ending date and sending it to the vote of the people to decide on whether or not that is how they want to fund a code compliance position, or program.”

Dexter said an end date could result in code compliance being eliminated once again.

“I know every dollar matters to a lot of people, but I also think a $12 increase, on average, every year seems like a fairly reasonable price to pay for improving our neighbors’ livelihoods by having some code enforcement and being able to afford that for people,” Dexter said.

City Attorney Bill Bloor said the council could nullify the 3 percent levy lid lift by not taking the allowed 1 percent annual property tax increase for three consecutive years.

A fourth funding option based on short-term rentals will be presented to the council in a future meeting, Bloor said.

A majority of the council decided to pursue next steps to place a levy lid lift on the November ballot as one way to sustain a code compliance program.

“We’ve got a structural failure in the general fund because about a quarter of the general fund is funded by property tax, and we are limited by increasing that property tax by 1 percent a year,” Schromen-Wawrin said.

“Meanwhile, most of the general fund goes to pay salaries, which go up with the cost of living, which is far more than 1 percent a year.”

Schromen-Wawrin said code enforcement is a “central government function.”

“If we don’t have code enforcement, what’s the point of having codes in the first place?” Schromen-Wawrin asked.

Schromen-Wawrin said the council should own up to the “revenue failure” and carefully explain the levy lid lift to voters.

“I have concerns about the framing of the levy lid lift, and I think it needs to be really clear that that’s revenue that’s going to be used to support general public safety concerns, and it’s going to be for benefiting the entire community,” Schromen-Wawrin said.

French said he was generally opposed to higher property taxes but supported the levy lid lift.

“With regard to this specific program, I do feel that property tax creep that a lot of our citizens feel, and they’re not wrong in complaining about this,” French said.

French and other council members said individuals and businesses already are paying for the absence of a code compliance program in diminished property values.

“I definitely support this,” French said of the proposal.

“I know that this is going to be a hard ask from our community, but I think that it’s really critical to understand that this is an economic cost that we’re paying already.”

The second funding option, which resulted in little debate, would use fines and fees to implement a new code compliance program. The fines and fees would be set by the council and codified in September.

The third option — a traffic safety camera program — also is subject to council direction and approval.

Port Angeles Police Chief Brian Smith said the program could be as limited or as robust as the council decides to make it.

“The technology that exists isn’t anything remarkable or new,” Smith told the council.

If approved, traffic cameras would be placed at certain intersections or school zones. An officer would review each speeding or red light violation before a citation is written.

“What we would envision doing when we come back to council is inviting at least one police chief with a program that’s similar to our size city to talk about his program,” Smith said in a Wednesday interview.

“This kind of program is 100 percent council driven.”

Kidd said traffic safety cameras have worked effectively in other communities.

“I appreciate this from the standpoint of safety and getting people to slow down,” Bruch said in a meeting that was later extended past 10 p.m.

Merideth said he would oppose traffic cameras.

“This is more big brother watching over everything that’s going on in the daily life of the average driver,” Merideth said.

Said Moran: “I don’t have a real problem with the traffic safety cameras per se.

“I don’t want to see them as a revenue source for code compliance,” he added.

“I don’t think that’s appropriate.”

________

Reporter Rob Ollikainen can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 56450, or at rollikainen@peninsuladailynews.com.

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