Port Angeles to seek funding for code officers

PORT ANGELES — A divided Port Angeles City Council has eschewed a proposed ballot measure that would have funded two part-time code enforcement officers.

The council then voted 6-1 Tuesday — with Mike French opposed — to direct staff to seek other funding sources to resurrect a code compliance program that has been dormant since 2012.

“There’s not some magic golden goose that laid some golden egg that we’re going to find,” French said.

“(Staff) came to us with difficult questions, and we’re trying to pull some escape hatch.”

All seven council members said the city needs a code compliance program to address public nuisances, land-use and zoning violations, junk vehicles, animals and livestock, traffic infractions and other city codes.

The council could not reach a consensus on how to raise the $130,000 to $150,000 needed annually to support two police-commissioned officers to enforce the codes.

“At every step of the way, the goal is not to fine somebody, not to penalize somebody, but to obtain compliance,” City Attorney Bill Bloor said before an hour-long council debate.

After lively debate, the council voted 4-3 to eliminate from consideration a 3 percent property tax levy lid lift.

The failed measure, which would have triggered a public hearing and appeared on the November ballot with further council action, would have, if voters approved it, raised $136,500 annually and cost the average property owner $12 per year, according to city staff.

The levy lid lift would have been used to “support public safety services” and to “implement a new code enforcement program,” according to a proposed resolution.

Council members Jim Moran, Cherie Kidd, Michael Merideth and Mayor Sissi Bruch voted for the motion to strike the levy lid lift from consideration.

“I voted not to do this process because we don’t have a united council,” Bruch said before the vote. “But I still believe in the process.”

Council members French, Lindsey Schromen-Wawrin and Deputy Mayor Kate Dexter voted against the motion, meaning they backed the levy proposal.

“It is a very difficult thing to say we should raise property taxes on our citizens, but we are doing it to support public safety services,” French said.

Bloor had advised the council that successful levy lid lifts have strong council support.

“Generally speaking, if the council isn’t clearly in support of it, it will fail,” Bloor said.

Moran opened the deliberations by saying he supported the proposed code revisions but was opposed to a levy lid lift.

He suggested that the city build up its code compliance program as more revenue comes in.

Moran cited $128 million worth of upcoming projects in the city that will generate an estimated $800,000 to $1.2 million in sales tax revenue over the next several years.

“It’s been demonstrated many times over in cities that have a robust code compliance program that it eventually becomes self sustaining,” Moran added.

“I know the philosophy is to get voluntary compliance, but that doesn’t always work.”

Moran said a levy lid lift may interfere with a possible ballot measure from the cash-strapped Port Angeles School School District, saying the chances of both being approved are “very slim.”

“What were basically doing is making the decision that we are going to gamble with the money for kids in schools or we’re going to put this code compliance program ahead of that,” Moran said.

“I think that’s a mistake, and it’s a bad message to send right now.”

The school district, which has eliminated staff amid budget cuts related to the new state funding model, has not yet placed a measure on the November ballot or other ballots.

“The bottom line is we can incrementally implement this (code compliance) program,” Moran said.

Merideth said he and other council members recognized the need for a code compliance program and encouraged staff to look for other funding sources.

Merideth said he could not support a levy lid lift without an end date for the property tax increase.

“It has to have an end date or it won’t have my vote at all,” Merideth said.

“The voters should decide this, but I can’t in good conscious support moving forward at all without an out on this.”

Dexter said she, too, had concerns about requesting a levy lid lift when there is uncertainty about public school funding.

“This feels important,” Dexter said of the code compliance issue.

“So I don’t want to create what feels a little bit like an unfunded mandate to staff, but I also am concerned about moving forward with a levy lid lift today.”

French said the code compliance program needs a stable source of revenue because the goal is to gain voluntary compliance.

“I would say that our police can attest to the damage that’s done by the public perception that police officers have quotas for tickets,” French said.

“We do not want to, then, install that as a real thing, to say ‘We want a code compliance program that sustains itself.’

“I think that’s a bad policy outcome,” French said.

Schromen-Wawrin said the onus falls on the council to explain the “structural deficit” in the general fund for core services.

About a quarter of the revenue in the city’s general fund comes from property tax, which is limited to a 1 percent increase every year, Schromen-Wawrin said.

“But 60 percent of the general fund expenses goes to public safety salaries, police and fire, and that’s going up closer to the consumer price index, 2 to 3 percent per year,” Schromen-Wawrin said.

“How do we reconcile that? We can’t.”

After the vote to remove the levy lid lift from consideration, the council took three related actions with French opposed to each.

They were:

• Voted 6-1 to confirm the intended scope of the code enforcement program, which covers nuisances, land use, zoning, junk vehicles, animals and livestock, traffic infractions and other city codes.

• Voted 6-1 to approve and authorize the code enforcement program as outlined in the City Council packet.

The outline includes code revisions, two part-time code enforcement officers, changes in city departments for receiving complaints, an evaluation of current complaints and new work flows.

“We’re not going to fully ramp up and establish the program itself until the revenues are found to do so,” City Manager Nathan West said.

“It’s simply establishing the outline of that program.”

• Voted 6-1 to direct staff to find other revenue for a code compliance program.

Four options for raising money for code enforcement were presented to council at a Feb. 23 work session. The four options were the levy lid lift and revenue from fines and fees, traffic safety cameras and short-term rentals.

“I’m really actually disappointed in the council process because we did have a workshop, a time when we all gave the consensus that the levy lid lift was a good idea,” Bruch said.

“Now we are a divided council, and so therefore it’s pretty obvious that this is something that is really not going to move forward well.”

________

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

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