West: Port Angeles survived rough year

City manager tells of pandemic relief, finances

Nathan West.

Nathan West.

PORT ANGELES — Solid fiscal planning and community partnerships have helped the city of Port Angeles weather COVID-19, City Manager Nathan West told business leaders this week.

The city maintained core services, expanded key programs, kept utility rates flat and provided more than $790,000 in rental, mortgage and utility assistance to pandemic-weary customers in 2020, West said in a Port Angeles Chamber of Commerce meeting Wednesday.

“When it came to 2021, we took a really conservative approach to balancing the budget and revenues and projected trends in the pandemic,” West said in a State of the City report.

“We’re still very much impacted by some of those revenue streams.”

The City Council last April launched a pandemic relief program for customers saddled by job losses or other impacts from COVID-19.

The city provided $513,000 in utility credits, $199,000 in rental assistance and more than $77,000 in mortgage relief to Port Angeles residents and business owners last year, West said.

“Ultimately, it was well received from the community,” West said.

Years of financial planning provided adequate reserves to help the city stay solvent during the pandemic, West said. The city used federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act payments and state housing funds for the rental assistance, West said.

The city discontinued utility shutoffs for non-payment, suspended interest and late fees on utility accounts and waived Parking and Business Improvement Area fees.

Despite challenges in most funds, the city saw a 66 percent increase in real estate excise tax collections and a 13 percent rise in sales tax revenue in 2020 driven by new construction and online spending, West said.

“Lodging tax, of course, was one of the most challenging funds that we had,” West said.

After several record-breaking years of lodging tax revenue, the city had a 38 percent decrease in lodging tax collections in 2020.

The 2021 city budget was balanced with no cuts to services or staff reductions. The only tax increase was the 1 percent property tax hike that most cities and counties collect annually to partially offset inflation.

Meanwhile, the city’s Finance Department made “major headway” in lowering debt in 2020, West said. The city achieved $3.8 million in savings from refinancing water and wastewater bonds.

“That’s a savings to our ratepayers of $253,000 annually,” West said.

“That’s a big deal when you look at the percentage impact that that has on utility rates, really important moving forward.”

Also in 2020, the city hired code compliance officers, initiated a climate resiliency plan and improved Information Technology for better customer service, West said.

West highlighted several programs that were expanded last year, including the Rediscovery and Community Paramedicine programs in the Port Angeles police and fire departments.

The Rediscovery program embeds Olympic Peninsula Community Clinic social workers with police for mental health field response.

“We couldn’t be more appreciative of OPCC in their assistance with the Rediscovery program,” West said.

“Ultimately, they are providing alternatives to arrests.”

Community Paramedicine, a similar program launched by the fire department in 2019, reported a 55 percent reduction in emergency room visits and a 65 percent reduction in 9-1-1 calls last year, West said.

North Olympic Healthcare Network secured a $220,000 grant to fund Community Paramedicine for three years, he added.

The City Council identified four areas of “critical importance” for the city’s two-year strategic plan, West said. The priorities are housing and homelessness, commercial district enhancement, building capacity and building high-performing relationships, West said.

The strategic plan was used to draft a 2021 work plan.

“We have a total of 73 different special projects being worked on by eight different departments right now in that 2021 work plan,” West said.

West highlighted major accomplishments of each city department, including police, fire, finance, community and economic development, legal, parks and recreation, dispatch and public works and utilities.

“I want to emphasize that 2020 was not an easy year, and I so appreciate that every single department, every single division of the city had their team members and staff members step up to serve community members in new and different ways that they hadn’t done before,” West said.

During a question-and-answer session, West was asked how the city could reduce environmental regulations that add significant costs to home construction.

The city appealed a requirement for Phase 2 National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System municipal stormwater permits to no avail, West said.

“After appealing it, we still pushed at the legislative level for changes and relief from that program,” West said in response to Kaj Ahlburg’s query.

“We’ve been unsuccessful with that. So I don’t anticipate being able to navigate out of the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System Phase 2 requirements that the state Department of Ecology has interpreted as being passed along to a city of our density.”

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Reporter Rob Ollikainen can be reached at rollikainen@peninsuladailynews.com.

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