In surprise, Clark County councilors vote to increase property taxes

By Troy Brynelson (OPB)
Dec. 7, 2023 2 a.m.

Raising property taxes is often a hot stove for politicians in the Southwest Washington county, particularly for conservatives.

A pattern is developing during the budget season of Clark County, Washington. Each year the county needs money to meet its needs, and a Republican bucks party lines to raise property taxes.

On Tuesday, Councilor Karen Bowerman joined councilors Sue Marshall and Glen Yung to support ticking-up property taxes across the county. The move raises property taxes by 1%.


Bowerman, who was elected in 2020 as a Republican, acknowledged that her vote was a significant departure from her past position. She condemned raising property taxes as recently as last year.

“I’ve never voted in favor,” Bowerman said. She noted, however, not raising them could impact the wages for county employees and services to county residents.

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During a four-hour-long presentation Tuesday, county officials described a wobbly balance sheet. Expenses are growing faster than revenues, officials pointed out. By 2029, the county’s general fund expected to make about $218 million while spending nearly $216 million.

“And that worries me a great deal,” Bowerman continued. “I would say, as we go forward, my vote to support the 1% (increase) is also a vote for cutting spending simultaneously.”

Councilors Gary Medvigy and Michelle Belkot voted no.

‘This is the way we can try to keep up with inflation’

Raising property taxes is often a hot stove for Clark County politicians, particularly for conservatives. Former councilor John Blom, who won his seat as Republican, recalled hearing critics from his party after he supported raising taxes in late 2019.

“From some of the local Republicans, it was the typical, ‘You’re a RINO, you’re not really a Republican. You’re raising taxes,’” Blom said. “But from the other side of that, my friends who just know local government, even Republicans, they understand that this is the way we can try to keep up with inflation.”

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Blom left the Republican Party when he filed for reelection the following spring, but failed to survive the primary. The County Council, which has skewed conservative in recent years, didn’t raise property taxes again until last December when Republican Julie Olson supported it.

Olson said at the time that she supported the increase because county employees are underpaid and the county jail was underfunded.

“I’m not surprised that Karen did this,” Blom said in an interview Wednesday. “When you look at how much things cost — the cost of goods — there’s just no way to provide the same level of service that people want if you’re not taking that increase when it’s available.”

With the tax enacted, a $520,000 home anywhere in Clark County can expect to see property tick up $4 next year, county financial officials said. If that home also exists in unincorporated areas, the owner will pay an additional $5 for road maintenance.

County Manager Kathleen Otto, the county’s top employee, recommended passing the tax. She iterated to councilors throughout the meeting that the county faces a budget shortfall. The tax, she said, is one lever the council can pull.

“For people, for services, for supplies, for inflation, this is the one decision where council can help reduce the financial impact,” Otto said.

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Taxpayers’ burden ‘less than a cup of coffee’ a year, councilor says

Belkot, in an interview, said she’s frustrated to see the increase. She said the county’s financial forecasts could change from one year to the next. Meanwhile, she lamented the inflation people are facing.

“How does this make affordable housing attainable? I thought it was terrible. I thought it was terrible for Clark County taxpayers,” the councilor said.

After the tax passed, Yung said he was surprised. He expected it to fail.

“I thought we had three councilors that would not be willing to do so,” he said. “It’s become a highly politicized issue. And it shouldn’t be at all. It should be about dollars and cents. That’s all it comes down to.”

To Yung, the burden on taxpayers is “less than a cup of coffee for the entire year.” Meanwhile, he noted, the county is able to offer better pay and benefits for deputies, road crews, legal assistants and numerous other county-funded jobs.

The vote doesn’t balance the county’s budget once and for all, Yung said. National inflation and the growing population of Southwest Washington will keep putting pressure on county services.

But the vote does buy some time, he said.