This is my second column attempting to clear up some of the confusion related to our Walla Walla County budget. Meghan Debolt, director of the Department of Community Health, assisted with the writing of this article.
I have had many taxpayers ask me why the county would help fund the sleep center, especially with the fact that we raised property taxes for 2019. They ask, “Should you have raised property taxes so that we can help fund the sleep center?” That is a very understandable question. The question assumes that funds come out of the same “pot” of money. They do not!
Funds that the county receives are sometimes very restricted on how they can be spent. Document recording fees are one of the restricted use funds generated each year. There are two document recording fees that are to be utilized for affordable and homeless housing purposes only, and Walla Walla County gets a portion. These fees were put in place through the Washington state Legislature.
The Affordable Housing Trust Fund was created in 2002 by House Bill 2060, later codified as RCW 36.22.178, which created a $10 surcharge that the County Auditor’s Office applies to every document recorded. After an increase in 2018, the fee is now $13.
The Homeless Housing and Assistance Act was created with the passage of House Bill 2163 in 2005, and later codified in RCW 36.22.179. This created a surcharge on document recordings of $10 for homeless housing purposes. Several House bills have been passed since 2005, raising the surcharge at various rates, the most recent being in 2018 which increased the surcharge to $62.
Before the fees were increased in 2018 they generated approximately $280,000 per year. We anticipate the additional fees will generate an additional $105,000 per year. Both fees must be spent on the homeless population in some fashion.
These funds are administered by our Department of Community Health and overseen by the Community Health Advisory Board. Largely, these funds are allocated to homeless and housing service providers within Walla Walla County to provide services for individuals who are either homeless, or at risk of becoming homeless.
The contracted service providers in 2018 included Blue Mountain Action Council, Catholic Charities, Joe’s Place, Walla Walla Housing Authority and the Star Project.
As a stipulation to receive the above described funds, the County Department of Community Health must have several administrative and systematic processes in place. In addition to the funds above, the county also receives several additional grants that target the homeless in our community. The Homeless Housing Program Coordinator, who is part of the Department of Community Health, is responsible for overseeing the county homeless plan, maintaining data on homeless individuals and service provision, managing contracts and overall, ensuring services are available to individuals in need within the County.
The Department of Community Health updates the commissioners on the use and impact of these funds on an annual basis and the annual report for 2017 can be found on the County website under Community Health. During the presentation to the commissioners, the Department of Community Health invites service providers who receive funding to give an update on how they are using funds and their impact.
For 2019, $324,000 has been allocated in Walla Walla County as follows: Star Project $68,862, Comprehensive Health $49,577, Joe’s Place $26,561, BMAC $79,000 and city of Walla Walla $100,000.
The remaining funds received from fees are utilized by the Department of Community Health to administer the Homeless Housing Program for Walla Walla County
As most of you know the City of Walla Walla instituted an ordinance that made sleeping on the street and in city parks a crime. When they did that, it set into motion where we are today with the sleep center. A place where there can be no barriers to entry. That very sleep center is costing the city of Walla Walla more than $100,000 per year to operate. Now that the county is receiving additional funding from the state that are generated by the document recording fees, the city wants some of those funds to operate the sleep center.
A contract between the county and the city of Walla Walla starting on Jan. 1, 2019, was signed to fund the sleep center utilizing additional document recording fees up to $100,000 as a pilot program. Your County Commissioners have signed this pilot program with the city with the stipulation that residents of the sleep center must receive services that will assist them to get out of homelessness. While the vote to contract with the city was not unanimous, we are hopeful that the funds can be utilized in a responsible manner by the city of Walla Walla moving forward.
Todd Kimball is a Walla Walla County commissioner. He is writing a series of columns for the U-B explaining the county budget. If you would like additional information or clarification on the issue addressed today you may contact Commissioner Kimball firstname.lastname@example.org or the director of Community Health Meghan Debolt email@example.com